The Shape of Central Europe 2019

This year’s Aspen Annual Conference The Shape of (Central) Europe took place on 27 November 2019 at Prague Crossroads and was co-organized with Economia media house.


The aim of the conference was to thoroughly evaluate the political, economic and social development of the Czech Republic in the context of Central Europe. We have built upon the successful years of the past, however, this year, we chose to link together our discussions on competitiveness and education, innovation and security, and the significance of regional differences in quality of life. The unsatisfactory quality of governance is an issue that cuts across all the aforementioned areas. These are the 2019 studies:

➡ Education as a way to global competitiveness.

➡ Defense spending as a means of increasing both security and competitiveness.

➡ Reducing regional differences in quality of life as a necessary condition for improving quality of life throughout the Czech Republic, but also for strengthening confidence in the fundamental values on which our society is based.

Conference book with expert studies

In addition to the analysis of the state of the Czech Republic in cross-sectional areas, specific recommendations for improvement addressed to the Czech government were also made. As panelists, we welcomed members of the government and state administration and experts from the business, academic and non-profit sectors. Individual topics were thus viewed from different perspectives.

During the conference moderated by Michala Hergetová (Czech Television), a hundred conference participants joined the discussion and expressed their opinions via Slido. They voted on three questions at the beginning of the conference. The voting was then repeated after each individual discussion to see whether the arguments changed the opinion. The results are published below for the respective panels.

Opening (video recording 0:30–⁠10:19)

The conference was opened by the Executive Director of the Aspen Institute Central Europe Jiří Schneider, who emphasized personal responsibility and how each of us can influence the direction of the Czech Republic. On behalf of the main organizers, Zuzana Řezníčková (President, Economia media house) and Ivan Hodáč (President, Aspen Institute CE) welcomed the guests and highlighted the uniqueness of the Aspen Annual Conference with an emphasis on the fact that Aspen Institute CE is dedicated to these topics throughout the year and subsequently prepares recommendations for these areas addressed to the Government of the Czech Republic.

Keynote Speech (video recording 10:20–⁠27:55)

Michal Pěchouček (Avast) emphasized in the keynote the importance of education for the further prosperity of the region and the necessity of preparedness for transformation of the labor market. He also noted that the region of Central Europe has the potential to attract innovative scientists and become an international leader in new technologies, such as artificial intelligence.

I. Future of Central Europe (video recording 34:00–⁠1:37:10)

The first panel discussed the future of the Central European region. All the panelists agreed on several common key points for the region: José Perdomo Lorenzo (T-Mobile), Matt Kurleto (Neoteric), Andrej Pančík (Prizeo and Represent), Balázs Vinnai (Codecool and W.UP) and Pavlína Zychová (MyStay). The Central European potential to evolve and thrive is limited by the wrong attitude to failure, the poor flexibility of the educational system and the too complicated legislative framework preventing entrepreneurs from easy and successful operating of their companies. Panelists also remarked that, as the Central European economies are facing reorientation towards a digital economy and automation, the lack of a concept of life-long education, reskilling and support for soft-skills can make the transformation very problematic.

Keynote Speech (video recording 1:40:50–⁠1:58:13)

The Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Industry and Trade of the Czech Republic, Karel Havlíček introduced and explained the Czech Republic – a country for the future strategy which sets out government priorities and also focuses on changing e.g. research funding, the importance of artificial intelligence, further development of innovations, small entrepreneurs, or implementation of new technologies into the Czech economy. He also emphasized that the government is ready to cooperate with the private sector and help build a necessary infrastructure.

II. Education–Competitiveness (video recording 1:58:35–⁠3:14:40)

Last year, participants were voting on the most important recommendations to the government from 16 offered. The recommendation “Increase investment in the education system and match the salaries of teachers with those of other university graduates” came first with 82%. This year, therefore, we have once again asked the question about teachers’ salaries, but this time in the context of competitiveness.

How did the participants’ vote evolve on salary increases for teachers during the conference?

The topic of education and competitiveness was introduced by Andreas Schleicher (Director for Education and Skills, OECD) who looked at the links between people’s skills and the economy. He emphasized that the level of the gross domestic product and income is closely linked to literacy. A higher quality of education translates into a better economic performance of the country.

Video: Education–Competitiveness  Summary

In the introductory video to the second panel, Bob Kartous (EDUin), head of the Aspen Institute CE Expert Group, presented a study Education-Competitiveness. The study was represented in the second panel by expert adviser to the author, Daniel Münich (IDEA think tank at CERGE-EI), who was accompanied by Robert Plaga (Minister of Education), Vladimír Schmalz (EDUA Group), Petr Šmíd (Google), Rudolf Urbánek (Microsoft) and Tania Vainio (ABB). They agreed that deeds are needed in the case of educational reform, not only words. The issue of reskilling and adjusting the educational system to future needs also resonated in this discussion. The need for unification of private investments in education was also tackled, since currently, every company creates its own projects. The cooperation of such companies could be achieved through the Ministry of Education which could operate as a sort of platform and coordinator of these individual investments in order to improve efficiency. Speakers also expressed the need for adequate teacher salaries and support for teachers and school principals as they play the key role in implementation of any strategy and understand the situation on the micro level.

III. Security–Innovation (video recording 3:15:39–⁠4:17:05)

How did the participants vote on defense spending during the conference?

Video: Security–Innovation Summary

The speakers in the discussion on defense, security and innovation, namely the author of the study Tomáš Pojar (CEVRO) accompanied by Petr Konvalinka (TACR), Tomáš Kopečný (Ministry of Defense) and Pavel Šalanda (Rohde & Schwarz) generally agreed that spending on defense R&D is not necessarily only a consumption expenditure to increase security, but also an investment that can significantly boost the competitiveness of the Czech economy, including its innovation potential, as many originally military inventions penetrated into civil life. There is a need, however, to effectively redistribute the state budget and establish priorities. Moreover, the Czech Republic does not sufficiently support scientific cooperation with universities and therefore does not make use of the full potential of such institutions. The government should also support and cooperate with private companies since they often develop advanced technologies and are way ahead of publicly funded research institutions. The involvement of Czech companies and the establishment of a co-financing system still remain a challenge.

IV. Quality of Life–Regional Differences (video recording 4:18:22–⁠5:19:38)

How did the participants vote on priorities for reducing social and regional disparities during the conference?

Video: Quality of Life–Regional Differences  Summary

The fourth discussion addressed the role of local and individual quality of life in preserving democracy in the Czech Republic. It was clear from the study that confidence in rule of law, democracy or the assessment of the country’s post-communist situation is closely linked to the individual quality of life. This topic was discussed by the author of the study Daniel Prokop (PAQ Research), Martina Štěpánková (Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs), Juraj Bóna (T-Mobile), Martina Seidlerová (Sudetikus) and Tomáš Salomon (Česká spořitelna). It was admitted that the implementation of measures by the government has been delayed in practice, especially in socially excluded localities, where local actors should play a stronger role. The “bottom-up” activities also play an important role. People in the regions should step out of their comfort zone and organize something on their own. Increased access to information and the possibility of continuing education certainly contribute to improving quality of life, hence accessible Internet for all might also help. Debts also fundamentally affect quality of life in the Czech Republic. Based on the register of debtors, banks should not lend money to people who are already in debt. Unfortunately, these people often borrow from non-banking companies and find themselves in a debt spiral which is very difficult to get out of.

PAQ Research in cooperation with the Aspen Institute CE and the Bader Foundation also prepared a map of social and educational problems for the conference, which at the level of municipalities with extended competence (ORP in Czech) captures how strongly the involvement of municipalities with various social problems relates to educational problems, absenteeism in schools and early leavers from education.

Map of Social and Educational Problems

Final Recommendations (video recording 5:22:28–⁠5:50:30)

Final recommendations were given by Ivan Hodáč (Aspen Institute Central Europe), Tomáš Salomon (Česká spořitelna) and Martin Záklasník (E.ON Czech Holding AG). They summarized the key points of the whole day. They agreed on the importance of education not only in schools, but also in companies, and its adaptation to the evolution of society and technology. The need to step out the comfort zone and one’s own social bubble was also highlighted.

Gala Dinner

A gala dinner was held at the end of the conference day in Mlýnec Restaurant. The main guest of the evening was Günther Oettinger (European Commissioner for Budget and Human Resources), who emphasized in his speech that unity and coherence are essential for a strong European Union, no matter how large the member country is.

On this occasion, the very first Aspen Central Europe Leadership Award 2019 was held. The award was given by the Aspen Institute Central Europe to young successful professionals for outstanding achievements in their field of activity and in one of the following areas: leadership based on principles and values, responsible citizenship, and an innovative policy with a positive social impact in Central Europe.

The laureates of the first year are Do Thu Trang, author of the blog, which in its glosses provides an imaginative and novel approach bringing the Vietnamese minority closer to the majority society, thus contributing to a mutual understanding and strengthening an open, prosperous and especially cohesive society in the Czech Republic, and Michal Mižigár, a historian of Roma origin, who despite a congenital health disadvantage, was the first member of the Roma community in the city of Písek to graduate from high school and later also from university. With his personal story as well as open approach, he helps break down prejudices and contributes to the improvement of society in Central Europe.

The laureates received the award from the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic, Tomáš Petříček.

Photo: Ondřej Besperát

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