The Shape of (Central) Europe 2020

The annual conference of the Aspen Institute Central Europe, The Shape of (Central) Europe, which we organized in cooperation with the Economia media house, took place online on 19 November 2020.


The main topic of this year’s conference was RESTARTING CENTRAL EUROPE. The aim of the conference was to find a strategy for coping with the pandemic crisis and the economic recovery of Central European countries. Expert studies prepared by McKinsey and the expert groups of Aspen Institute Central Europe were the basis of the discussions. This year they focused in more detail on:

➡ How is the Pandemic Changing Europe?

➡ Restarting Central Europe

➡ City Strategies — Getting Back to the Next Normal

➡ Defense & Space: Opportunities for Science and Industry

➡ Background to Failures in Education: Social Problems and Funding

Conference book with expert studies

Apart from the analysis of the current situation, specific recommendations for improvement addressed to the political representatives were made. In addition to the representatives of the governments and the mayors of the capitals of Central European countries, representatives of the state administration, experts from business, academia and the non-profit sector also spoke on the conference panels. Various areas were viewed from different angles. During the conference, participants could ask the speakers questions through the application.

Studies for individual panels:

Restarting Central Europe | City Strategies | Regional differences – education | Defense and Space


Opening (video recording  17:20–25:30)

For the first time ever, the conference was opened digitally by Ivan Hodáč, President of Aspen Institute Central Europe, Zuzana Řezníčková, President of the Economia Media House and Milan Vašina, Executive Director of Aspen Institute CE. All three of them emphasized the importance of a liberal democratic society, the need for shared values and dialogue while looking for solutions in this difficult period.

I. Restarting Central Europe (video recording 26:00 – 01:07:50)

Introductory Presentation: Restarting Central Europe

On the panel dedicated to restarting Central Europe after the pandemic, we focused on the areas which not only offer coping with the current crisis, but also seizing the opportunity offered by the pandemic to make progress, for example, in digitalization or improving public health.

In his speech, the Prime Minister of the Czech Republic, Andrej Babiš, emphasized the need for a debate on the steps that need to be taken to restart the economy, i.e. in addition to supporting the European internal market and the use of the new EU tools to support digital and green transformation and European recovery. The pandemic accelerated technological transformation, highlighting the importance of digital education and the digitization of public administration and health, including cooperation with the private sector in this area.

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz pointed out the uniqueness of 2020 and lauded the close cooperation between the Czech Republic and Austria, not only during the pandemic. Society is understandably tired of the strict measures due to the current lock-down, but it is essential to try to “flatten the curve” of the strong second wave and thus protect healthcare and vulnerable groups. The Chancellor sees the future of Europe primarily in the need to achieve greater self-sufficiency and strengthen the competitiveness of European companies.

The Austrian Federal Minister for the EU and Constitution, Karoline Edtstadler, mentioned the effort to build a green economy and take advantage of the opportunity offered by the economic restart after the pandemic as an important priority for her country. The Deputy Prime Minister of the Czech Republic, Karel Havlíček, sees the future of the country in the emphasis on new technologies and the digitization process. Both speakers agreed not only on the need for education that will reflect on the ongoing transformation, but also in the area of support for public transport and electromobility, especially by improving the accessibility of electric cars or the availability of charging stations. They see the key goals for the future after the pandemic in the field of digitization and building smart institutions in cooperation with the private sector.


II. City Strategies — Getting Back to the Next Normal (video recording 01:13:40 – 2:12:55)

Introductory Presentation: City Strategies — Getting Back to the Next Normal

The panel of mayors of the V4 capitals focused on the future of the four Central European capitals as natural leaders in the development of technologies, the advancement of multimodal public transport or supporting public health and the environment: Zdeněk Hřib (Prague), Gergely Karácsony (Budapest), Rafał Trzaskowski (Warsaw) and Matúš Vallo (Bratislava).

One of the main topics of discussion was transport and the environment. The pandemic has negatively affected people’s attitudes towards public transport, and thus led to an increase in the popularity of individual transport, especially walking and cycling. There has also been, however, an increase in car traffic, which is causing a number of problems in all four cities, whether it is air pollution or the issue of parking spaces and zones. Cities are therefore not only trying to support public transport, but also to improve it.

In the case of Bratislava, Mayor Matúš Vallo mentioned, for example, the reconstruction of the tram line and the purchase of new vehicles or the construction of new cycling tracks. Regarding the environment, cities should be the ones taking initiative, due to the conservative attitude of the V4 governments.
For the Mayor of Warsaw, Rafał Trzaskowski, the priorities are combating climate change and making cities greener, in cooperation not only with other cities but also with European institutions.
The pandemic also had a significant impact on city budgets. The Mayor of Budapest, Gergely Karácsony, pointed out how the restrictions imposed by the Hungarian government, such as the veto of the European reconstruction package, will affect the capital’s budget in particular.

Reducing budgets also requires cutting spending and more efficient ways of investing. Cities continue to improve, however, not only in the fields of transport, environmental protection or energy saving, but also, for example, in the field of digitization and technology. In this area, the development of applications and portals or the support of platforms in the field of education is important. As the Mayor of Prague Zdeněk Hřib added, even smart cities can be socially inclusive, and therefore there must always be the possibility to live in them even without a smartphone. The mayors also agreed on the importance of promoting democratic principles and values, or improving communication with citizens and ensuring their participation.

III. Ivan Krastev’s reflections: How will the pandemic change Europe? (video recording  2:28:30 – 2:53:30)

Ivan Krastev from the Center for Liberal Studies / Institute of Human Sciences reflected on the way the pandemic is changing Europe. In his view, the current situation is in a sense a combination of 3 previous European crises. The first is the question of the exceptional expansion of government powers, as in the context of the war on terror, the second is the need to tackle unexpected economic problems similar to 2008, and the third is the phenomenon of closing internal European borders, replicating discussions during the refugee crisis five years ago. He points out that the answer to these questions is now often quite different from when they first appeared.

He argues that the pandemic is associated with a number of negative developments. Some government policies, accepted by the public in the first wave, are now perceived as problematic, and their unpopularity may strengthen populist parties. Compared to the first wave, the intergenerational contrast has also deepened – while people in the risk group benefit from strict measures due to their health vulnerability, younger people are economically vulnerable and stricter measures can hurt them. In addition, the pandemic has revealed the “dark side of globalization,” deepening fragmentation and rivalry between the great powers. In conclusion, Ivan Krastev warns against the tools of protectionism, which may serve to promote democratic and progressive values, but only at the European level, not nationally. If Europe wants to succeed in this new world, he said, there is a need to move towards greater consolidation and integration of the European project.

IV. Security – innovations

Defense & Space: Opportunities for Science and Industry (video recording 3:08:40 – 4:08:30)

Introductory presentation: Defense & Space: Opportunities for Science and Industry

Following last year’s emphasis on the relationship between civil and military research as well as development and innovation, this year we focused on space technologies. The guests mainly debated about both the importance and obstacles for cooperation between the public and private sectors and academia.

Petr Bareš (Czech Space Alliance, Iguassu Software Systems) highlighted the role of Czech protagonists in the development of top space technologies. The pace of technological progress is much faster, however, than establishing new collaborations. So there is still much to work on.

The head of the expert study of the Aspen Institute CE, Tomáš Pojar (CEVRO Institute), assessed that without cooperation across sectors, it is impossible for the Czech Republic as a whole to achieve success in the field of space technologies. Although the situation has improved over the last ten years, the “encapsulation” of individual groups and mutual prejudices can still be perceived.

As a solution to encapsulated sectors, Ladislav Stahl (SATCEN, Military Intelligence) proposed the involvement of all protagonists in one large project, such as the construction of the GOLEM satellite, in which only Czech companies would participate. This would ensure better communication and integration of the individual sectors.

According to Patricie Ondriášová (OHB System), the involvement of scientific institutions is always important in the starting phase of projects, while subsequent engineering work is then procured by companies. It is also important to have people with experience in space project management available for further development in the field of space technologies.

Jan Souček (Institute of Atmospheric Physics, ASCR) shared his views on the issue of cooperation from an academic perspective. He views the reluctance of some protagonists to share their know-how as one of the drawbacks of establishing deeper cooperation. It is also important to divide the roles of the involved workplaces correctly and in a balanced way so that the system is flexible and can easily respond to possible changes during technology development.


V. Digitalization: A New Impulse for the Central European Economy (video recording 4:24:45 – 4:34:45)

Petr Šmíd (Google) addressed possible changes caused by the increase in the use of digital technologies during the pandemic. The need for increased digitization was apparent even earlier, but the pandemic made it even more obvious. A large number of activities has moved to the virtual space and there has been a significant increase in new users. The development, however, of digital skills is also important. The companies themselves had to adapt. The new “economic normal” will be different from before the pandemic, especially in the area of working from home or customer behavior. They are likely to continue to make greater use of services such as food delivery or contactless payments.

VI. Regional Differences — Education

Background to Failures in Education: Social Problems and Funding (video recording 4:41:39 – 5:42:40)

Introductory presentation: Background to Failures in Education

The last panel of our  annual conference focused on the influence of socio-economic backgrounds on educational failure amongst students. The guests agreed that a large number of factors contribute to the problems in education and that a comprehensive solution is needed on several levels.

Daniel Münich (IDEA at CERGE-EI), an adviser to the Aspen Institute CE expert group, also focused on the impact of the pandemic, which only deepens the differences and increases the problems for students from poor socio-economic backgrounds. In order for distant learning to work effectively, it is necessary to meet four conditions: good technical background of children, human capital of families, technical equipment of schools and the ability of teachers to master new methods. In most cases, however, they are not met all at once.

Libor Witassek (independent entrepreneur and representative of the city of Opava) focused on the impact of the pandemic on vocational schools. Vocational training is very complicated in the online space and practical training has to be done in person. The reduction of municipal budgets due to the pandemic is also likely to have an impact on education.

Zuzana Ramajzlová (People in Need) highlighted the lack of sharing good practice between municipalities as the founders of schools. At the municipal level, problems in education are often displaced and the element of chance plays a major role in the exemplary behavior of municipalities. In practice, it depends mainly on specific persons on the council.

According to Jan Straka (TeachLive), it is important to establish a common vision towards which the transformation of education should be directed. It is also essential to invest more in people, whether this be principals, who demanding requirements are required of or teachers who do not receive sufficient support, whether methodological or technical.

Jaromír Beran (Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports) emphasized the support of school principals as one of the aspects important for resolving differences. For quality education, quality principals are needed. They are often, however, overwhelmed. The Ministry thus plans to include a model of a medium support entity, which would make it easier for principals in the areas of non-pedagogical work. The lack of candidates for principal positions, however, remains a problem.


Aspen Central Europe Leadership Award (video recording 5:46:30 – 6:00:00)

The annual conference was concluded with the Aspen Central Europe Leadership Award, awarded for a second time this year. This award is given to young successful professionals for outstanding achievements in their field in one of the following areas: leadership based on principles and values, active promotion of a responsible civic attitude and innovative policies with a positive social impact in Central Europe.

The award ceremony was presented by the philanthropist Michaela Bakala (Bakala Philanthropy), who emphasized the importance of value-based leadership. One is not born a good leader, but one becomes one by developing the right values. What is important is leadership that leads to a higher good and not merely self-enrichment.

This year’s awardees are Tereza Kalousková, UPOL’s foreign coordinator, who participates in a large number of volunteer activities that help foreign students at Palacký University and make it easier for many of them to overcome the period of uncertainty caused by the pandemic and quarantine, and Michal Tarnowski, co-founder of the Academy of Civic Knowledge and two educational start-ups Nativated and, which in their activities also focus, among other things, on providing access to education for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.


Share this on social media

Support Aspen Institute

The support of our corporate partners, individual members and donors is critical to sustaining our work. We encourage you to join us at our roundtable discussions, forums, symposia, and special event dinners.

These web pages use cookies to provide their services. You get more information about the cookies after clicking on the button “Detailed setting”. You can set the cookies which we will be able to use, or you can give us your consent to use all the cookies by clicking on the button “Allow all”. You can change the setting of cookies at any time in the footer of our web pages.
Cookies are small files saved in your terminal equipment, into which certain settings and data are saved, which you exchange with our pages by means of your browser. The contents of these files are shared between your browser and our servers or the servers of our partners. We need some of the cookies so that our web page could function properly, we need others for analytical and marketing purposes.