I recently returned from five very different countries in 25 days, with the honor of representing California as an American Marshall Memorial Fellow.
My passport now has new stamps from Belgium (pictured below at the EU in Brussels), Denmark, Greece, Croatia, and Romania – a mix of the European Union capitol; Nordic country; the Mediterranean; former Yugoslavia; and a true eastern bloc country having been ruled by Nazis, Soviets, and one of the most insane dictators of the 20th century.
This program, through the Washington D.C.-based German Marshall Fund of the United States, selects about 50 leaders under 40 years of age annually from all walks of life to learn firsthand the importance of the transatlantic relationship. At the same time, about 50 European counterparts are selected and sent to various cities across the United States, including Los Angeles. Fifteen of us were part of the spring trip – the rest of the American fellows go in the summer or fall – meeting with Members of Parliament, journalists, businesses, cultural leaders, NGOs, and even military commanders.
So, why all this effort for something called the transatlantic relationship? Because, especially for us Californians, with our eyes trained to the west along the Pacific Rim and Latin America, it is sometimes easy to forget the incredible influence and importance of Europe to our daily lives.
The clearest reminder as to why Europe matters is today’s global economy – with the focus on German stimulus exit strategies and Greece’s austerity measures.
Visiting these nations, and talking with everyone from think tank experts to bartenders, provided a dizzying array of examples of just how intertwined are Europe and America… and California for that matter. The list of ‘Did You Knows’ can take up an entire page, so here are just a few:
The European Union (E.U.) is the world largest single common market.
The E.U. and the U.S. are each other’s main trading partners, with over $2 billion flowing across the Atlantic daily, more than $700 billion annually. Together, the E.U. and U.S. make up more than half of the global GDP, each being the largest trade and investment partner for nearly all other countries.
The environment and green economy are top of mind throughout the E.U., and Copenhagen is the center of the carbon reduction debate, just as California is for the U.S. The failures at the Copenhagen climate conference to achieve consensus revealed much work continues for any true agreement on environmental issues. The struggle for China, India and Brazil to be part of the carbon emissions solution sounds a lot like California’s gubernatorial candidates arguing the merits of AB 32 if neighboring states do not have to comply. The green economy has, however, proved to be very lucrative as alternative energy manufacturing is a major economic driver for many E.U. countries.
China matters over there, too. Just like California, the E.U. looks to the Pacific Rim for economic and trade opportunities, with the he E.U. being China’s biggest trading partner.
The economic crisis has jolted E.U. countries to realize that past economic and social entitlement models may no longer be sustainable. There is new and intense scrutiny on runaway pension commitments and spending, problems California continues to struggles with. While there is much criticism of Greece, there is consensus and dedication in Athens to use its crisis as an opportunity to correct past mistakes and adjust its economy to a sustainable growth path, with very clear budget reduction goals, and aggressive policies to break open its markets that were historically closed and abused for parochial gain. This drive for real improvement through tough decision making is an example for Sacramento and Los Angeles leaders. Pictured above, Fellows meet with Greek Members of Parliament Aggelos Tolkas (far left) and Evripidis Stylianidis (far right), a past GMF Fellow.
Volunteerism and charity do not exist in Europe as it does here. Because E.U. countries provide basic support for hunger, health, and grants for R&D, the operating mentality is ‘why give what little money or time I have to help something that the state is supposed to be providing for already?’ NGOs exist, but felt limited in scope and impact, with most NGOs relying entirely on the state or the E.U. for its funding (no private donors).
I frankly can go on and on about all the best practices and cautionary tales learned from this experience, along with some truly indelible impressions made on me, such as: witnessing the Nordic Paradox of capitalism and socialism really working together; the consensus and focus of the majority of Greece to improve; the contagious optimism of Croatia as it strives for acceptance as members of the E.U.; the impressive societal, political and economic progress made by Romania in its 20 years of freedom from dictators, Soviets and Nazis – and the sad feeling that these systems are now stalled by a crippling economy and pervasive corruption.
Finally, seeing the mistreatment and systemic neglect of the Roma people not only in Romania but across Europe is haunting. For more than one thousand years, the Roma have been an integral part of European civilization. Today, as many as 12 million Roma now make up the biggest ethnic minority in Europe, present in all 27 E.U. Member States and most are E.U. citizens. However, many Roma are prohibited from accessing basic hospital care and education, and the target of excessive and repressive measures such as forced evictions from informal settlements. These human rights issues were very apparent and a reminder of the progress America has made in its treatment of citizens and immigrants alike. Above, Valeriu Turcan, press secretary to the Romanian President and former GMF fellow, briefs the group.
The importance of the American Marshall Memorial Fellowship (AMMF) is not only what we learn abroad, but what we do with those experiences upon return home – learning from and using those best practices to address issues facing us as citizens, taxpayers, consumers, environmental stewards, Americans. The transatlantic relationship has served our nation well, and will be as important as ever for California as the country’s global powerhouse. For more information on the AMMF program, visit http://www.gmfus.org.
View all of Colleen’s photos on our Flickr gallery. Colleen Haggerty is Senior Vice President, Media Relations, for Bank of America and a graduate of Leadership Southern California Class of 2009