Conférence Asie-Europe sur l'Education

Seule la parole prononcée fait foi

This was really a passionate introduction by my dear friend Edmond Israel, who is always captivating his audience with his unusual but fascinating ideas and his new thinking. I am admiring him also for his tirelessness and his inexhaustible energy. In other words: it is not an easy task to speak after him.

May I start by welcoming you most warmly to Luxembourg for this conference on Education for the Knowledge-based Economy in the New Millenium. When Edmond Israel asked me whether the Luxembourg Government would be willing to co-organise this conference, I did not hesitate and said yes to the project spontaneously. It seems to me indeed that it is of utmost importance to adapt our thinking on education and our educational systems to the challenges of the new century characterised by globalisation and the information society. So if Asia can help Europe and if Europe can help Asia in this matter by way of exchange of ideas and experience, that is a good thing. And education is certainly also at the heart of a better understanding between these two continents. With so many competent speakers today and tomorrow from the world of politics, industry, science and academia, I am sure that the debate will be fruitful and enlightening.

I have opted for not addressing you on educational issues though. I would rather like to say a few words about relations between Asia and Europe. Obviously, I will have to deal with the subject in very general terms, knowing quite well that both sides are an assembly of heterogeneous countries, but I hope you will excuse my simplifications.

So many speeches have been written about relations between Asia and Europe. What strikes me is that the vast majority of them deal with business and economics. Yes, it is probably easier to describe this relationship with figures rather than with words. I also agree that trade and economics are very important aspects of these relations, but since the first ASEM Summit in Bangkok in 1996, if not earlier, relations have definitely been embedded in a new quality.

What is to my mind the most important feature of these relations is mutual respect and equal dignity. The concept of partnership implies that both sides are placed on equal footing. Europe and Asia have to identify their common features, develop them, and accept that there are differences too, issues on which both partners can only agree to disagree - which should however not prevent co-operation in these and other fields. Dialogue has never been easy on tricky and sensible issues such as human rights, governance, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, protectionism a.s.o, issues on which our system of values and our fundamental beliefs are sometimes different. But this is also what makes the development of these relations so essential. Both continents should play a significant role in the multipolar world of the 21st century and contribute towards shaping it.

Gradually, we have been managing to bridge misunderstandings. For example, it took us Europeans some time to understand that our enthusiasm for providing assistance to so-called underdeveloped Asian countries - an act of genuine goodwill - was hurting feelings, because we underestimated the importance of face-saving in Asian societies. And both sides have to liberate themselves from feelings of arrogance. I also consider that Europeans have to stop negating the existence of genuine Asian values. Yes, we still seem to live with the illusion of the hegemony of Western values and are very often too quick to judge. Yet, lecturing and moralising instead of first trying to understand and then explain and convince, is a counterproductive approach.

What has made the ASEM process so successful is the informal character of most meetings. Discussions are open, controversial and thus stimulating and healthy for the development of relations and the getting closer together. As somebody once said do me "Taking off ties loosens tongues" - and indeed Heads of State and Government feel quite at ease with this informal system. Leaders are also much more outspoken without their officials and advisers being present in the meeting room.

The other feature which accounts for the quality of the ASEM process is its reliance not only on governments, but also on the business sector, on culture, on the arts and society at large. The ASEM process is probably still undervalued, but let us not forget that it still is a very young process.

The first real test of the partnership between Asia and Europe was the financial crisis which broke out in 1997/8. The European Union provided not only political support but contributed also significantly to the financial packages led by the international financial institutions and kept its markets open. So it hurts when I hear that many representatives of Asia still have the feeling that the United States have been doing more than the EU. Unfortunately, anywhere in the world, the U.S. are much better at marketing their policies than the Europeans, so we have no one than ourselves to blame.

This autumn we will already hold the 3rd ASEM Summit in South Korea. Heads of State and Government will discuss among other things the conclusions of the report of the Vision group, which was created in London in 1998 and which was given the mandate to define a strategic vision and concrete measures of co-operation for the future. One of the recommendations of the Vision Group is to adopt a joint ambitious declaration on education - this is to say that the topic of this conference is well chosen.

But what is the "vision" that leaders are being asked to adopt. Well, this is what the report of the Vision Group says: "Our vision is gradually to integrate Asia and Europe into an area of peace and shared development, a prosperous common living sphere in the 21st century. This is a sphere in which our knowledge, wealth, cultural heritage, democratic ideals, educational assets, intellectual aspirations and new technologies are closely intertwined and exchanged, without specific barriers or constraints. We envision the active integration of our intellectual forces and a vibrant exchange of culture and the arts between Asia and Europe. We envision correction in today's imbalance in student numbers between Europe and Asia, with a five-fold expansion in student exchanges between the two regions by the year 2025. We also visualise the progressive opening of markets with the eventual goal of free flow of goods and services by the year 2025. Integral to our vision are concrete actions to meet the serious environmental challenges today." A quite ambitious agenda thus to the benefit of billions of people.

An enlarged Europe to the current thirteen candidate countries will comprise about 550 million people. In Asia, there are 3,7 billion people already now and in twenty years, there will be between 4,3 and 4,8 billion. So taken together Asia and Europe account for 2/3 of the world population - and, by the way, half of world GDP. I think I said earlier that we can learn from each other; my feeling is that in this century, Europe will learn more from Asia than the other way round. Europe's population is stagnating whereas it is growing in Asia. Europe is getting older, Asia is keeping its youth. So, it is from the East that new ideas, energies and talents will come. Europeans should thus actively invest in the region and in the human capital in that part of the world.

Very often, when discussing with colleges or friends coming from various corners of Asia, I am being asked whether or even why Europe is neglecting its relations with Asia. This impression is alarming, but the question is neither new nor surprising. The European Union has to meet significant internal challenges - ranging from institutional reform, fight against unemployment and social exclusion and a vanishing commitment to European integration - as well as external challenges - enlargement and instability in the Balkans right next door. So indeed, countries in Asia could get the impression that the EU is not devoting enough time to them. But Asia certainly is a strategic point in the EU's external relations and I hope that the EU will be able to demonstrate this convincingly during the ASEM summit later this year.

The financial crisis which has hit Asia has shown how interdependent Europe and Asia are. Turmoil in Asia has had an impact on growth in Europe. Asia has made the painful experience that its economic miracle was not sustainable. Maybe Asian countries can learn from Europe how to create a system of co-operation which will better protect them and enable them to act more efficiently - because more co-ordinated - in a situation of crisis.

Let me discuss this idea of intra-Asian cooperation or integration. Until the outbreak of the financial crisis in South-East Asia, most analysts considered soft and light organisations like ASEAN advantageous and more suitable for Asia than the heavier European form of integration. But since the crisis, I suppose that thinking has been evolving. However, can European integration be a model for Asia? That's an interesting question.

The history of both continents is very different. Europeans had been trading with each other for centuries and developed strong economic relationships. In Asia, intra-regional trade links are much more recent. Political systems are very different. And, very important, I see no shared vision of the future in Asia today.

I say this one week before we celebrate here in Europe the 50th anniversary of the Schuman plan, the plan which is at the origin of the creation of the European Union. In a week's time we also commemorate here in Luxembourg the souvenir of the invasion of German Nazi troops sixty years ago at the beginning of the second world war. Peace and the slogan "never ever again war" were and still are the driving force of European integration. We Europeans managed to put aside our deep divisions, our hatred and feelings of revenge. On the occasion of the Schuman commemoration next week, the former President of the European Commission Mr. Jacques Delors will give a speech with the title: "forgiveness and promise" - an excellent summary of the European idea.

I would like to remind you that even though there was a vision at the origin of the European construction, the implementation started with economics, with the integration of coal and steel industries. Economic integration was promoting political integration. Maybe Asian countries should try the recipe: it could be that they will find their vision too on the road towards economic integration. There must be common cultural, social and political values, projects worthwhile to be realised together and which go beyond free trade and economic co-operation. That could be the new thinking in Asia for this century. Finding and nurturing this regional cohesiveness and a sense of unity will probably take some time, but I think it would make the implementation of a joint vision for Asia and Europe easier too.

Although I implied earlier that I do not want to talk so much about economics, I cannot prevent myself from commenting the recent announcement of growth prospects for Asia: yes, Asia is growing again - 6% annual GDP growth, except for Japan. This is good news. The bad news is that speculation is also on the rise again. I hope the lesson of the recent crisis has been learnt. Periods of growth should be used to carry out the necessary structural reforms - this is a lesson which Europe has had to learn. At the latest European Council, governments of the EU have been committing themselves to exactly this: generating more employment by carrying out structural reform while preserving social cohesion.

As the Asian world has been following very closely the creation of the common European currency, the EURO, I feel that I have to say a few words about the current so-called "weakness" of the EURO. Yes, I say "so-called". When people ask me whether it is currently wiser to hold dollars rather than euros, I always explain that whatever the exchange rate to the dollar, the EURO is an internally stable currency. The euro-zone is an area of low inflation, an area of growth, an area where unemployment, budget deficits and governmental debts are in regress - an area thus of profoundly sound economic fundamentals. The euro is not weak, the dollar is just strong and in my view largely overvalued. The problem is that the performance of European economies is not visible enough. So I hope our Asian friends will continue to look confidently towards the new European currency.

To conclude, let me say a few words about the Asia-Europe Foundation. Right from the beginning, the Luxembourg government supported wholeheartedly the idea of the creation of ASEF and was investing quite an effort in convincing more reluctant EU member states. As I said earlier, relations between two continents are not a matter for diplomats and ministers alone. Governments should create the framework in which non-governmental contacts can develop.

Since ASEF has been created in 1997, it has accomplished an impressive job, much more than I thought it would be able to achieve. ASEF has brought together businessmen, scholars, artists, students, journalists, young politicians and has multiplied discussion fora on issues ranging from cultural, social to monetary issues.

So, it is great time to thank the team of ASEF for these achievements, first and foremost the executive director, Prof. Tommy Koh, whom I will have the pleasure to decorate later on during the day, not only for his unconditional commitment to Asia-Europe relations, but also for being a friend and a promoter of Luxembourg in Asia. I would ask you, Prof. Koh, to convey my compliments to the whole ASEF staff. Together with the board of Governor's currently chaired by Edmond Israel, you have led this young organisation successfully into the New Millenium.

(Publié le 2 mai 2000)

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