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May 30, 2008

ELF08 – the wariness of a post-communist mindset

by quaesitor

During the plenary on the last night, one of the Hungarian delegates was interviewed (I think his name was Tom, but can’t be 100% sure – I’m very sorry if you’re reading this, ‘Tom’ – if you are, perhaps you can put me straight!!). He has been coming to the ELF for 5 years, but had been very discouraged by the consistently low turnout of fellow-Hungarians in previous years – until 2008, that is. This year we had a bumper crop, so at last the word really seems to be getting out. Part of the interview focused on why Hungarians had not signed up before, despite the fact that the ELF is now always held on home turf. His responses were fascinating:

  • One hurdle for Hungarians was the name itself – being called the European Leadership Forum made it sound like something far too big, remote and removed, not something that could connect locally. People have experienced first-hand what it is like for a nation to be swallowed up by a system that dwarfs them – so they are understandably nervous of anything that smacks of that. This is a real shame because the ELF, in contrast to many pan-European events, is acutely conscious of the need to serve the local, catering for cultural specifics despite the wide diversity. Once people cross that perception barrier, they discover the forum’s genius – that it really is about sharing international (and even global) resources locally. My guess is that this is a fear that many of us can relate to, though – especially amongst the more naturally Eurosceptic Brits. But it all just shows that when something big has the heart of serving and not controlling the local, it can be brilliant.**
  • The other point Tom made was very helpful. The ELF is incredibly well-run. An army of American volunteers pay for themselves to come and then work their socks off to ensure everything runs like clockwork. Fiendishly complex logistics are involved to make sure that the vast number of lectures and seminars are all coordinated, resourced and recorded (NB click on the ELF Resources button on the right for an archive of previous material). Unsurprisingly, a highly-organised administrative system is absolutely necessary. But this is highly intimidating to those who have experienced years of centralized state control systems in the former Communist bloc. They are immediately suspicious and wary – so much so that even the details required in the booking process can be enough to put them off. Again, once they come and experience the nature of the forum, it is immediately obvious why these are all necessary. But isn’t interesting how sometimes the very hallmark of an event that makes it work so well can become the stumbling block for people being able to appreciate it. There’s a sermon in there somewhere…

Tom was clear that he was not making a criticism of the ELF as such – it merely illustrates yet again how fraught working in cultures with very different historical inheritances can be. Hats off to him for being willing to be so open and clear – especially because it helped us all from the Western side of Europe to understand something of what they have to battle with.

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** Incidentally, there was a classic moment earlier on in the week, on the day after the 2008 Eurovision Song Contest. Stefan (a Swedish leader on the ELF steering group) was giving out the notices and had the privileged opportunity to announce the Eurovision results (which most will have missed as a result of living in our conference bubble). Unfortunately he didn’t have time to read out the whole list (so he claimed), but he did have time to announce the rank of the country with most ELF delegates present. There had been 25 entries in this year’s Eurovision finals. Because the UK had the highest numbers of ELF delegates, Stefan proudly announced that the UK had come 25th. AWESOME. Cheers and whoops of joy spread through this pan-European gathering, to congratulate the UK on this incomparable achievement. Oh, how we all swelled with pride.

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