It’s 100 Years Since Austria Changed The World
This Sunday Austrians go to the polls to elect their MEPS.
The date is little more than one month short of the 100th anniversary of an Austria-related event that re-shaped the world forever: the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Princess Sophie in Sarajevo; which led to the events that culminated in the First World War.
While Sunday’s vote will not of course have such a dramatic impact on the future of Austria or the EU, the anniversary does perhaps give Austrians cause to reflect on the tumultuous last century of their country – a former empire and monarchy; and on how those events have created the Austria we see today.
As Viennese voters wait for trams on the Ringstrasse, the wide and traffic-choked boulevard that encircles the historic centre of the old imperial capital, they are treated to a visual onslaught of political posters calling on them to vote for this party or that. It would perhaps be unkind to suggest that all the party machines were struggling to come up with the catchiest slogan, but forgive me if I plead ‘fair comment’.
“Too much EU is stupid” – FPÖ (Freedom Party)
“Your Europe can do so much more” – (Green Party)
“We look beyond the end of our noses” NEOS (Liberal Party)
“Together for a better Europe” – ÖVP (Conservative Party)
“Vote for social change” – SPÖ (Socialist Party)
(My own translations; shown in alphabetical order of party name)
In a world where superficiality usually wins out over substance, a bit of star-quality glamour seems to be more eye-catching – and on the street hoardings of Vienna the competition is between the piercing blue eyes of the leader of the FPÖ, Heinz-Christian Strache; and the coy smile of Austria’s bearded, transvestite Eurovision sensation, Conchita Wurst.
But – with the exception of the FPÖ – the messages do seem broadly to share one theme: Austrians need to engage with the EU more and fight their corner in its institutions. Of course each party’s view of how best to fight that fight and what that corner should contain is different – sort of.
The Trouble With Success….
The Austrians have undoubtedly done well out of the EU (Austria is reportedly the second wealthiest member state – after Luxembourg). But there is a strong Euro-skeptic climate in the seat of the old Hapsburg empire, although in the main no party is calling for the country to leave the EU.
Heinz-Christian Strache, the 44-year-old former dental technician and head of Austria’s right-wing, populist FPÖ, is a politician who likes to enjoy a beer with his supporters (British readers may recognise this campaigning tactic!). And despite the party’s Euro-skeptic position, the FPÖ is trailing the Socialist and the Conservative People’s Parties by just a few percentage points.
There’s no doubt Mr Strache is going all-out to win Sunday’s poll – and that victory is not beyond the realms of possibility.
The FPÖ’s popularity may be difficult to explain, given Austria’s enviable GDP and low unemployment figures. (At just under 5 percent, unemployment in Austria is among Europe’s lowest).
But there is clearly a general dissatisfaction with the status quo and with what many Austrians see as interference from Brussels in domestic matters.
Many Austrians view their country as a haven of wealth and prosperity – and many feel this is under threat from refugees and cheap foreign labour.
And like a sizeable number of working class Hungarians (http://wp.me/p4EcHH-3), ‘regular’ Austrians feel their voice is not being heard or is being ignored by the establishment and ruling classes.
This might be a sentiment with which UKIP’s Nigel Farage would concur – although in a heated radio interview on LBC in London last week, the head of UKIP made it clear he would not be prepared to join an alliance with future FPÖ MEPs in the European Parliament.
United States of Europe?
I went to an election debate hosted last night (Tue 20 May) in Vienna by the Federation of Austrian Industries (IV). In the Federation’s palatial, gold-encrusted and marble-festooned meeting room, a portrait of Emperor Franz Josef (1830-1916) took pride of place, towering over the politicians on the stage. There was no doubting the sense of history that forms the bedrock of the Austrian establishment; nor the importance of the national identity, however Austrians choose to interpret that.
So how would the five candidates (from the People’s, Socialist, Green, Freedom and Liberal (NEOS) Parties) respond when asked if the EU should evolve into a United States of Europe – something of which Emperor Franz Josef might have approved, on his own terms of course?
In most cases the answers (under the rules of the debate: strictly one minute 30 seconds long) were nuanced, but broadly in favour, up to a point, with lots of caveats about more democracy and transparency and a clearly defined on-going role for the nation state. But from the Freedom Party candidate came a clear ‘no thank you’.
‘We need more democracy, less bureaucracy; the EU should stick to making the economies of the Member States more competitive,’ said Barbara Kappel, a 49 year old economist and member of the regional parliament of Vienna.
Eyes To The Right…?
Europe has, in the recent past, fallen out with Austria over its willingness to form coalitions with right-wing parties. With stormy weather predicted for the weekend in part of Franz Josef’s former realm, many in Brussels will be wondering if a political storm could be brewing, should the political map of Austria – and several other member states – edge yet further to the right.
Tags: EUElections2014, Austria, ÖVP, SPÖ, Die Grünen, NEOS, FPÖ, BXLSeanK