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European Elections 2014: Budapest to Brussels – Vienna Post

May 21st, 2014 Posted by Uncategorized No Comment yet

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.

Eye-Catching Politics

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 (, ‘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

Hungary Post – 19 May 2014

May 19th, 2014 Posted by Uncategorized No Comment yet

Sunshine and High Water, but Little Enthusiasm for European Elections...

In the Budapest sunshine with the Danube rushing menacingly south towards inundated Serbia, the political climate is less frenetic.
As Hungarians prepare for Sunday’s vote to the European Parliament, there’s a sense of election fatigue. Only last month, there was a general election here, won by Hungary’s conservative Civic Alliance Party, Fidesz, led by the controversial figure, Viktor Orbán.

Predictions and Indifference

On Sunday, the turnout here is expected to be low.
The latest predictions are:

Fidesz (Hungarian Civic Alliance, national conservative party): 56%
Jobbik (Movement for a Better Hungary – radical nationalist party): 17-18%
MSZP (Hungarian Socialist Party): 14%

There are questions about whether or not the smaller Hungarian parties will reach the ‘magic’ threshold of 5% needed to send an MEP to Brussels. And in some cases, Hungarian voters are being kept in the dark about which Brussels political groups their politicians will join if they are indeed voted in.

So, a spirit of indifference to this week’s European elections is in the air. And for that reason you are hard pushed to see the faces of the EU’s ‘star’ politicians smiling at you from campaign posters: in Hungary, the faces are very much local.
(It was quite the opposite when I was in Berlin last week, and saw mug-shots of Messers Schulz and Juncker peering at me from many a billboard).

Nationalist Radicals In Alleged Spying Debacle

Meanwhile Hungary’s radical nationalists have hit the headlines in recent days.
One of Jobbik’s three MEPs – Bela Kovacs – was accused in the pro-government newspaper, Magyar Nemzet (15 May 2014), of spying for the Russians.


A Quick Reminder: Who Are Jobbik?

Five or six years ago, Jobbik was a relatively unknown entity. But in 2009 it won 14.6% of the vote in the European Parliamentary elections and sent three MEPs to Brussels. Shortly after that election, at a meeting in Budapest of like-minded European parties, it formed the Alliance of European National Movements. The founding members included France’s Front National (which has since left the Movement); Italy’s Fiamma Tricolore (MS-FT); Sweden’s National Democrats; and Belgium’s National Front (which has since been dissolved).
In last month’s general election in Hungary, Jobbik won 20% of the vote. Like its euro-sceptic allies, Jobbik wants Hungary to leave the EU. One of its European election posters declares: “Hungary’s economy = Income for Europe”. (It’s worth noting that Hungary is not a net contributor to the EU, so this slogan needs some explanation from Jobbik….)

Mr Kovacs – who is number three on Jobbik’s election list and therefore highly likely to be returned to Brussels – has a long both professional and personal relationship with Moscow. He is also well-known in the corridors of the European Parliament for arguing strongly the case for Gazprom. Some of his fellow parliamentarians have indeed expressed surprise that an MEP should spend so much time focusing his attention on a company that hails from a country outside the EU. And there have long been rumours and allegations in Hungary – hotly denied by Bela Kovacs – that Mrs Kovacs (a dual Russian-Austrian national) may have worked for the KGB.

Today Hungary’s Parliamentary Committee on National Security summoned Mr Kovacs to answer the spying allegations. On television last week Prime Minister Orbán accused anyone engaged in promoting the causes of Russia to the detriment of Hungary of being a traitor. Mr Kovacs and his party cry foul. They claim the allegations are politically motivated. This is of course hardly surprisingly, given the timing of the allegations and the closed-door meeting today at the parliament – within just days of the European elections.
After the three-hour meeting, a somewhat dazed looking Mr Kovacs left the parliament saying little more than he had important election campaigning to do. His party leader defended him; others said sufficient evidence of an improper relationship with Russia had been presented to the committee; and yet others said the meeting was strictly private and refused to comment further. The upshot: the committee will look further into the allegations – nothing is definitively resolved.
So – either Jobbik is damaged by the allegations; or its supporters and waverers will be sufficiently incensed by what they may see as political inteference to turn out and vote in even greater numbers for Jobbik on Sunday. All will become clear next Sunday evening/Monday morning.

The Sun Sets – But The River Flows On…

As the sun sets, creating a dramatic orange night sky across the hills of Buda, the tourists, students and musicians continue – seemingly unconcerned – to amble, sing and drink on Liberty Bridge. Perching on the bridge supports, beer cans in hand and looking up river into the orange glow bathing Buda Castle, Mark and Patrick, two 19-year-old Hungarian paramedic students, are clear about where to put their crosses on this week’s ballot paper. “We’ll be voting Jobbik,” Mark says, without hesitation. “Fidesz and the Socialists have destroyed this country over the last twenty four years [an allusion to the time since the collapse of communism]; Jobbik knows how to keep this country’s agricultural sector going; and it rejects globalisation.”
Meanwhile in Fovam Square, two young amateur musicians prepare to perform using only hand clapping to create sound. Dominic and Gary are both in their twenties, both have jobs – and both are equally disillusioned with the political system. “We have no real political choice in this country,” Dominic says. “Fidesz has all the power – too much power – and they support globalisation.”
Gary adds “Decisions are made in Brussels – so our voices simply aren’t heard.”
They’re both undecided if they’ll actually bother to vote on Sunday – and if they do, they may leave it until they’re in the voting booth to decide where to put their crosses.
No one I spoke to had heard of Britain’s UKIP and Nigel Farage.

The sun disappears, and the final illuminations of the day are gone. The Danube pounds inexorably southwards, its flotsam and jetsam smashing against the bridges of the Hungarian capital. And Hungarians ponder, more resigned than enthused, more disconnected than engaged, about what the next chapter of the EU will deliver to them.

EU Elections 2014 Tour: Budapest to Brussels – Hungary Post

May 19th, 2014 Posted by Uncategorized No Comment yet