Armin Ronacher's Thoughts and Writings

A Europe For Our Children

written on Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Most of the readers of this blog are not from Europe, let alone Austria, the country I was born in. As such I'm not sure how many will actually care about Austrian politics here, especially if it's a lengthy post. But I would still like if you read it because I think the topic is important and not just because of Austria. Our problems here are not just ours, they are a general issue that affects all of Europe and the western world.

So since you are probably in no way familiar with Austrian politics or the situation in the country I want to give you a brief overview. Austria has recovered very quickly from the war torn country it was after World War 2 and emerged as one of the most powerful economies of Europe if looked at on a GDP per capita basis. It underwent a conversion from an agricultural country with some tourism attached to being dominated by the service industry and producing technology and parts (the economical tree map looks confusing because it's so heavily diversified).

However as great as the country has developed after the wars and as profitable the creation of the Eurozone was, there was an end to this positive trend and it came with the financial crisis of 2007/2008 (although with a bit of a delay). The economy did recover, but it did not do it to the extent people wanted. At the same time necessary reforms were not implemented (or not implemented in the right ways) and as a result the country has suffered major blows in the last few years. From a personal point of view I cannot stress enough how disappointed I am that many of my collegues went to other countries and started their companies there or work there. But it would be foolish to blame politics on this alone. This is as much a problem of politics as it is a problem of culture.

We now reached the point where cheap and populist ideas like reducing social welfare for non citizens gets popular support. In this environment right wing parties emerge and this sunday Austrians will probably elect the first right wing leader of the country since the end of World War 2.

But politics not what I want to talk about. What I want to talk about is the erosion of civilized discourse in Austria and I think in all of Europe. A large part of the general public are unable to have civilized discussions on the bases of facts and instead conspiracies and emotions take over and this is something that extends to politicians in Austria as well.

The Symptoms and Problems

If you look at the emotional state of the country you can see a few symptoms and problems that help the populists to raise to power:

  • Inability (or unwillingness) to learn and understand how Austria and the world changed in the last few years. I think this is a big one of the people who want to leave the European Union and do similar crazy things to the Austrian economy. We're so intertwined with it, that I doubt anyone can predict what would happen as a consequence of leaving it.

  • Comparing things that cannot directly be compared is a very related problem. As an example the Euro might have been a mistake for Germany but that does not mean that the Euro was not a profit for Austria. We were pegged to the Mark before, for us not much changed. If anything the situation improved because we're an export nation and our export partners are other European countries and if they also use the Euro they cannot harm our exports by devaluing their own currencies.

    But despite the fact it's so very hard to compare countries because they are so fundamentally differently structured - yet people will still do it in conversations. Switzerland is heralded as the great example of continental Europe in Austria but it's so specific out of history that it's incredible hard to copy or imitate.

  • Not being able consider the other side. I am shocked sometimes what people here in Austria think the US are like. The idea that both Europeans and Americans might have very similar fears or hopes for TTIP for instance does not seem to exist here.

  • Fear of change. I think this is a typical Austrian problem but to smaller extent it probably exists elsewhere too. Everything new is torpedoed until it cannot be avoided any more because every single other country already did it before. That applies to smoking bans as much as to embracing of credit cards, online services, acceptance of homosexuality, Sunday shopping, flexible working hours and much more.

  • Broad categorization. I think Austrians are masters at giving good/bad labels to large masses of people based on some categorization instead of considering the individual. Refugees are either good or bad, the industry is good or bad, corporations are good or bad, immigrants are good or bad. That individually a refugee could be good or bad is impossible to comprehend in the general discourse and if someone does bring it up, it often gets dismissed as an outlier.

  • Inability to give credit. This is particularly a problem in Austrian politics. It's one party against the other and never ever would a ruling party give an opposition party credit or the other way round. Likewise would social democratic voters never give conservative parties credit for something or the other way round.

The Root Causes

But what causes this behavior? I think Austria's history has a lot to do with it. In the recent history there were conservatives versus social democrats. Combined with the fact that after the war Austria emerged not only as a loser but also has one with a lot of baggage due to the support to national socialism and the complicated way to deal with it after the war. As such the population was always split in two on this level. However they could unity at least somewhat by voting for one of the two large centrist parties. Because the country was doing really well, there was no reason to reevaluate this.

However when disaster struck this rift became bigger instead of smaller and particular with this upcoming presidential election only the most extreme candidates made it into the run-off. Voters did not vote for people they believed in as much as they voted by using tactics against predictions. This now has lead to one the ugliest pre-elections I have seen.

Politics are no longer about doing the right thing but defending principles, even if they are completely unfounded. Even though everybody says they have the best for Austrian in mind everyone is so stuck to their own opinion that not a single meter of compromise can be achieved. Newspapers paint scary pictures of the different outcomes of the election, how the country will be torn, how one candidate would mean European sanctions and how the other candidate would mean the end of a functioning society.

A Path Forward

There are clearly many things wrong in this country but so is it everywhere else. We're not alone with the changes in the world and we cannot fall back to local solutions for these problems. But likewise can we not pretend that problems don't exist. This behavior of ruling parties has helped the rise of the populists. It does not help to pretend that immigration without integration does not contribute to problems in society. We need a more honest approach with more talking to each other.

Just a few days ago we got a new chancellor and he has indicated that he wants to end the course of confrontation his predecessors had. This has been supported by all other parties other than the right wing FPOe. I hope they reconsider and also want to constructively work together with the rest of the government to lead the country forward and to restore a positive way of thinking rather than the fear that has been going around for the last years.

This however is not something that is a problem that needs to be solved in government. This is a problem that we as people in that country have and we need to talk to each other more. If we talk more to each other I hope it becomes clear that we share many core values, we just don't always agree on all of them.

And to my friends in Austria: please vote. But more than that: please accept that if the outcome is not what you wanted, that it does not mean the end of the country as you know it.

This entry was tagged austria, europe, politics and thoughts