A quick-and-dirty synopsis of recent headlines in Vienna.

Team Austria Gears up for the Winter Olympics

The 23rd Winter Olympic Games will take place this year from February 9 to 25, in PyeongChang, South Korea. About 3,000 athletes from 95 nations will compete in more than 100 disciplines, with Austria sending more than 120 athletes.

The last three Winter Olympic Games were rewarding for the Austrian team. In Sochi 2014, they brought home a total of 17 medals (4 gold), in Vancouver 2010, a very respectable 16 medals (4 gold) and in Turin in 2006 an outstanding amount of 23 medals (9 gold).

With a total of 218 medals, 59 of which gold, the Alpine Republic stands proudly on the sixth place of the all-time medal table of the Olympic Winter Games, behind only Germany, Russia, Norway, the United States and Canada. The distance to the fifth place is only three gold medals, so Austria banks on its ski stars Marcel Hirscher and Anna Fenninger to close the gap.

Need to Know

Austria has won more medals in alpine skiing than any other nation. Also, don’t be surprised if all your Austrian friends will be glued to the television at ungodly times in February.

What Others Said

Schiiiiiiifoan!” – Wolfgang Ambros.

Austria’s New Administration Gets to Work

Austria has a new government. On December 18, the coalition between the People’s Party (ÖVP) and the Freedom Party (FPÖ) was sworn in. The new chancellor Sebastian Kurz (ÖVP) and his vice-chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache (FPÖ) presented an ambitious program: A big administrative reform is supposed to simplify the relationship between the federal government and its Bundesländer (states), making Austria’s system of subsidies more transparent and efficient.

Asylum seekers will be obliged to hand over cash and objects of value, controversially also including smartphones. The government also plans to step up deportations of rejected asylum seekers and replace money for refugees dwelling in Austria with non-cash benefits. Entitlements for the children of EU citizens working in Austria will henceforth be indexed to the respective home country’s income levels, a measure aimed predominantly at workers from Central and Eastern Europe.

On education, the coalition agreed to reintroduce numbered grading systems (1-5) as early as elementary school and plans to pass a reform requiring children to speak sufficient German before starting school. Other ideas floated are compulsory education until age 18 and a reintroduction of tuition fees for universities. Families in high income brackets will benefit from a new €1,500 tax credit per child starting in 2019 and access to welfare benefits will be made more restrictive, while pensions are scheduled to rise.

The government aims to introduce more direct democracy elements to the Austrian system. However, these plans require a two thirds (“absolute”) majority in parliament, which the coalition currently does not have. Finally, a full smoking ban in restaurants that was scheduled to go into effect this year was rescinded.

The plans and rhetoric of the government were met by considerable protests; on January 13, between 20,000 and 70,000 gathered in the streets to denounce the coalition’s right-wing course.

Need to Know

The priorities of Austria’s new center-right government are security, a tough line on immigration, overhauling the welfare system, restricting access to benefits, administrative reform and a slimmed-down state.

What Others Said

“I trust that the Austrian government will continue to play a constructive and pro-European role in the European Union.” – Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, in his congratulation letter to Sebastian Kurz.

My Privacy is None of Your Business

The Austrian lawyer, author and privacy activist Maximilian Schrems, known for his high-profile case Europe vs Facebook in 2011, has launched an NGO for data privacy called “Noyb – European Center for Digital Rights.”

Noyb, an acronym for “none of your business,” is a non-profit organization based in Vienna that aims to bring internet giants, digital businesses and social media platforms to heel when it comes to protecting personal privacy online.

Noyb’s goals include pressing strategic court cases on behalf of users and setting up media initiatives to further raise awareness on data privacy. The new EU regulation on General Data Protection is one of the linchpins for their work, as it theoretically grants ample protection to Europeans’ private data, but is often ignored or circumvented by multinational giants. Noyb aims to raise €250,000 by January 31 through crowdfunding, 85 per cent of which they collected at the time of  writing.

Need to Know

If you want to chip in to help protect your digital privacy, the newly founded Austrian NGO Noyb is happy to get support.

What Others Said

“We have solid privacy laws in Europe, but we need to collectively enforce them, to bring privacy to the living room of users. Noyb will work on making privacy a reality for everyone.” – Max Schrems, Noyb chairman.

Marriage Equality Comes to Austria (Probably)

On December 4, the Austrian Constitutional Court paved the way for marriage equality. It ruled that the existing situation granting marriage for partners of different sexes and Eingetragene Partnerschaften (registered partnership) for same sex couples is unlawful.

Registered partnerships, which were introduced in 2010, initially differed from marriage in crucial points: Same sex couples were barred from adopting children, could not make their partnership legal at a classic Standesamt (registrar’s office) and were treated differently on inheritance and taxes.

For years, the Constitutional Court chipped away at these differences in several cases – same sex couples can adopt children since 2016, for instance. Now the Court has ruled that there is no constitutional basis to keep the two forms of legal partnership separated.

Both marriage and registered partnerships must be open to same sex and different sex couples alike from January 1, 2019 unless the government significantly changes existing law. The ruling People’s Party (ÖVP) and Freedom Party (FPÖ) have spoken out against full marriage equality in the past, but it is not a hot-button topic – more than 62 percent of Austrians decisively support equality – so it is unlikely  the government will intervene and scupper the process.

Need to Know

Austria is set to become the 25th country in the world to make marriage equality the law of the land.

What Others Said

“The separation by law of different sex and same-sex relationships into two different legal institutions thus violates the prohibition of the principle of equality by discriminating against people on the basis of personal characteristics such as sexual orientation.” – the Austrian Constitutional Court in its December 4 ruling.

 

Startup Nation

In 2017, a record 30,000 new companies were established in Austria. That’s a rise of 1.9% compared to the year before, as the Austrian Chamber of Commerce (WKÖ) proudly announced. Around 70,000 new jobs were created by these fledgling enterprises; even set against companies going out of business, the balance looks promising: for every failing company, six new ones were started.

Single-person enterprises make up the bulk of newly founded companies at 76.3%, while classic limited liability companies make up 12.5%. One of the stated goals of the WKÖ for the future is to make private limited companies more attractive by lowering the required basic capital to €10,000. Encouragingly, more than 45% of all new companies in 2017 had female founders – an all-time high and an increase of 16 per cent over the last twenty years.

Need to Know

The main motives to start a business for new entrepreneurs are the wish for more flexibility in their daily life and the desire to be their own boss.

What Others Said

“The voices of our young people cannot be ignored.” – WKÖ President Christoph Leitl commenting on the number of startups.