Or does Kern’s new narrative play into the hands of the populists?

There have been no bombs in Austrian cities. There are no policemen in body armor patrolling the streets. Yet Trump-style talk of sealing borders is commonplace, and Austria’s “tough guy” Federal Minister for the Interior, Wolfgang Sobotka (left), bears a certain resemblance to Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian leader placing asylum seekers in containers. While gleeful populists benefit from voters’ fears, centrists are pressing on as best they can on issues such as asylum policy, easing austerity and holding the union together. How to go high when the right goes low?

Ja, we can!

The media savvy Chancellor Kern of the Austrian social democrats (SPÖ) has an answer: His 146 page “Plan A” declares “Everything for our Austria … in a concrete program of measures.”

Facing a tough general election as early as this autumn, against a far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) still ahead in the polls, “Plan A” is seen as a rightward shift by socialists scrambling to woo voters back both from the FPÖ and Sobotka’s conservative ÖVP, their coalition partners. The chaotic transit situation in fall 2015, when up to 15,700 refugees and economic migrants arrived a day, hit the centrist parties hard at the polls.

“Austria is still better off and safer than most other countries, but people are afraid of falling,” political analyst Christoph Hofinger told Reuters at the time. “And there is no narrative saying ‘This is where we are taking you’.” With “Plan A”, Kern’s social democrats deliver a narrative.

“For the first time in years, the SPÖ is finally doing something like politics,” notes Herbert Langthaler, head of Asylkoordination Österreich, the Austrian NGO representing the rights of child refugees. “Their plan could work. This discussion of refugees and limits is part of it.”

Kern’s attempt to pull everyone’s “head out of the sand” does include many of the far-right platform’s more innocuous planks, such as taxing multinationals at percent. Its website is millennial friendly: You can apply to be a “social media ambassador.” But the main photo of two elderly Austrians and a middle-aged woman reveals their real target audience: Passages regarding forced deportation and intensive integration speak to citizens’ fears.

“There are really only four cities in Austria. Many rural areas are dying out – the last pub and post office closings and so on,” explains the prominent constitutional and human rights lawyer, Georg Bürstmayr.

refugees fleeing
Pictures like this, apparently showing uncontrolled aggression at the border, invited the populist backlash. // © Rene Gomolj/AFP/Picturedesk

“People who had no contact with refugees got very afraid; Refugees were foreign, a threat. And then came Cologne, New Year’s Eve, 2015. It wasn’t nice, but it was blown out of proportion. It was a game changer because it supported the reframing of refugees as a threat. The mood changed to, ‘We’ve had more than enough. Not one more refugee’. ”

Bürstmayr is skeptical of “Plan A”. “It’s a rewriting of neoliberal programs, very much Tony Blair,” he says. “Everything’s moved to the right except the Green Party,” which helped elect President, Alexander Van der Bellen, a former party leader. “The Green’s positions had become mainstream. Now, without moving, they are again by far the most left.”

Someone needed to step up to the plate. Frustrated protest voters were triggering repeated failed coalitions. In the Netherlands, the far-right were projected to win the March general election on a “No more Moroccans!” platform. Still, Dutch liberalism prevailed, and the Greens tripled their MPs, led by Jesse Klaver, the Moroccan-­Dutch GreenLeft Party leader. “Don’t try to fake the populace,” noted a jubilant Klaver. “Stand for your principles. Be straight. Be pro-refugee. Be pro-European … You can stop populism.”

Nein, we won’t

Bürstmayr how little people understand the issues, using immigrant, refugee and asylum seeker interchangeably. Articles 17, 21 and 22 of the 1951 Geneva Convention clearly protect asylum seekers’ rights to wage-earning employment, decent housing and “the recognition of foreign school certificates, diplomas and degrees”  – a far cry from forced detention, container housing, barbed wire and labor market protectionism.

“Plan A’s” position is relatively mild, compared to the Hungarians, Czech or Polish. “Let us help those who have come to us for good reason, to join our society, always with regard for a number we can cope with. Let us say to those who do not adhere to our rules that they have no place in our society.”

“Contributing to society has never been a question when dealing with refugees,” counters Bürstmayr. “It’s an obligation under law to give these people protection.”

At a recent conference organized by the Vienna Institute for International Dialogue and Cooperation (VIDC), visiting Afghan experts described the security situation there, where the AFP (Agence France -­Presse) reported in January the “U.S.-backed forces suffered record casualties”: a true safe haven is not one reachable only by parachute. Langthaler was at the conference. “Arbitrarily limiting asylum applications can’t work; it’s against the Geneva Convention, against the European human rights convention, against everything.”

Besides, Austria has plenty of room. “Where do you see refugees sleeping outside?” he queried.  “We have lots of space that is empty now. Last year the number of refugees was half 2015, the same as 1991 and 1980. It’s nothing new.” At the time, Vienna coped fine. Despite a growing undercurrent of xenophobia, the difference between now and then is one of economics, not of the ethnicity or religion of the ones seeking refuge. “We had a booming economy from 1989 to 1992, and now we’ve been in a crisis for almost ten years.” In 2017, it’s about jobs.

No Panacea

“Plan A” addresses labor market anxiety with a clear “Austrians first” policy, and to fears of a loss of community by addressing the number of immigrants allowed in and the programs for dealing with them once they are allowed to stay.

Langthaler is himself from a deeply rooted rural community, with direct experience of resettling refugees in country villages, and is very positive about working class and rural integration. “A lot of people who are not well educated, not well-off, are open-minded too. Thousands of people in the Austrian countryside have helped refugees. They helped Van der Bellen win the presidency. There are political structures above party politics, supporting solidarity. They don’t want Hofer [the FPÖ challenger for president] or even Sobotka.”

Most important, perhaps, “Plan A” gives voters a reason to back Kern. “There are structural reasons for unemployment,” notes Langthaler (Austria’s hovers around 5 percent). “We could encourage employing Austrians or EU citizens with some incentives. It makes sense. But the refugees are here; they brought many skills. Some of them are well educated, so they could quickly pay taxes. For some, it will take longer. So integration from day one is a good thing. This plan includes many things neglected for years.”

“Plan A” is not a panacea – it can’t stop rejected refugees disappearing off the radar, staying in Austria or chancing their luck to reach Germany or Sweden. But as Bürstmayr concedes, the legal process for asylum seekers in Austria functions despite the pressure. “Some 80 percent of Chechnyan asylum seekers in 2002-03 were accepted. In the Czech Republic, their chances were zero. As long as these differences are so huge, we will see refugees desperately crossing borders. It’s smart – if I’m a refugee I will go where there is the best chance of being recognized. Second, I will go where my relatives already are; every EU country has its own asylum population.”

Austria, via agencies such as Frontex, is also getting better and ensuring people leave, albeit at great expense. Vienna is also a hub for other EU countries, providing a detention center at Schwechat airport, where detainees wait until a full plane is ready to be shipped back to wherever is deemed legal.

Needs do not equal demand

“Plan A” notes calmly that “only a good mood creates a good mood. And that is what we need: in life, in business, for prosperity and security.” Focusing voters on an all-encompassing and positive way forward, away from the existential fear that their orderly European way of life is under imminent threat, is an uphill battle. Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, and the first waves of Eastern European immigrants in the 1990s, the Right has profited from the politics of fear.

Logic says that Europe has both the space and the need for refugees and could benefit from foreign labor, as it did in the 90s. In this new climate, however, facts often matter little: The 2017 crime figures, which include undecided cases, reveal asylum seekers make up a tiny fraction.

“We had no practical asylum law until 1989, because it wasn’t necessary as long as Austria was half surrounded by the Iron Curtain – everyone who made it through was ‘good’ because he fled from the communists,” notes Bürstmayr. Since then, stories of Viennese-born Chechnyan teenagers joining ISIS have stoked voters’ fears. A Viennese-­produced documentary showed how Viennese-born Chechnyan kids become lost between their grandparents’ culture, local hostility and jus sanguinis laws. “We are growing our own foreigners”, says Esther Lurf, a Green Party education consultant. Activists admit their fears. Vienna, for many, has just been lucky so far.

The Afghani asylum seeker situation is different, but the outcome could be the same. “Young traumatized Afghani refugees, after years of harsh conditions, were welcomed with weeks on bare ground, in trains, then put together in Erdberg with 400 others – they are angry,” adds Langthaler. “And now they are blamed for everything! It’s a time bomb. We must get them proper help, and into decent educational structures, and not the terrible, constant threat of deportation. Even if you follow all the rules and learn German, you will not be safe.”

An explosion of media coverage has also been significant. “If viewers see thousands of people walking across bridges hourly, daily, clearly they’re going to get anxious,” Langthaler acknowledged.

Willkommenskultur

In 2015, in the midst of the chaos, an NGO sprang up at Vienna’s central Station to handle the daily flow of dazed, sick and lost refugees left with no official support, food or shelter.

Train of Hope
In 2015, Austrians with the Train of Hope and other organisations impressed the world at large by demonstrating grassroots organizational skills, providing aid, support and structure. // © Joshua Zackary

At the time, Christian Kern was head of the Austrian Federal Railways and received credit for accommodating the Train of Hope’s frontline encampment, whose volunteers handled up to 6,000 refugees a day. Willkommenskultur was a positive, civil society movement of thousands of Austrians who offered blankets and welcoming arms to a sea of refugees, even driving them (illegally) hundreds of miles to the German border. It was a form of protest, but also a way of simply doing something other than watching children drown in the Aegean. As a result, Vienna, where refugee contact was at its highest, has remained positive toward asylum seekers.

“Without this movement, the system would have broken down,” Bürstmayr said. “The asylum systems in Germany, Austria and Sweden are still under huge stress. But the government hardly thanked us.” And there has been a backlash. “I worked at the Train of Hope as a paralegal. You arrived with a romantic feeling and after fifteen minutes, you became bloody pragmatic. There’s a lot of work to do, so do it. What we overlooked were the frightened people who only read about it in the newspapers. They thought their world was breaking down.”

“Plan A” is the government doing something, even if the legality of it, like Trump’s travel bans, is under question. Bürstmayr gives first comments on drafts of new asylum laws; the official book is now a loose-leaf binder, the pages easily replaceable. “Within three years, this will have changed completely. [Asylum law] is in a state of permanent development, specialists can’t keep up. Branch offices just follow their own traditions. Even our Minister for the Interior communicates changes that aren’t in the law. This is bad. With human rights, constitutional rights, we should follow the law precisely, but we can’t. No one understands it any longer.”

Doing nothing leaves everyone, locals and refugees, in a state of permanent, fearful limbo. “We must and can work faster,” exhorts Langthaler. A young asylum seeker he knows attempted suicide when he was declared stateless and separated from his family in Gmunden. “If we don’t change this small-minded approach, our children will pay for it. The young people I speak with are used to diversity. We have to fight for it, do our work. Integrating 100 to150,000 people is not a problem for a country as rich and well organized as Austria.”

The millennials who are protesting Afghani deportations at Vienna International Airport bear him out. As, hopefully, will Christian Kern’s “Plan A”. “It doesn’t make sense to get all worked up,” shrugs Langthaler. “ As we say in Austria, ‘Nothing is ever eaten as hot as it is cooked’. ”