Erhard Busek – Lessons from Europe

March 25 marks the anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, as well as the birthday of the former Vice-Chancellor – an occasion to reflect on the European ideal.

A lot has happened since the Treaty of Rome, Dr. Erhard Busek tells me; Europe has come a long way. “It is partly a success story,” he says with conviction. On this anniversary, March 25th, the former Vice Chancellor and head of the center-right Austrian People’s Party (1991-1995) is also celebrating – his 80th birthday – sharing the day with one of the most important treaties in European history.

This seminal Treaty established the European Economic Community (EEC), an important step in the eventual creation of the current EU. And even though public opinion on the European project remains mixed, “it actually has happened,” Busek maintains, “and with all the difficulties, it is moving forward.” 

Over a long career in Austrian and European politics, Busek demonstrated time and again his devotion to European cooperation. Back in 1995 as vice-chancellor alongside Chancellor Franz Vranitzky, he led Austria into the EU; that same year, he took the chairmanship of the Institute for the Danube Region and Central Europe (IDM), a think tank that contributes to a better understanding of political, cultural, and economic forces in the area, which he still heads.     

In the 64 years since the Treaty of Rome came into force, the European community has expanded considerably, and with the fall of the Iron Curtain and 1992 treaty of Maastricht, the EEC evolved into the EU. A major factor in the ever-closer union actually came from the UK, as Dr. Busek explains: “The decisive point in the founding of the EU was the decision of the British,” who withdrew from the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) to join the EEC in 1973. It is therefore somewhat ironic that they are the ones who decided to leave. But “we are learning from this,” Busek confessed. Drawing lessons from history is his key to avoiding future mistakes.

Growing the Family

Emma Hontebeyrie interviewing Dr. Erhard Busek.

Among Busek’s many accomplishments was his impact on research and education across Europe. As Austrian Minister of Science and Research, and later Minister of Education, Busek encouraged the exchange of young academics “from West to East” – in sharp contrast to today’s “brain drain,” where many of Central Europe’s best leave their economically-deprived homelands for a better life in the West. 

For Busek, this meeting of the minds has always been key to the European endeavor. “A treaty makes no change; it is a matter of education,” he insisted. Research and balanced cooperation is necessary for bringing Europeans together, with the help of programs like Erasmus, as well as think tanks like his own IDM.

As to further EU enlargement, Busek doesn’t mince words: “I think it is absolutely necessary, but I am not sure that the current strategy is the right one.” A staunch supporter of extending the EU despite the pandemic putting plans on hold, Busek remains deeply opposed to recent EU policies. “We are sitting here, waiting for candidate countries in Southeast Europe to fulfill [membership] conditions. I think that’s complete nonsense – and I am quite sure that a lot of older member states of the European Union have not yet fulfilled all conditions.” Exclusivity is clearly not the answer here, and perhaps a new strategy is in order. 

A Common Language

Despite his optimism, however, Busek is under no illusions:  There is still a long way to go: “We are missing a lot of things. […]The European Union is not Europe,” he points out. “The mistake we are now making is to exclude some parts.” Equating the EU with the Europe means leaving out a quarter of the continent – and a rather important part, as Eastern and Southeastern Europe border on world powers and vital regions. 

Instead Busek raises the notion of “a soul of Europe,” in the sense of shared values and identity. 

“A common market alone does not make Europe,” and we cannot just focus on economic and materialistic matters: “They are necessary, but certainly not enough.” For Busek, Europe should be more than the sum of its GDPs, and he appeals to philosophy, arts, and literature to shape a common European identity. “We have this expression of Heimat – ‘homeland’ in English, but it is not exactly the same,” he explained, “ it’s to feel at home, to have a connection.”

This unified vision, he says, will be something for younger Europeans to define. Global warming, migration and the pandemic crisis are challenges that must be met collectively. Finding commonalities, the things that unite rather than divide, “is the only possibility for living together in Europe,” Busek adds with hope, indeed “for living together worldwide.” 

Still, it is far too early to discount this European just yet. While Europe itself is both a success story and a work in progress, it has changed dramatically since the 1957 Treaty of Rome, and Busek is determined to keep learning from the past to preserve the future. 

“As long as I am alive, [I will tell] the next generation what they have to do differently. I think this is the real question.”

Emma Hontebeyrie
Born and raised in France, Emma graduated with a degree in Cultural and Humanistic studies. Since summer 2020, she has been living in Vienna where she is currently an editorial intern at Metropole. She is also working on podcast production for the Institute for the Danube Region and Central Europe (Vienna) and Radio Libellules (Bordeaux).

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