It is a rainy Friday night, and Ulises is sitting with his girlfriend Laura at a winebar at the Naschmarkt in Vienna. Ulisesis from Madrid and Laura from Vienna, where both of them live and work. It is their first time out together in a long time, and they are sipping a fresh and aromatic Grüner Veltliner wine from Leithaberg, a premium wine-growing region in Lower Austria. This quintessential Austrian white wine is labeled according to the DAC (Districtus Austriae Con-trollatus) – a Protected Designation of Origin, like the French appellation d’origine contrôlée– ensuring the unique characteristics of a specific environment, and suggests a higher quality wine.
It’s not an issue to the young couple – nor perhaps too many of the uninitiated – but it makes a big difference for winemakers across Austria’s premium winemaking regions. Before the 1990s, only the locals and the wine connoisseurs knew about Grüner Veltliner. But that was before the famed London Tast-ing in 2002 when Austria’s top Veltliners beat the French whites in blind competition.
Today, the DAC label helps sales of the wine with lower tax rates across the EU. “If we prioritize quality and the heritage of wines (as we do with the DAC), we can reach the top wine menus in other countries,” Willi Klinger, managing director of Austrian Wine, told the Austrian daily Kleine Zeitung. The numbers speak for themselves – since 2002, Austrian wine exports more than doubled by value from €60 million to €159 million in 2017, while at the same time almost halving in volume (from 70 to 48 million liters).
SHARING A MARKET
This happy state of affairs is in large part due to the Common Market Organization, whose function, among others, is to ensure fair competition rules for agricultural producers. An EU-protected PDO label protects the wine from imitation by foreign producers and lends prestige to the true Grüner Veltliner.
Oblivious to all that, Laura and Ulises sip their wine, deep in conversation about the upcoming 2019 elections to the European Parliament (EP). For them, politics is very personal, and with Ulises living outside his native country, reflects the situation of many couples in Europe. The largest transnational elections in the world, the EU parliamentary election will allow Ulises to vote for a candidate in his adopted home country of Austria. For him and many of his compatriots, it is just like voting in the national elections in Spain (if you are an EU citizen living in Austria, check our explainer on page 71 to see how you can vote here).
That he can do so represents an enormous achievement, the result of years of political struggle to set up a transnational governing body, the European Parliament.
WHY IT MATTERS
The EU is complicated – with 27 member states and required unanimity on foreign policy issues – decision-making can take a long time. From condemnations of human rights abuses, adopting certain international trade agreements, and the very much-discussed extension of Article 50 authorizing Brexit, a common voice can be hard to achieve. But while one can all too easily be-come lost in the process, it is important to remember why these elections matter.
In fact, the answer is simple: Laws passed in the EP affect every European citizen, even every EU resident, both directly and indirectly. European lawmakers discuss and pass laws regarding digital media, green energy policy, car emissions, agricultural subsidies, investment in culture and education, smoking laws, bankers’ bonuses and many other hot-button issues.
Recent regional election results across Eu-rope, however, suggest a rising incidence of EU-skepticism and anti-establishment sentiment across European nations. The surging popularity of the Lega Nord in Italy, far-right Rassemblement National in France and Alternative für Deutschland in Germany shows that the upcoming 2019 EU vote will be a defining moment for a continent that for much of the 20th century was marred in conflict and war.
The influx of refugees in 2015/2016, in particular, highlighted the ideological bat-tlegrounds emerging across the continent, culminating in Britain voting to leave the EU. Far-right populist movements and parties gaining ground in Hungary, Poland and Austria also express apparent disdain for EU policies and fundamental values. While these groups have not explicitly said they wish to leave the EU, their attitudes endanger the solidarity that has bound Europe to-gether over the past half century.
What’s on offer for Europe’s voters? The two biggest political families of the continent – the Conservatives (ÖVP in Austria, EPP in Europe), the Social Democrats (SPÖ in Austria, S&E in Europe) – want primarily to preserve what has been achieved and refine the EU where needed. Smaller, well-established groups such as the Liberals (Neos in Austria, ALDE in Europe) and the Greens aim to reform the Union, in the case of the former to make it more competitive, in the case of the latter to transform the current liberal growth model to a green transition. There is also a wide range of opinions among the national parties as to who – the member states or the EU – should take the lead.
Then you’ve got the insurgents – from the right (FPÖ in Austria, ECR and ENF in Europe) and left (various smaller parties) – both strongly Eurosceptic. Except that, since the Brexit vote, the tone has changed: Now they shout about EU reform (Italy’s right-wing Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini spoke of “taking over Europe”). Leaving no longer looks like much fun.
And finally, there are young challengers launching new transnational movements like the leftist Diem25 that seeks to unite Europe’s leftist parties under one banner, and Volt, a pan-European party of young people who aim to build the first truly transnational party and run with a common political manifesto across Europe.
“It’s not right when traditional companies have a higher tax burden than big international players.” Lukas Mandl, MEP for the ÖVP
GROWING TOGETHER OR APART?
With all the commonalities, Europe remains very diverse, each country with an individual history, culture, people and, in most cases, language. While the EU recognizes 23 official languages, there are more than 60 indigenous regional and minority languages spoken among its citizens, as well as many others spoken by migrants across the continent. It is therefore not surprising that the regional differences shape European policymaking. Giuseppe Porcaro, researcher and head of communication at the Brussels-based Bruegel think tank, is worried that the cultural divisions will lead to continuing conflict. “Regional discrepancies abound: Northern vs. Southern Europe, East vs. West. But what worries me, in particular, is the rift between cities and rural areas.”
The Gilets Jaunes movement in France is a result of this geopolitical and economic gap, Porcaro says. “In Europe, many rural regions have been cut off from high-speed trains, for instance. Postal services have been closed in small towns, and there is a massive depopula-tion of rural areas in places like France and Italy.” This causes frustration among many in the countryside, who feel disregarded by the decisions taken in the urban centers.
The 2017 Austrian general election is a case in point. While the majority of voters in urban areas like Vienna and Graz voted for the SPÖ, ÖVP or the liberal Neos, voters in the rural areas voted in strong numbers for the far- right FPÖ.
The European Regional Development Fund is one EU-funded project whose objective is to invest in infrastructure, services and development projects in underdeveloped regions across the EU. While plans and funds like these are essential, Porcaro also believes “the EU must invest in regional technology projects and promote networks of regional territories.”
The European Network for Rural Development (ENRD) is one such project, promoting development and networking programs for rural regions across Europe. In the Austrian Weinviertel, one program promotes awareness of the local fauna and flora as a le-ver for tourism, and another exchanges best practice ideas for the integration of immigrants and refugees in rural areas.
Programs such as ENRD have broad sup-port among liberal and conservative politicians in the EU. Andreas Schieder, the SPÖ nominee for the EU Parliament, wants “more social equality to mitigate the negative effects of regional divides.” One of the founding ideas of the EU, he reminds us, was “to ensure stability and peace in a divided Europe” – programs like the European Social Fund (ESF), which received another €360 billion across Europe in 2018, including €50 million for youth employment in Spain.
Thomas Waitz, MEP and candidate for the Austrian Greens, sees subsidies for farmers as crucial, but not enough. “If we want to reduce the rift between cities and rural areas, we need to provide infrastructure, doctors, education, cultural offerings and, most importantly, work places, so people will want to stay in rural regions.”
SEND THE TAXMAN
As in any country, the tax system can reshuffle things quite a bit. While the EU does not directly raise or set taxes in its member states, it oversees national tax policies to ensure they promote economic growth, job creation, a free flow of goods, services and capital around the single market, while making sure taxes are not discriminatory.
Having a fair tax policy is essential, Schieder says. “We have seen big discussions lately about the idea of a digital tax on big tech companies, such as Amazon and Google, [for operations] within the EU,” Schieder tells me. “I am absolutely in favor of this kind of tax.” But he also wants to make sure big tech companies pay their share of local taxes in all markets: “Their European HQ might be in Dublin, Amsterdam or elsewhere, but they operate in every country. So why shouldn’t they pay a fair share of taxes here in Austria?”
Waitz also holds that “the principle that companies should pay taxes based on the revenues in European member states is the only right strategy to make multina-tionals contribute to the tax system in the individual nations.”
Lukas Mandl, MEP for the conservative ÖVP, also wants fairer taxation for the digital giants. “It is not right when traditional companies have a higher tax burden than big international players.”
“Being for a common Europe is not enough –you actually have to live Europe when making politics.” Cyrus Rostami, president of Volt Austria
YEARNING & LEARNING
Another thorny issue across the EU – and one that will play a significant role in the run-up to the elections – is migration. member states differ significantly on whether and how to accept and integrate refugees and migrant workers. “When it comes to legal labor migration, the current system is a bit chaotic and needs to be reformed,” says Teresa Reiter, candidate on the European list of the Neos. A recent study, for example, reported a shortage of 10,000 IT professionals in Austria alone. “We need to attract skilled professionals for which there is a need.” For this to work more efficiently, Reiters calls for “a common, transparent and bureaucratic system across the EU” that identifies needs and makes it easier for professionals to migrate to meet it.
Some politicians, like Rudi Anschober from the Upper Austrian Green Party, argue that asylum seekers – currently prohibited from working – should be integrated into the labor force or provided specialized training to mitigate the Fachkräftemangel, the skilled labor gap. Parts of Austria are doing this already, with refugees given hospitality training to work in local hotels and restaurants.
With labor migration more commonly tackled by national governments, policies on whether to help refugees arriving via the Mediterranean and the Balkans are contentious. Reiter considers it essential to recog-nize that geographical circumstances vary. “Countries like Italy and Hungary have external borders of the European Union, and this is reflected in their political attitudes.” They also feel strongly that member states should not benefit from EU funds and programs, if they do not shoulder their share in resettling refugees.
There are roughly 375 million citizens across 27 EU member states – an unprecedented number – entitled to vote in the European Union elections in May of this year. Although not the Brits: Due to Brexit, UK citizens will not be able to vote this time around – unless they reside in another EU country and register in time.
Still, the often impenetrable bureaucracy behind EU governing bodies makes it difficult to understand why voting matters.
Here is a brief overview. Three bodies govern the EU. Exactly 28 commissioners, one from each EU member state, make up the European Commission (EC). This executive arm represents the EU outwards, sets the general policy priorities and drafts new laws that are then sent to the European Parliament (EP). The EP is directly elected every five years by the EU citizens and consists of 751 MEPs, Members of the European Parliament (to be reduced to 705 following Brexit).
Each country sends a certain number of MEPs, following the principle of degressive proportionality. So, while France, for instance, will have 79 MEPs in the European Parliament, Austrians will have 19 MEPs representing their country.
MEPs are grouped by political affiliation, not by citizenship. They belong to European political parties.
The EP’s primary responsibilities include passing the laws drafted by the EC, establishing and approving the EU budget, which currently consists of a €150 billion ($170 billion) annual spending plan. To coordinate and enforce the laws passed by the EP, the Council of the European Union – made up of the ministers of all member states – meets during “EU Summits” to discuss new legislation and coordinate its implementation on a national level.
“Countries like Italy and Hungary have external borders of the EU, and this is reflected in their political attitude.” Teresa Reiter, candidate on the European electoral list of the NEOS
Amid these challenges, young reformers are trying to shake up Europe and its institutions. One group is Volt with their avowedly pro-European approach that brings a fresh spirit to an embattled electoral field. Cyrus Rostami and Katharina Zangerl, both in their 20s, are part of the steering committee of Volt Austria. Founded by an Italian, a French and a German, Volt is based in Luxembourg but has registered national chapters in many countries. With a unified program they call the “Declaration of Amsterdam,” in a hint to the Europe Declaration of 1951 that established the Coal and Steel Community, Volt aims to empower democracy across Europe, and simplify the processes behind its institutions.
“Many Europeans in our generation have really experienced the benefits of the EU,” says Zangerl, listing the Erasmus international study program and the Schengen area of unrestricted movement. “What we want is to improve the Europe we now have… After all, Europe is a great project.”
The Austrian NEOS and the SPÖ candidate Schieder declare themselves as outright pro-EU, so what makes Volt different? With a big smile on his face, Rostami is happy to answer: “Being for a common Europe is not enough – you actually have tolive Europe when making politics. What we offer is unique and new – a pan-European party present in all EU countries, with the same logo, the same jointly created pro-gram and the same goal to bring Europe closer to its citizens.”
But Volt is also a symptom of 21st century politicking, with events organized on social media, and published in at least five Euro-pean languages. Essentially, Volt is a grassroots movement, and against the backdrop of anti-EU populism, Volt could play a significant role in shaping a new wave of Euro-pean reform, whether by getting votes or by infusing fresh ideas into the public debate.
DiEM25 is similar in its transnational as-pirations, but decidedly on the left side of the political spectrum. Launched in 2016 by for-mer Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis together with Croatian philosopher Srećko Horvat, it aims to offer a progressive alternative to far-right tendencies. Also pan-European in spirit, DiEM25 has registered parties in several countries, but with different names and without one unifying party structure – in Austria, the progressive party Der Wandel signed up for the alliance.Headed by economist Daniela Platsch, the party is working for a stronger Europe, with the aim of updating the European model of capitalism for the 21st century.
“Der Wandel promises progressives a chance to develop a more democratic supranational structure,” says Platsch, while working for more transparency among EU bodies. In other words, more enlightened democracy, with improved citizen representation and more direct forms of democratic election processes.
Right-wing movements have also emerged. Late last year, Steve Bannon, the former White House chief strategist to Donald Trump, joined the pan-European far-right organization The Movement. Based in Brussels, it offers consulting for anti establishment political parties across Europe on polling, communication and “war-room” strategies. Given the recent history of fake news in social media, it will be important to watch for any influence on the outcome of the upcoming EU elections – new laws and regulations that stipulate that political ads on Facebook have to show the origin of the advertiser are a step to make this more transparent.
Bannon’s organization is not alone on the alt-right. The Identitarian Movement, often labeled a fringe far-right and white nationalist organization, has become more active across Europe. Martin Sellner, the Austrian spokesperson, gained notoriety through his radical anti-Semitic and xeno-phobic views. Appearances on the Austrian Servus TV and demonstrations across Europe have garnered a lot of media attention.
A CRITICAL ELECTION
This year’s EU elections will be shaped by an array of contentious issues, ranging from EU reform and migration to data security and foreign policy. More populist movements will field candidates, and with that comes a significant challenge to European institutions.
But the EU also has manifold opportunities to become stronger. The political crisis in Venezuela provoked an almost unanimous decision to recognize Juan Guaido as interim president of the troubled country, calling for new elections. Until recently, coming to a common foreign policy decision would have been unthinkable. The refugee crisis, too, has been decisive, with the potential to tear Europe apart or, as seems increasingly the case, draw it ever more strongly together.
Ultimately, it is the European voters who will decide.