I’m Viennese and I can’t vote here

Our publisher and CEO has been living in Vienna for 24 years but she can’t vote in the city she calls home. Time to change that.

I love living in Vienna.

There are few things in my life I can say with such certainty. I grew up in Albany, New York and moved to Vienna, Austria with my family in 1996. I attended middle and high school here – arguably the most formative years of my adult life – I studied Philosophy of Economics at the University of Vienna. I’ve also lived in Bratislava, Slovakia, New York City and Paris, France for long stretches. But life always drew me back to Vienna.

As many students do, I became more politically active in high school and during my studies. Not only because I had come of age to vote in the United States but, as most people remember, anti-Americanism was rampant between 2000 and 2008 – George W. Bush seemed to embody everything that’s wrong with American foreign policy. At the same time, in Austria, a movement called the #donnerstagsdemos was founded, protesting the Blue-Black conservative government voted into power in 2000. Unsurprisingly, the Thursday protests became a catch-all for the world-wide political upheaval – Vienna being such an important location for international negotiation.

I remember the protests fondly. Peaceful chants and police handing out coffee to protesters. I was proud to be part of such a (for the most part) constructive movement. I experienced an even prouder moment in the months leading up to the U.S. elections in 2008. “Yes we can!” echoed from every televised podium and social media feed. On election night, I was decked out in red, white and blue, wrapped in an American flag, chanting the famous slogan through the streets of Vienna and at three different election parties. Change was in the air.

When the results were in and the 44th president of the United States was announced I was euphoric. I wore my “Gobama” button for weeks after election day. Austrians congratulated me in the U-Bahn. The U.S. victory was inspirational and echoed around the world – If they can, maybe we can too. Not only is Barak Obama an inspirational orator, but that election was also the moment I felt the power of democracy. I felt personally responsible for the outcome. Together, we could. And we did!

The power of plurality

After working as a journalist for print, wire, TV and online media in both English and German, I can confidently say I swam with the sharks, have gotten enough of hate mail and ruthless comments to last me multiple lifetimes. But as a wise journalist and publisher once said, as journalists, it is our duty to “print the news and raise hell.” But to what end?

After covering the negotiations that resulted in the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) for the AP from 2013-2015, I was in awe of the power of diplomacy. With all the necessary back-door discussions (for which Vienna is a historically-proven prime venue) and public attention, we too (the press corps) were a big part of what made history.

I was proud to be a journalist. I was proud to be American. I was proud to be Viennese.

In 2014, I also wrote about tech and startups for the Austrian daily, Die Presse. Coming from a country of undying optimism and inherent respect for courage in adversity, I was fascinated by how the topic of entrepreneurship created such a culture clash with the (perceived) Austrian mindset. But what was everyone afraid of? In Austria, if your venture fails, what can really happen to you? Failed founders would receive unemployment (or at least social benefits (Notstandshilfe) and time to start something new.

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During my beat with the Viennese startup scene, I couldn’t get around the organization AustrianStartups. It’s a non-profit think tank with the aim of bettering the situation of entrepreneurs in Austria, enabling large scale global scalability by encouraging policymakers to incentivize venture capital investments in Austrian companies. The community they served was hungry, international, smart, enthusiastic and bold. For the first time, I was not the “crazy American” who thought positive change was possible. I was one of many people from Austria and all around the world who had chosen Vienna as the place they wanted to launch their project and change the world.

If there’s one thing I’ve seen Austria and Austrians do well, again and again, it’s taking an existing idea, product or service and making (or simply marketing) it better. Just look at the city’s infrastructure, from public transportation and parks to handicapped accessibility, we top the global rankings. Dietrich Mateschitz did it with an energy drink, Doppelmayr did it with ropeways and Frequentis with air traffic control. We use the scientific method, we experiment and we do so successfully because we look at best practices around the world and work with the best designers, engineers and scientists from around the world.

The key thing I’ve learned in my career so far is that Austria is a tiny country in which groundbreaking ideas can flourish. When great things happen, more often than not, it’s because people from somewhere else work together with Austrians.

Why not eat it too?

Fast forward to 2020. I’ve been a resident in Vienna for nearly 24 years and the city has been the focal point of most of my professional life. Could I get Austrian citizenship? Probably. However, under Austrian law, I would have to give up my American passport.

As an American and permanent resident of Vienna, (like any non-EU citizen) I cannot vote at all – not on an EU, federal, state, municipal or district level. The current law forces people like me to choose: Do I want to be American or Austrian?

When I’m in the United States, I’m the “European.” In Vienna, I’m the American. Can’t I be both?

Gertrude Stein felt the same way about her chosen home of Paris: “America is my country and Paris is my hometown,” she famous said. She was a novelist, poet, playwright, and art collector. She spoke out strongly on immigration policy saying, “We need the stimulation of new blood. It is best to favor healthy competition.”

A recent study published in Der Standard has shown that a full 30% of Viennese over the age of 16 are unable to vote – about half a million people. For the age group 26-42, it’s 40%. Of those, 80% have been here longer than 5 years (the minimum residency required to apply for citizenship); 53% have been here longer than 10 years. This has all changed very fast: As recently as 2002, only 16% of Vienna’s population was unable to vote. Today, at 30%, it’s doubled. 

The driving force behind this was not the refugee crisis of 2015; it began far earlier with the seven-country expansion of the EU in 2004 – the Osterweiterung – and again in 2007, with the addition of Bulgaria and Romania. Since then, the population of Vienna alone has grown by some 330,000, with 2/3 of this before the wave of asylum seekers. 

The reality of this has everything to do with the health of our democracy: As of early 2020, 45% of the Viennese population had a “migration background” (Migrationshintergrund), which is defined as someone with one or both parents having been born abroad. This is nearly half of the city’s population. 36% of the city’s population were themselves born abroad. And the key statistic: 31% of Viennese are foreign citizens, which – in almost all cases – means they cannot vote (this includes me). Dual citizenship is, with rare exceptions, possible only for the children of mixed nationality families and those with honorary citizenship. Not surprisingly, the naturalization rate is very low: only 0.8% of foreign residents obtain Austrian citizenship annually.

The result, which bears repeating: 30% of the Viennese are unable to vote.

I’m curious, what does Austria have to lose by turning taxpayers into dual citizens? In a country of 8 million, the taxes paid by 1.5 million non-Austrians would be dearly missed. So why not make it easier for us to participate in the democratic process? Integration starts in the mind, so why not invite foreign residents to think about their world like Austrians – or, better, as Austrians?

At my company Home Town Media (publisher of Metropole, Austria’s leading English-language media outlet) we employ Austrians, EU citizens and so-called third-country nationals (Drittstaatsangehörige). our freelancers are mostly non-Austrian and aim to give our readers the voice they are denied by the current circumstances.

As one of the taxpaying and job-creating members of Viennese society, I yearn to participate in elections, be they federal, municipal or on a district level. I wish I could to have signed the various petitions, like that about the smoking ban or the referendum on women’s issues. Both were topics that directly affect me as a smoking Vienna dweller and a woman.

I want to feel the thrill I felt back in 2008. The feeling of purpose, agency, representation. I want my opinion to count.

Should we change this dual-citizenship law? On October 11, 2020, 69% of Viennese over 16 will be invited to vote on what affects 100% of us. Starting on September 1, 2020, descendants of Austrian victims of the Nazi regime will be able to obtain Austrian citizenship. While the reasons for this amendment to the law are historical, it calls into question the political and legal basis for the dual-citizenship ban that’s currently in place.

I’d love to hear what you think about this situation. Should it change? Am I out of line? Am I preaching to the silent choir?

Thanks and, as we say at Metropole, #dontbeastranger

This article was originally published on LinkedIn.

It is the kick-off for coverage focusing on voting rights in the coming weeks leading up to the Vienna municipal election 2020 on October 11.

Maggie Childs
Margaret (Maggie) Childs is the CEO and Publisher of METROPOLE. Originally from New York, Vienna has been her home since high school. She is known for non-stop enthusiasm, talking too fast, inhaling coffee and being a board member of AustrianStartups, where she helps entrepreneurs internationalize. Follow her on Instagram @maggie_childs and twitter @mtmchilds.

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