European Elections Ahead
When an entire continent goes to the polls, we should pay attention to what people have to say. From May 23-26, a new European Parliament will be elected for the next five years. Roughly 400 million EU citi- zens across 27 EU member states (after the planned with- drawal of the United Kingdom) are eligible to vote.
LOW TURNOUT, HIGH STAKES
Often ignored by many journal- ists, pundits and voters, the European Parliament actually decides many important issues with continental and global im- pact – from new data regulations that even Silicon Valley giants fear and respect (the GDPR) to emission standards for cars (that the German auto industry dreads) or the allocation of de- velopment funds across Europe.
Nevertheless, turnout for the European Parliament elections has traditionally been relatively low, with only 43% of eligible voters bothering to go and vote in the 2014 elections. Low by European standards, that is, where national elections still often bring 70-90% of voters to the polls, while a voter turnout of 49.3% in the 2018 US midterm elections was hailed as the best in a century across the Atlantic.
This time, however, the elec- tion has the potential to shake things up more than before. Convulsions like the 2015 refugee crisis, the Brexit vote and the election of US President Donald Trump in 2016 as well as the populist upheaval in the last couple of years have so far left the European Parliament relatively unscathed, due to its fixed terms. But traditional par- ties (conservatives and Social Democrats) are under increasing pressure from resurgent Greens and liberal in many European countries and many new transnational and pan- European movements like Volt and Diem25 aim to shake up and re-invent the Union entirely.
The big question may well be whether the great challenges of our age have finally reached that hitherto most solitary of all elections – the one for the European Parliament.
DRILL, BABY, DRILL!
Do you enjoy Vienna’s U-Bahnen? Well, count yourself lucky, the Wiener Linien are building more! First announced two years ago, initial work for the new U-Bahn line U5 and the revamped U2 have started already and are going to affect more stations in 2019.
With a total investment of €2 billion, the planned construction of the all-new U5 along with the rerouting and extension of the existing U2 is the most ambitious infrastructure program of the Wiener Linien in this and the coming decade. Construction already started at Pilgramgasse station and south of Matzleinsdorfer Platz, with the three- station stretch between Karlsplatz and Längenfeldgasse scheduled to close for two months from July 2019.
The U2 will be extended southward, prospectively reaching Matzleinsdorfer Platz in 2027 and Wienerberg in 2028. The newly built and fully automated U5 will inherit the former U2 stretch from Karlsplatz to Rathaus and is planned to extend to the AKH by 2026 and Elterlein- platz in northwest Vienna by 2028.
A SHORT TRIP TO D.C.
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz (ÖVP) is a popular man these days – at least in certain corners. In February, Kurz traveled to the United States for something the US ambassador in Vienna, Trevor Traina, described as a meeting “just short of a state visit.”
On Kurz’s schedule: A 20-to-40 minutes tête-à-tête with US President Donald Trump – whose foreign policy the Austrian chancellor had praised as “in parts very successful,“ to howls of indignance by the opposition at home – and meetings with Secretary of StateMike Pompeo, National Security Adviser John Bolton as well as Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner.
The Austrian government reiterated that it is planning significant tax cuts – just not right now.
With an announced total volume of €4.5 billion, the government’s tax reform is indeed ambitious, but details remain vague. The talk is of lowered social contributions in 2020, a lowered payroll tax in 2021 and lower income taxes in 2022 – if the economy continues on its projected path.
Good Food, Questionable Politics
Populist governments love to harness celebri- ties to demonstrate that they are in touch with the common man (or woman). Vera Russwurm, high-profile TV moderator, has been tipped by Social Affairs Minister Beate Hartinger-Klein (FPÖ) as a kind of government health guru and figure- head in an upcoming campaign for healthy eating habits. The seri- ous press fussed about the incompatibility of combining a news function with partisan politics. The boulevard press was more concerned whether poor Vera would lose her generous paycheck from ORF, the public broadcaster. But as long as she is eating right, whatever.
You don’t have to be vegan to recoil from the idea of rotting meat. A video shot by Polish news channel TVN24 and later aired on BBC showed horrific footage from a slaughterhouse in central Poland butchering ani- mals that were obviously sick. The journalist working under- cover reported being ordered to scrub up putrefying meat to make it look better before being sold for human consumption. Although its destination was uncertain, some 85% of Poland’s meat is exported, much of it to Europe, including the UK and Germany. The British gripe mightily about intrusive pet- ty-fogging EU regulations: Per- haps this is a case where a little more interference might just have been a good idea.
Faßmann Gets a Grip
Education reform is a mission impossible, a political quicksand that has sunk many able men and women. It is a toxic cocktail of ideology and national pride, structure and budget – spiced with the emotional involvement of parents and children. As if this were not enough, any changes bring instant howls of protest from partisan corners, while benefits take years to show up.
Not where an ambitious young politician wants to be. So perhaps the German-born academic and political newcomer Heinz Faßmann is the right person in the right place.
The ideological seesaw can be summarized as progressive soft and conservative strict. Recent left of center governments have eliminated numerical grading in the early years and allowed pupils to move on after primary school even with failing grades.
Faßmann’s approach has been a mix. “I am not into political revanchism,” the usually reticent minister felt forced to tell the Wiener Zeitung. He is re-intro- ducing grading scales and will make failed students repeat a year – but he will also soften the system’s centralistic grip by giving regions and individual schools more autonomy. This is a burning issue in the wake of 2015’s immigrant surge: The
need for remedial support and intensive German language tui- tion in schools with high migrant numbers (especially Vienna) is acute. That Sebastian Kurz as integration minister supported these programs, but as Kanzler has undercut them, is an absurdity the tenacious Faßmann is try- ing to correct. May the Minister of Mission Impossible keep his nerve and steer a steady course in the turbulent waters of educa- tional politics.
The Reds Aren’t Dead
“Is anyone out there?” asked the weekly Profil in December last year. The Austrian Social-Demo- crats (SPÖ) have the same problem as most Euro- pean center-left parties: The horny-handed sons of toil that they once represented are no longer there, a minority in the workforce, many now in the middle class. And for those who remain, an instinctive suspicion of unskilled immigrants chasing the same jobs has pushed them to switch loyalties to right-wing populists, the Freedom Party (FPÖ).
From a high of over 50% in the late ’70s, the SPÖ has sunk to about 27%. It no longer leads the government and has yet to find its proper role as the opposition. The sporadically even-handed Austrian press has offered the party’s new leader, Pamela Rendi-Wagner, plenty of platform space, but she is having a hard time finding topics that leave a scratch on the conservative (ÖVP) Wunderwuzzi Kanzler Sebastian Kurz’s huge 38% popularity rating.
Rendi-Wagner has heavily criticized the govern- ment’s plans for consolidating the health insurance system and speaks out boldly as a red Cassandra prophesying doom as the number of general prac- titioners continues to shrink. Good stuff you would think, but the present minister shot back that as health minister in the previous government it was her own fault in the first place. Not many points gained there.
The easy target for an opposition’s war of attrition should be the Interior Minister Herbert Kickl, uncompromisingly hard right and easily the most unpopular member of the government. Unfortunately for the SPÖ, despite his personal unpopularity Kickl is also chief enforcer for the immigration reduction program, a key trigger for working class defection from the SPÖ and ÖVP’s big win in the last election.
CITY TO CHANCELLOR: DROP DEAD
Luckily, opposition leader Rendi-Wagner has a powerful ally in Vienna’s new mayor, Michael Ludwig. In little Austria’s dual national and state government system, the city-state Wien looms large in the political arena and Ludwig is successor to long-term Mayor Michael Häupl, legendary big beast in the party. Barely consolidated in pow- er after bitter party internal warfare, Ludwig made a bold political move: When the govern- ment announced swingeing cuts on social support payments for low earners Ludwig bluntly announced that Vienna would refuse to implement them.
Massive media reaction had constitutional lawyers reaching for their briefcases, but it energized the party faithful. At last the SPÖ had a cause that played to traditional social-democratic values: cold-hearted neoliberal bean-counters treating society’s most vulnerable as “human trash.” Alone it may not be enough to revive the SPÖ’s fortunes, but it’s a good start.
THURSDAY, BLOODY THURSDAY
Austrian tradition is not only leather shorts and funny felt hats with oompah bands, it is also jeans and ski masks demonstrating on the Vienna Ringstraße. “Thursday Demo“ – or as some newspapers may have it: “chaos in the city”– has become a routine announcement, an irritation for commuters and a nice, virtuous feeling for critics of the present coalition. What began back in 2000 as strident objection to the inclusion of the populist Freedom Party (FPÖ) in power has become a broad protest against the social policies of the current Kurz/Strache government.
Polls show a fairly even spread of support: Over 50% see the demos as a justifiable exercise of political rights, the rest an unjustifiable nuisance. This is surprising for a government that currently enjoys unusually high mainstream acceptance, but probably reflects Vienna’s special position as socialist bastion and city of students. Superficial eyeballing of the protesters suggests a broad spread from long-haired young communists to “Grannies against the Right” marching in sensible shoes. Our favorite placard: “Bin dagegen!” (I’m against everything!)