“To be or not to be” muses Shakespeare’s Hamlet as he weighs up the pros and cons of continuing a life in pain, or giving up on it once and for all. For Klaudia Tanner (ÖVP) “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” could well prove to be just too much. Tanner has inherited a poisoned chalice, the Defense Ministry, drily described by Conrad Seidl in the daily Der Standard, as “no dream job.” Minister Tanner faces a daunting task, but her own communications blunders haven’t helped.
A brisk march through recent media headlines tell the gist of the story: “Everyone against Tanner”, Der Standard 25.6.20), “The chronology of a failed mission”, Die Presse 26.6.20), ” Tanner under fire once again”, Standard 29.6.20), “Tanner’s Chaos in Parlament” (Standard 30.6.20) day after day ad infinitum. A cartoon in the same day’s Standard depicts the ever-smiling Tanner as an “unguided missile” crashing through the red and white insignia of Austria’s military. Brushing off requests for interviews, apparently hasn’t improved her coverage.
An Unwanted Child
The back-story: Austria’s Bundesheer (army) has been an unwanted child since its formation after Austrian independence in 1955. It is tasked with four things: defending the frontier, operations abroad, natural catastrophes and infrastructure protection.
“Today’s Austrian army is a military minnow,” we wrote in these pages in May 2018 – 15,000 professional soldiers, 18,000 draftees, 7,000 civilians and 25,000 Miliz (reservists) – an army that never fights, a conscription force with too few conscripts, and a political orphan starved of funds. Since then, there are now a thousand less professional soldiers. Prosperous little Austria spends well under 1% of GNP on defense, about half the European average. For most Austrians, it is justified only as disaster response, a kind of Red Cross in khaki. After all, no one expects an invasion and surveys document the majority attitude: “Es wird eh nix passieren” (nothing’s going to happen anyway).
Every Politician’s Nightmare
Tanner’s battlefield disaster began with a classical political error promptly followed by every politician’s nightmare: She announced her ministry’s plans without consulting those affected, and had to publicly retract her statement within hours. As there was no likelihood of armed threat, the Bundesheers military task was obsolete, she told Die Presse’s Martin Fritzl. The future army would restrict itself to helping out in emergencies and in fending off cyber attacks.
This was a bad mistake. “An affront to the President” (Commander in Chief Alexander Van der Bellen), commented Fritzl. His Defense Minister should have told him that she was single-handedly striking the Austrian constitution’s first requirement from her program: Landesverteidigung, the defense of the country – also the official title of her ministry.
She was peremptorily summoned to Van der Bellen’s office and within hours announced her volte face: “It is totally clear: Military defense remains the Bundesheers fundamental duty,” she told the media.
She was not always so clear: On ORF with ZIB2’s Lou Lorenz Dittlbacher, she twisted and turned to avoid direct answers, until the anchorwoman’s patience gave out: “Since you’re not going to answer my question,” Dittlbacher said coolly, “let’s move on.” (“An almost satirical performance” commented Die Presse.) The next Research Affairs political barometer (released July 19 in Österreich) showed her approval rating plunged to -37%, the lowest score of any politician assessed. As the wise man said, “Never quarrel with anyone who buys ink by the barrel.”
An Impossible Task
Still, Minister Tanner is charged with an impossible task: She has been ordered to reform a chronically under-funded military with a backlog of deferred investment at no extra cost to the taxpayer (the nominal 9.9% current increase does not make up for the financial shortages in real terms). Support from those imposing the budget freeze, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and Finance Minister Gernot Blümel, has been conspicuously missing. But Tanner is a team player and a doughty fighter. She has not attempted to pass the buck, but is pressing ahead with revised reform plans as best she can: “I’m not turning back, I’m marching on”, she told Die Presse days later. To the Kurier she added: “We have to slim down.” Somehow.
This will not be easy, savings are hard without reducing capabilities. A proposal to close and sell off military barracks met howls of protest from local political interests. And then a major financial burden fell – literally – out of the sky: Luftüberwachung (air space surveillance). Every country is responsible for patrolling its own skies, and although Austria is not a formal NATO partner, it is obliged to do its bit to make sure that West European airspace is covered. Modern military aircraft are staggeringly expensive and the Austrian airforce is in the middle of a technical generation change. The ancient Saab 105s are no longer airworthy as of next year and their planned replacement, the Eurofighter, enormously expensive – and politically controversial. Fifteen Eurofighter aircraft are already in service, costing around €30.000 a flight-hour, ten times more per hour than the Saab. Their wider deployment will mean a considerable extra cost to Minister Tanner’s budget.
Against a Sea of Troubles
Then, of course, there’s the simmering political scandal around the 2002 decision for the Eurofighter from EADS – but that’s another story.
Klaudia Tanner may have made some mistakes, but she is certainly not responsible for the insoluble problems she has inherited. She is doing her best “… to take arms against a sea of troubles…” as Hamlet continued. The army’s current ad campaign features a burly bearded officer, field glasses in hand, scanning the frontier for approaching danger:
“We’re protecting Austria,” proclaims the pay-off line. We’re hoping for the best.