Austria is a land of contradictions
2018-12-01 14:13:29 -
Opinion
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By Michael McGowan

 

I have just returned from Vienna where the current Austrian presidency of the EU is wrestling with the challenges of the future of Europe including migration, Brexit and the future security of the continent.

I first visited Vienna 25 years ago to attend the UN World Conference on Human Rights which led to the creation of the UN Commissioner of Human Rights.

It is the current Austrian six-month rotating presidency of the EU which brought me to Vienna. After checking in to a hotel, my first port of call was a Viennese coffee house where I was able to relax and collect my thoughts about what I wanted to find out during my brief visit.

Today the government of Austria is part of a coalition which includes the far-right Freedom Party which promotes nationalism and anti-immigration, and is dangerously out of step with the fundamental human rights and multicultural values of the EU.

As I settled in the coffee house, reflecting on the legacy of Austria as an international force in the world through the influence of the Habsburg Empire and the hosting of influential parts of the United Nations, I felt both baffled and disappointed by the country’s retreat to a more isolated and nationalist role in Europe.

I was trying to fathom the complexities of Austrian politics when a waiter with black bow tie and apron arrived with coffee and glass of cold water on a small airliner-size silver tray. The waiter was professional, polite, and calm. He blended in to the relaxed atmosphere where customers are welcome to stay as long as they wish and read from newspapers available on wooden holders.

It was during the next two days that I began to discover how much Austria is a country of contradictions. Despite a coalition government that includes the Freedom Party, it is at the same time an influential force in Europe which opposes both nuclear weapons and nuclear power and has a president who is a Green, although elected with a slim majority.

I was pleased to have an early meeting with the deputy foreign minister Karoline Edtstadler, who is a distinguished legal professional with experience as a prosecutor, judge and at the Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

She spoke of the 200 presidency meetings held during this, the third time Austria has held the EU presidency, and of the challenges facing Austria, including migration and refugees. She said that the number of migrants wanting to come to Europe has been substantial.

When I appealed to her for the Austrian presidency to give a lead in tackling the issue of migrants wanting to come to Europe to escape conflict and poverty, she expressed concern about illegal migrants and the security of EU citizens. She appeared to want a consensus to limit migration into the EU and not to accommodate it.

At a meeting with Andreas Schieder, the chairman of the Committee for Foreign Affairs, and a powerful opposition voice in the parliament, I heard a different view about migrants. He is critical of the Austrian government’s approach to migration and said that a small financial investment could solve the issue of migration and address the problems of refugees escaping from poverty and conflict.

Schieder sees social affairs, especially housing, as a high priority, and spoke of a ‘housing for all’ conference on affordable dwellings. An impressive though opposition voice in parliament, he is almost certain to be a candidate to become an MEP in the elections for the European Parliament next year.

After enjoying a wonderful performance at the Vienna Konzerthaus of Leonard Bernstein’s ‘Mass’, I returned to my Viennese coffee house still reflecting on the mix and what seems to be the contradictions of Austrian politics.

 

Michael McGowan is a former MEP and president of the Development Committee of the European Parliament.

 

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