The European Elections (and a Bearded Lady)

Walking through town this week on the way to see a man about my eyes, I came across this enormous poster adorned on the side of the headquarters of the Socialist Party of Austria:

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In it we can see the excited phizog of Eugen Freud, the face of the Social Democrat European election campaign.  Eugen – from the Greek meaning noble or well-born – is a former television journalist (as roving reporter and anchor) from Austrian State Broadcaster ÖRF. And this, tragically, is about as interesting as it gets.

I have written a fair amount about Austrian politics over the last year, nearly as much as some historians have penned about the impending doom of western civilisation (for you, not me. I am on a fast boat to China). This means, it is difficult to get animated about the European elections and their significance for Austria. The reason for this, I concede, is that perhaps I would rather devote my energies to the task of reporting on Austria’s recent win in Europe’s other biggest prize – Eurovision –  and the cross-dressing, bearded wonder Conchita Wurst (already a global phenomenon, peacekeeper, diplomat and utopian pin-up for humanity).

Quite unexpectedly the media have been fervent in their praise and much has been penned since early Sunday morning when Conchita wowed the continent and then, like me when I see what my children are doing to the lawn, couldn’t stop weeping. But let us not delude ourselves. After a near fifty year wait for a successor to crooner Udo Jürgens, Austria has a new superstar. Arguably she is now more famous than Hans Krankl who scored the winner for Austria against Germany in the 1978 World Cup in Argentina (Cordoba was the place and every Austrian understands the magnitude even thirty-five years later). More worryingly, it means Vienna will be the host next year bringing with it a ruinous price-tag that will have caused slapped heads down the Rathaus and sighs of despair at the offices of Eugen’s old employer, the Österreichischer Rundfunk (ÖRF)

Nevertheless, Cochita has transmuted overnight into a figurehead for pan-European self-expression and freedom capturing, it seems, the Zeitgeist of Europe in 2014. This point was perhaps best illustrated in the run-up to Eurovision when her participation caused all manner of sexual tension amongst the more conservative-minded, cheek-clenching elements of the European project. Pleasingly, this also included Russia and if there was anything in the arsenal of Austrian soft-diplomacy likely to stir the cerebral loins of the once former Russian superpower, it is, and was, a man in a dress.

But now we have reconvened in a different world, a world where even a bearded lady can be captured in photo opportunities with Presidents and the Dalai Lama is considering retiring. It is such events which will continue to infiltrate the consciousness of my fellow citizens and it is why my next task is ultimately doomed. Yes, I have set myself the onerous and protracted undertaking of trying to persuade a group of “millennials” of the need to vote on May 25th in the European elections.

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To garner inspiration I have parked my integrated and federal European rear in the vicinity of the neo-classical Austrian parliament building and the fortress of Vienna political and economic power, the town hall. One does not have to look far to encounter a political billboard or poster from the main parties, proclaiming the usual mix of straight talking emotion, subliminal modern marketing, effusive praise for Austria and specious fabrications (the Freedom Party before you ask).

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Such messages reveal very little that we didn’t know already. The Reds (SPÖ) and Blacks (ÖVP) are broadly in support of Europe, but not at the expense of Austria and their lobbyists. The Greens, sporting some suggestive imagery, seemingly support the EU and the people of the EU, articulated by the opinion that they would rather have wonky cucumbers than wonky business (including the despicable, rapacious lobbying industry). And the Blues (FPÖ) would prefer the EU left Austria alone with the customary scare-tactics about the accession of Turkey, too much money for bank bailouts and annoyance that the Dirndl is the subject of discrimination in higher diplomatic circles in Brussels. My personal favourite European election FPÖ poster asserts that they understand my fury. Really? So they must also be customers of UNIQUA insurance and the small business service team at Drei.

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However, from this we learn two things. Firstly, the big parties seem intent on pushing a message about “us and them” as if the EU and Austria were suddenly competing entities living in a loveless marriage where the sex is no longer interesting. Secondly, there is the skulking presence of the politics of fear. If you are in the UK you will recognise this in the choice of language from the UKIP. Yet similar to other big European cities in the year 2014, it is not difficult to meet a Eurosceptic in the metropolis of moan. There is a sizable contingent of the Viennese electorate which, although they would rarely admit it in public, vote for the far-right FPÖ. Worse they will hint they might vote for the FPÖ as a protest. Against what, I wonder? A protest against whom?

The FPÖ are broadly similar to other far-right parties in that they favour less EU, more repatriation of powers and less immigration. But in Austria, the FPÖ are, as we have seen, well-known for knocking Islam (embodied in their fear of the Turkish hordes and their weekend, open-air barbecues) and creating a seventeen billion Euro banking crisis in its home base of Carinthia, in the south of Austria, and then blaming successive Red-Black governments for stumping up too much cash to bail it out.

Yet it is the banking crisis and in particular the crisis in the Euro which is key in driving such sentiments of existential angst. There is widespread dismay, anger (there is a lot of anger about although this might be the weather) and resentment. And someone of these people are not even parents.

In fact, it is only the young whipper-snappers of Austrian politics, pink and proud with the wind in their sails – the NEOS – who seem to position themselves outside the “Austria vs Europe” arena. In one poster they use the slogan “reach for the stars” (possibly nabbed from West Wing) where I believe the suggestion is more akin to inclusivity and progressive change rather than focusing on the negativities of the big club with the requirement for radical reform. Then again there has been mention in some quarters of a dirty word – privatisation (hospitals and water suppliers to date) which in Austria is political suicide. You may as just well post a picture of your Wurst via Twitter. Still, they have a good chance of getting my support if only to shake up the establishment. And means I have just publicly revealed more about my political intentions than any other Austrian.

But the wind is blustery and the skies above brood with foreboding so I relocate to the Café Eiles in search of more inspiration and order a Melange. In my bag is a copy of Wien & die EUGemeinsam für mehr Lebensqualität (Vienna & the EU – Together for more Quality of Life) a thirty page pamphlet from my buddies at Stadt Wien. I secrete it expertly from its hiding place, position it behind a copy of Krönen Zeitung and start reading. More quality of life, they seek, in the number one city? This I have to see.

At first one notices several full-page adverts with the headline “Wien Bewegt Europa”, which I think means “Vienna moves Europe”. Such announcements have been adorning all the usual media outlets for a few weeks and on closer inspection one text reads:

 “Jeder Mensch ist einziartig. Unsere Wünsche und Träume sind sehr unterschiedlich” (“Every person is unique. Our wishes and dreams are very different.”)

Sounds like an advert for a six-star sex sauna. But the central message is that Wien is part of the EU which is a bit like saying I am part of my street. I sense disappointment but persevere. Vienna is “working on many levels”, I am told, “high standards of living”, “homes”, “water”, “public transport” (all true, Herr Bürgermeister, all true!) accompanied by some choice quotes from quality of life connoisseurs Mercer. This is supported by notions of “regional centre”, “department of Europe” and that a reputed 97% of people are satisfied to live here (according to an IFES http://www.ifes.org/ poll which I don’t think is the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students). I am not sure which 97% this refers to but Vienna does have close relations with referendum organisers in the Donetsk region of Ukraine.

This is followed by some positive words about how the capital is full of ideas and innovation, profiting from EU money in the form of urban renewal projects (25 million Euro between 2007 and 2013) and includes interviews with hip, young entrepreneurs with beards who have benefitted from EU grants and financial assistance. Examples include two chaps who make made-to-measure jeans and a lady (no beard) who bakes cupcakes. Then some flimflam about how the EU works, more on how Brussels contributes to the life quality of Vienna through investment and finally a nod towards the youth. This includes some quotes from said Jugendliche exalting the need to vote and the importance of having the right to vote. Which might just be my line of attack with my group, if I can drag them away from Snapchat.

It is terribly fashionable to mouth off these days about the pointless nature of voting and it has been easy to convince people (young and old) that nothing changes even if you do. Terribly clever commentators will patiently explain that such apathy is an inevitable consequence of broken promises, an obsession by political elites with vested interests and a breach in the multi-generational compact. Voting is ineffectual and a waste of time is the message. Just keep consuming with your head prostrate over a smudged touchscreen and all will be well.

Writing in the early 19th century, Alexis de Tocqueville’s premonitory vision of a future society could not have framed it better:

 “I see an innumerable crowd of like and equal men who revolve on themselves without repose, procuring the small and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls: each of them withdrawn and apart, is like a stranger to the destiny of all others […] as for dwelling with fellow citizens, he is beside them, but he does not see them; he touches them and does not feel them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone …”

Sound familiar? It is a world eerily familiar to modern ears. And the essence is about the danger of detachment and a lesson on non-association. But, and this gives me hope,  if we were to accept argument of abstention for abstention’s sake then why would we engage in most of the things modern life, much of which is meaningless and pointless most of the time, like a career, playing sport or getting excited about Eurovison? Most of the things we do, if we were being truly honest, have no link to an expectation of radical and lasting change. We do them because we like to be involved, or we enjoy the temporary effect on our well-being or we simply take intellectual solace in being asked. I drink beer from time to time. It makes me feel good. No other reason except perhaps to change my perception and forget being a parent. So get down that polling station, enfranchise your conscience and unleash your political resolve. It’s that or more indifference. And no amount of drag queens with stubble are going to save you. At least not next week.

© RJ Barratt 2014

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