Vienna would not be Vienna without its heat. Such warmth can be prolonged or short-lived but at some point the temperature will hit the high thirties and the shops will sell out of portable air-cooling units and the owners of Tichy ice-cream shop will casually add another zero to their pension pot. It is a reminder that we are in the middle of a continental landmass, as much at the mercy of fast moving summer air from North Africa as a dogged wintery invasion from Siberia. And if anything is certain, when the heatwave lasts more than 24 hours, the whinging begins (mostly expats moaning about the absence of deodorant on the underground line U6) and crimes against fashion rise exponentially – especially men with legs not designed for public exposure. And summer in Vienna 2015 was certainly a boon for men’s legs, and other body parts which really should remain partly hidden (a burqua would be suitable) with record- breaking summer temperatures prompting the water board of Vienna to rub its hands without exalted glee.
But Europe has also been feeling the heat these last few months. We will come to the migrant crisis in a moment but since we last spoke, there has been much soul searching over the “Greek question” which I sense is still mostly unresolved because the Greeks were on holiday for August, and July, and much of June. Nevertheless, the questions remain: who is responsible and who will pay? Is it the ruling elites for borrowing loads of cash and then blowing it (stealing it) on expensive property in London? Or the banks and financial institutions who were reckless in their lending? Us – the debt addicted consumer? People scream the immorality of debt which is interesting given the word in German for debt is Schulden which derives from the same root as Schuld – the German word for guilt.
But we should not let macro-economics distract us. After a long, hot summer, we are relaxed (well, I’m not) and in the number one city an election is coming and it is forbidden to talk about debt. I feel guilty just mentioning it. Indeed, the return of schools and swarms of unwashed, pasty faced, packs of young people clutching carrier bags, thronging the streets escaping persecution at home from their dispassionate leaders, is a clear sign that the Sauergurkenzeit (sour pickle time) is over and schools and politics has resumed.
The run up to the polls could not have come at a better time, of course. Austria have just qualified – with some ease one should note – for the European Football Championship in France next year. This is the first time they have done so (they played in 2008 as co-hosts) so there is much excitement and rightly so. Next morning’s city newspaper ran with the rather sensational “unstoppable” as its headline which will be repeated next month if Heinz Christian (definitely not gay) Strache, slick boss of the far-right Freedom Party (see below), seizes power in the town hall. Not that I am suggesting that any incumbent or political challenger in election year would be seen to sneak a picture with any of the Austrian team and opportunistically link sporting success with public policy or political spin. Especially with Austria’s star player, Bayen Munich’s David Alaba, Viennese to his core but with immigrant parents.
And then there was the refugee emergency at the start of the month forcing the hand of the Austrian and Viennese authorities, a response largely praised it seemed around Europe. This was an important step for the Viennese political and social psyche in that it showed, contrary to their indecisive and dithering reputation – the classic wait and see and hope someone else makes a decision while we sneak out for an Achterl and a Tschik (glass of wine and a fag) – that they could act with speed and determination when events are pressing (like to a newly opened checkout in the supermarket). And they did so although suspicions were raised that the reason Chancellor Werner Fayman so quickly agreed to let the refugees enter and pass through Austria on the way to Munich, was a personal guarantee from Merkel not to allow anymore Germans to cross in to Vienna.
The immigration crisis, the middle east one (not the swarm of German economic migrants banging at the gates of Wien) may just dissipate as a political influence as polling day draws closer and the temperatures return to seasonal decency. But for now there are two possible on-going, perhaps even long-lasting impacts:
The first is that it could not have been better timed for the far-right (the blue camp, the FPÖ, the Freedom Party). In campaign terms it is a gift, cementing in the minds of their burgeoning support that immigration and the impotency of the EU is a serious problem (cornerstones of the Freedom party’s version of politics). The migrant crisis allows such sentiments to fester and it could be this single issue which may convince enough of the electoral floaters, who up until now could never vote for Strache for any number of reasons, to move squeakily and stealthily to the right (and then deny it).
Why would this be so? In a word – fear. We know that anxiety is a constant in any society, with or without access to the pub, but it is an intrinsically intoxicating push factor when conditions align, mostly when there are thousands of hungry people on your doorstep with more on the way. The politics of disruption and discord (not accountability) from an opposition drenched in the stench of scare-populism – the politics of fear – understand this intimately. It is extremely powerful. Yet this is, and always has been, the thrust of the FPÖ storyline. Clever in a sense but intrinsically dangerous. And we have been here before. All over Europe.
This means the fear of migrants escaping conflict is the number one issue for the people of Vienna right now (apart from the football). The fear is cemented by the simple fact that the migrant problem is not on some Greek island or obscure part of Italy or Turkey. It is at the border. In the capital of Austria. On the platforms of Westbanhof home seventy or more years ago to escaping Jewish children. Without doubt there was broad consensus across society that something had to be done about the migrants massing in Budapest once it became evident that to ignore it was not an option, morally or practically. But the fact remains it is continuing to unnerve people across social classes and paradoxically even some long-standing migrant groups in Vienna who should really know better.
However, and this brings us to the second effect, the refugee crisis and the government response to it was, when it came, with urgency and a degree of competence which seemed to stimulate much polite clapping and utterances of well-played. Safe passage was promised and provided with the alternative of the right to apply for asylum. Although suspiciously 98% of the refugees so far have politely refused, instead passing straight through in search of paradise in Germany.
The government reaction might work against the FPÖ because it is a reminder that steps ensued through the existing governments and the FPÖ are the party of opposition. Nationally, the SPÖ (Socialists) and ÖVP (Conservatives) are in power. Regionally, in Vienna it is Red-Green and Burgenland, where the refugees landed, also SPÖ. Credit will fall on these parties because they acted, humanely but with vigor and purpose. And electorates like to see politicians act and may just settle accordingly with the status quo (fear is negated somewhat by a fear of the unknown i.e what an untested FPÖ Viennese government might bring).
But before we raid the Sekt cellar a word of caution. The warm glow from a one-off successful humanitarian response, like that grappa I had last week in an Italian restaurant behind the parliament, is both powerful but illusory. The people of eastern Austria and Vienna should feel satisfied that the right thing in this instance was done with the minimal of fuss, whilst simultaneously showing the EU what can be achieved when there is a perceived clamour amongst an electorate for action. But repeated interventions to move thousands of people or re-house or process asylum applications with no unified EU policy in sight?
These are big questions for a small country like Austria which at the moment, unlike much of the rest of Western Europe, is punching above its weight in getting to grips with the challenge. But compassion will wear thin as it always does. And with talk already of thousands more migrants massing at the border and stories of some sleeping in the “neatly trimmed gardens” of Nickelsdorf (the entry point for many in Austria from Hungary) it is only a matter of time before the rhetoric will shift.
If not already. This week I saw an election battle cry on one of the ubiquitous roadside billboards from the Freedom Party talking about financial support for Austria’s poor and not economic migrants “at the door”. This is new in the sense the migrant-at-the-door sentiment has been recently worked in. Before it would have been aimed mostly at foreigners who don’t integrate (Muslims, Germans and British expats). Will this create a surge to the FPÖ? Well, if we are to believe a poll in Friday’s local paper Heute, one month before the election, they are only 4% points behind the Socialists. An increase in 6% since the last poll four years ago. So, yes, it is happening.
And so, in the next installment we take a look at the parties. They are the same parties as in every election but this time we will unpick the campaign messages and generally “arse” them, as the local German phrase would have us believe if it were translated. Until then, make merry, live well and put a tenner on Austria to reach the final of the European Football Championship. But don’t tell anyone else.
© RJ Barratt 2015