United States of Europe


It is about eighteen months since I wrote something about the state of Austrian politics to coincide with the last general election in 2017. If you remember, we witnessed a bit of a shake up with the end of the “grand coalition” of the Social Democrats and Conservatives (now simply known as the Kurzocracy after its youthful leader and chancellor, Sebastian Kurz) and a new alliance with those genial chaps from the far-right-getting-righter, Freedom Party (FPÖ).

Since then, and with Brexit providing an additional distraction, I have largely avoided domestic politics in these pages and instead concentrated on issues likely to help me forget both. More so because there are many other sources where you can get a running commentary on the antics of the current government and their increasing strained love-in. Verdict: great first year but looking decidedly in need of the coalition counsellor after a couple of, I hope, significant gaffs from everyone’s favourite expert on demographics and vice-chancellor, Heinz “Frank Underwood” Strache. First up some comments about population displacement; and then a very recent video featuring Heinz offering to sell Austria to the Russians (I heard about it shortly before I completed this instalment).

In the meantime the democratic process is on the march again (a welcome development as this time I can vote) because of the European elections. And here in the alpine republic and somewhere called Vienna, the sense of anticipation and excitement is palpable. I know this because I have spoken to numerous people about the campaigns in the last two weeks although I am not ruling out the possibility they thought we were talking about Eurovision. Yes, Herr Barratt, but how many? Well, put it this way, if Sarah Sanders were my press secretary, the numbers would be in triple figures. At least. Probably more. Certainly the greatest number of people ever to offer an opinion on the European elections in Austria. Period.

But back on the scooter-infested streets of Viennaville and beyond (the heavily fortified city ramparts) the impending arrival of an election is always preceded by the billboard invasion. Carefully crafted political messages of salvation juxtaposed with the beaming faces of the main candidates (in the case of the FPÖ, menacing faces, predictions of doom better suited to the role of opposition, even though they are now in the government, and Russian flags). These include sizeable permanent hoardings adjacent to streets or fixed to buildings, and the temporary three sided boards placed by the sides of roads or on the central reservations which magically appear in various intensities, depending on the capaciousness of the party wallet, in the weeks prior to an election.

My own personal theory about the distribution of these visual jolts is determined by district and whether you are likely to wear a tracksuit to take your children to school. So in the 10th or 11th you will see a lot for the far-right-getting-righter FPÖ or the Social Democrats (SPÖ) because it was a former stronghold but not much sign of the Greens or the NEOS (yes there is a political party in Austria named after the hero of the Matrix films).

Equally, in the first district you will come across a higher concentration of banners for the Conservatives (the ÖVP) because the only people that live there (primarily) shop in the outrageously expensive Meindl supermarket on the Graben dressed in an approximation of the British gentry. Although these days, it is quite normal to see strategically placed clusters of posters from the FPÖ around former palaces (now apartment blocks for the mega rich) because this is where their comrades from Russia mostly live. I have very little quantifiable evidence to support this distributive assertion (I simply use my eyes and given the fact I traverse a lot through the city) but you can check my analysis on my new fact-checking website http://www.bob-barratt-facts.com

If this wasn’t enough, there is also a non-stop (or so it seems to me) diet of television debate shows where the main candidates for each party argue about important European questions whilst trying to smile, not interrupt and avoid using the patronising but sadly oft-heard “Schauen, Sie” (the equivalent of “Look, you thick bastard”.) Like social media, Amazon and those early experiments with Red Bull and vodka, such shows seemed like a good idea at the time. Indeed, like the smartphone, we were seduced by their shiny newness and promises of personal emancipation. The format offered a sense of novelty, immediacy and humanised, to some extent, the highly polished faces of the candidates. But watching one recently, I realised they already seem jaded. I am not sure if this is because I have grown rapidly bored with the format or whether it’s because as I have dissected the subjective political realities peddled by each party over the last six years, nothing in terms of message really changes that much. And although the faces for this election are different, I cannot help feeling I have heard and seen it all before, both on television and the billboards.

One difference from two years ago, however, is tone, most visible in the language of the FPÖ, where it now seems possible to push ideas, and the language used to express those ideas, to the limit. No one should be surprised by this, we are talking about the far-right, but it is interesting how quickly controversial comments can – these days – shift to the mainstream without censure. In my mind it is the equivalent of the broken windows theory in crime prevention. Let people get away with saying something highly divisive (and unacceptable a couple of years ago) then quite quickly it spreads like a cancer unless you slap it down very quickly. And then as more people hear and see this breaking of taboos, and in turn persons in power effectively swatting away any criticism as an attack on free speech or political correctness gone mad, norms of behaviour inevitably shift and radical ideas become normalised.

So what are the parties saying? Here are the elevator pitches:

The key message from the Conservatives is one of reforming Europe to make Europe stronger. Eminently sensible but part of a wider European phenomenon driven by the experiences of seeing Britain so spectacularly flounder after the Brexit vote of 2016. Yet from where I am sitting (plush surrounds of one of Vienna’s finest cafes) this reform is, well, vague, as it always is. It promises much but it promises nothing.

For the Bolshevik Committee of the Freedom Party (also spooked by Brexit) there is no longer talk of leaving the Union but their obsession with migration continues (a promise to end the “migration or asylum chaos”). Of course, this doesn’t stretch to Russian oligarchs who are welcome without prejudice as long as they are carrying a Samsonite stuffed with roubles.

Over the road from Cafe Landtmann, the SPÖ have opted for a campaign that essentially asks: do you want a political system that works for “people” instead of “corporations”? And calling for “togetherness” not “division” with a need to hinder a return to the politics of the right (bit late in the day but what do I know?)

Meanwhile, the Green party, using the European elections as a chance to hit back after their pretty abject showing in the last general election, are still banging on about “healthy food”, “climate protection”, “peace” and being “brave” in Europe. These are all serious issues which any serious politician cannot ignore unless you are having your retirement coffers boosted by a man speaking German with a Russian accent. But the problem, like the messages from the other main parties, is that they offer nothing revolutionary or truly radical. Like the Green New Deal to address climate change and economic inequality a policy that will truly re-jig the system.

If Europe is to survive it needs reform, yes. It needs to put people first, yes. And yes, it needs to find a way to make sure the ice-caps don’t melt. But to do so we need something bigger, something which takes us to the next stage, something which will transport us to the mountain top and over the other side (after a ham roll).

But then, just before all hope was seemingly lost, we got the Neos. “Vereinigte Staaten von Europa” (United States of Europe) they proclaim, “Wir machen das” (we can do it) and I am like, hang on a minute. This IS more like it.

I shall leave you now because the sun has finally come out and I need to hunt down a bastard snail that as devoured my fledging courgette plant. Yes, the month of May has seen temperatures about ten degrees below seasonal norms and unusual levels of precipitation. This is great of course for shutting up my neighbours and their incorrigible hounds but the downside is that it is climatic cat-nip for the slugs and their shell carrying friends. Hang on. I’ve just heard there is a vacancy for vice-chancellor of Austria. Yes, Strache, treacherous leader of the FPÖ, has fallen on his fraternity sabre. The snails will have to wait, it’s time for celebration.

© 2019 RJ Barratt