Living Across Borders

Erhard Busek on the nature of contemporary European identity; a visit with U.S. students at the Institute for European Studies

Erhard Busek: Fan of Europe | Photo: IDM

It is hard to find a more committed European than Erhard Busek: The former Vice Chancellor of Austria, today he is Chairman of the Institute for the Danube and Central Europe, and coordinator of the Southeast European Cooperative-Initiative (SECI), a project created to enhance stability in Southeastern Europe through the development of economic and environmental cooperation.

Leaning on a desk in one of the elegant salons of the Institute for European Studies (IES) room in the Palais Corbelli on Johannesgasse, he seems genuinely pleased to meet with this audience of American exchange students and their international faculty. These were young people who had come to Vienna to study literature, or the social sciences, music or art, but also, to understand Vienna and Austria and its future in the European Union. For this purpose, they surely picked the perfect place:

“Personally I’m convinced Vienna is kind of a meeting point,” said Busek. And it always has been, he emphasized, except maybe in the times the Iron Curtain kept people out – or in.

“I remember when, as I boy, I was fed up spending my Sundays walking in the Vienna Woods,” Busek recalls. To mollify him, his mother would tell him about the outings her family would take to Bratislava to have a coffee in an elegant coffee house in that little jewel of a city so favored by the Empress Maria Theresa. It had never been possible for the young Busek; only 50 kilometers away, that world became a myth of lost Sundays in a happier time.

Now this is possible again, thanks to the fall of the Iron Curtain, and unproblematic, thanks to the Eastern enlargement of the EU. However, Busek doesn’t like the term “Eastern” in this respect:

“We’ve got very wrong descriptions of geography”, he says, stressing that Prague is actually more West than Vienna. He is equally annoyed with the artificial term “Western Balkans”, which describes the former Yugoslavia plus Albania minus Slovenia. And the maps of Greater Serbia or Greater Belgrade: “I know the map of Greater Germany, and it had horrible results.”

Busek sees the EU as a project to reconnect what has always belonged together – at least since the establishment of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, with culture as the glue, the defining element. It’s a common set of attitudes, a common feeling, that is a “heritage of the Habsburg monarchy.” Many Austrians understand this intuitively, especially when looking further west or north:

“We are very close to our neighbors, not in language, but in mentality – closer than with our German friends.” (A Bavarian in the audience cleared her throat.) The Austrian mentality is softer, he said, less demanding than the German, especially when it comes to doing business – although both ways lead to the same results, he says. Once a diplomat…

Take the definition of corruption, he adds, tongue in cheek: “In Austria, more than 20% is criminal…, otherwise it’s considered a tip.” Generally, there is a more laissez-faire approach to rules here, common to Austria and its Eastern (politically, that is, not geographically) neighbors.

However, many Austrians are not convinced, or have forgotten, which is immediately clear looking at the recent success of the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), which at the moment is defining the general political climate in the country. Busek criticizes the media for conveying a feeling that “these of the East are coming to us.”

(“Don’t read the Austrian media,” he teased. “It’s a waste of time.”  A journalist in the audience protested. “Not your paper of course,” he smiled. “I refer to the Krone!” — referring to the Kronenzeitung, a mass market tabloid that is read by about three million daily, nearly one third of Austria’s population.)

Still many Austrians are opposed to immigration, fearing that the foreigners will steal Austrian jobs. Busek thinks this fear is misplaced. Firstly, he points out, the average income in Slovakia is higher than in parts of lower Austria. At the same time, Austrian society has to rely on nurses from Slovakia to look after the elderly.

And while Austria couldn’t manage without this foreign workforce, the influx of nurses poses a problem to the neighboring countries, whose societies are also aging – but as the careers are better paid in Austria, they leave their struggling home countries to look after the aging here.

In addition, many Austrian companies have profited greatly from the recent developments and are now “regional players, spread about South-Eastern Europe.” Who would have imagined, Busek said, shaking his head? Anymore than we predicted the fall of the Iron Curtain.

Busek is also frustrated by the “idiotic arguments against Turkey joining the EU.” The populists go around chanting “No crescent on top of St. Stephen’s Cathedral!” Actually there once was a half-moon on top of Stephensdom, he said smiling, as it is also a Christian symbol to signify the Virgin Mary. But who would believe that today?

But there is still prejudice and an overall political climate that makes Busek bitter. “I’m not quite sure that the Enlightenment ever really came through to Vienna.” The prejudices seem particularly ridiculous, considering the constant intermingling in earlier times: “Just look at the names in the Viennese phone book,” he exclaims.

The chancellor named Vranitzky is Austrian; the President named Klaus is Czech, while their foreign minister, Karl Schwarzenberg, is literally a citizen of both countries and still has a Palais on Prinz Eugen Strasse.  When Austria was playing the then Czechoslovakian team during the Football World Cup 1954, Busek recalls that the crew with the German names were the Czech, while the crew with the Czech names were the Austrians.

But those were different times. Today, some see the EU as struggling for survival, and many still consider it an elite project. Busek urges for more “mutual assistance and solidarity,” to lessen the impact of the financial crisis, and to stop Europe from falling apart. If a scheme similar to the Marshall Plan had been applied after World War I, he suggests, “we could have avoided Hitler.”

Cooperation is key, and he admits to being “one of the few Austrians saying we need more Europe, not less.” He urges a stronger EU, and criticizes that the “EU governments are looking for the weakest persons for EU high offices.” When the High Representative of Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Catherine Ashton, has to ask 27 foreign ministers first before she can make a statement, the EU will never speak with one voice. Busek also appeals to the US to “hold up a mirror to Europe, so that they see how they look from the outside.”

On the day Denmark has decided to reinstate border controls, these comments are very timely. Busek believes there should be more responsibility on a European level, for example in the energy sector.

But, there is hope: “I’m a fan of crisis”, says Busek, and explains that the Chinese symbol for crisis is the same as for chance.

In the end, Busek stresses, “we have more common European culture than we all know, but we are not aware of it.” Perhaps in Vienna, and from Vienna, this can happen – after all, it lies at the Danube, the “most international river in the world.

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