Busek’s Dilemma

The former Austrian Vice Chancellor talks about rediscovering the European ‘soul’


Former vice chancellor and ÖVP party leader Busek | Photo: Courtesy of E. Busek

In April 1994, after the negotiations for Austria to join the EU were successfully completed, the campaign for the enabling referendum on June 12, began to heat up. At the height of the debate, Brigitte Ederer, the then Social Democrats State Secretary for EU Affairs and now CEO of Siemens Österreich, projected that joining the European Union, every Austrian family would save about 1,000 Schillings a month (about €75) in living expenses through more competitive pricing.

Despite the ongoing political campaign for the general election Sept. 28, 2008, and a busy schedule as a leader of political dialogue, Erhard Busek, former Conservative ÖVP party leader, took time for a discussion about fundamental European issues.

Ederer’s Tausender (Thousand) as a promise has been criticized by political allies and opponents alike, even earning it a Wikipedia entry. Among those critics – then as today – was Busek, at the time Austria’s Vice Chancellor.

“No one can sensually experience this Tausender,” Busek argued assertively. He is still in disbelief tht anyone could seriously make such an argument.

“Everyone expected that they would be handed 1,000 Schillings when leaving a supermarket,” he said incredulously. Not without irony, he points to the current general election campaign, and the “nonsense” – this time, that the Social Democrats could propose to cut the 10% VAT rate on groceries by half – is being repeated almost exactly.

“The people won’t notice the difference. And that is why issues like this must be avoided; politics has to convey content.” After all, European Integration is a peace project that evolved first as economic integration and allowed for the largest single market, but evidently lacked a strong political component. The reduction of the European integration to what Busek calls those “primitive arguments,” is “a vilification of people’s intelligence.”

Since his departure from politics in 1995 – succeeded by Wolfgang Schüssel as party leader – Busek has chaired the Institut für den Donauraum und Mitteleuropa (Institute for the Danube Region and Central Europe), an academic institute and think tank focusing its political research on European issues within the Danube region as well as within Central and Eastern Europe.

Although issues like the European Constitution or the expansion of the European Union further southeast seem dry to those not directly involved, these are clearly Busek’s passion: Political issues rather than an economic ones; and by opening a fundamental discussion, one senses the essence of how difficult it is to convey current processes to a wider audience.

We sit down on a morning in late-September at the Radio Kultur Café of the ORF Funkhaus in Vienna’s 4th district – just days away from an election that even Busek had to admit he lacked enthusiasm for. Within in minutes, talk became animated, a lively to-the-point discussion undistracted by the interior, of this unassuming 1960s building. Nevertheless, a Grosser Brauner helped to create a more informal atmosphere and ventilated Busek’s word-flow.

Earlier this year, Busek published a collection of essays on European issues under the title Europa eine Seele geben (A Soul for Europe). The collection was inspired by a conference held in November 2004 in Berlin, the most important inspiration, however, coming from former EU Commission President Jacques Delors in 1992 that Busek reiterated in the opening essay.

“We are now entering a fascinating time – perhaps specifically for the young generation,” Delors had written, “a time when debate on the meaning of European construction becomes a major political factor. Believe me, we won’t succeed with Europe solely on the basis of legal expertise or economic know-how… If in the next ten years we haven’t managed to give a soul to Europe, to give a spirituality and meaning, the game will be up.”

Is the word ‘soul’ a useful choice of words in this context? Is it the right vehicle for European citizens to realize the importance and historic dimension of the European integration process? I raised my doubts.

“If you define ‘soul’ within a religious context, no,” Busek said. “But soul meaning enlivenment of content or ideas, then yes.”

The book itself was written from the deep sense that Europe in an economic sense works very well, while “the questions of the content of Europe do not work properly.” So, this book for Busek is a work in progress, “a snapshot of a process I have experienced myself.”

The rejection of the Lisbon Treaty during the Irish Referendum of June 13, effectively put a hold on the constitutional process. However, much attention has been given to French President Nicholas Sarkozy’s effort to resolve the situation.

Busek remains skeptical. “Sarkozy has largely contributed to the defeat with his visit to Ireland prior the referendum,” he countered. Consequently, he rejects the pressure the French President tried to assert in July for a second referendum to be held in June 2009.

But there is a more fundamental question underlining the current debate, that each member country has little understanding of the others.

“Mr. Sarkozy does not know what to do with Ireland,” he commented, continuing, with an ironic smile, that he would love to test the French President’s knowledge of Irish history.

“There is always the opinion or arrogance, that ‘we know everything about everyone else, but they don’t know anything about us.’ This way of thinking is consistent throughout the European integration process.”

It was time for a specific answer. What was the solution for Ireland and the European Constitution? A Europe of different speeds? Busek shook his head.

“I am not a particular friend of a Core Europe. It poses immediately the question who is part of it and who is not.” And he gave cause for concern that some of the older EU member states might exclude Austria, for example.

Instead, Busek proposed trying to find common grounds with Ireland and enable a second referendum when the time was right. In his words, the Irish have to define for themselves “the questions that are important to them and also where the EU would like their decision,” he said. “I don’t think we should dictate that. I would consider that a wrong approach.”

In an era of globalization, and the related international political and economic problems, there is a serious issue of timing.

“Europe has a dilemma,” Busek concluded, “and this process of shaping opinions takes a long time. These are issues for generations to come.”


Erhard Busek’s book Eine Seele für Europa,  published by Kremayr & Scheriau in March 2008 is available all book stores throughout Vienna

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