Häupl: Immigration Policy is Wrong

Vienna’s mayor calls for integration, not criminalization, of foreigners in Vienna

The Social Democrat incumbent, Michael Häupl, gives an interview at a May 19 press conference | Photo: David Reali

This is an election year in Vienna, and for the first time in 70 years, it’s unclear if the centre left SPÖ will hold on to its majority. On one side of the race is the Vienna-born leader of the Freedom party, Heinz-Christian Strache, and in the other, the Social Democrat incumbent, Michael Häupl.

Now Häupl sits astride this city the way Chirac did in 1980s Paris or how Giuliani became synonymous with New York in the 90s. He is Vienna politics in many people’s eyes. And he has made local politics rather more interesting, even more so because Austria gives strong powers to its regional leaders.

We meet in Vienna’s Rathaus, surely one the most remarkable local government HQs in the world. In person he is a big man, with a vigorous handshake and an easy smile. With a PhD in biology, he entered politics with the late Mayor Helmut Zilk and became Executive City Councillor for the Environment. He had been Mayor of Vienna now for 16 years.

“It is an open secret that I love my job,” he says. “Being Mayor of Vienna is the best job anyone can have in Austria.”

Indeed. The mayor is known for his sense of humour, an all-too-rare quality in central European politicians. His Tuesday morning press conferences are extremely popular and much more lively than typical local government events elsewhere. He also enjoys a drink.

In short, his is a vision of the good life, and one that should be possible for all.

“I want Vienna to be a city where everyone has access to education and can live a life full of opportunities,” Häupl says. “Vienna must be the city with the most modern educational system and the best further training measures. Companies in Vienna must be able to compete with the best in the world and create jobs for the future. I want this to be a city where everyone lives together peacefully and where as many people as possible enjoy wealth and prosperity.”

In other cities these would sound like empty promises, but here the platitudes come closer to reality than almost anywhere else.

But can he really say that the socialist paradise of ‘Red Vienna’ is still alive?

“Of course!”, he says emphatically. “Some of the institutions that were established in Vienna in the 1920s and 30s still exist today and show us how modern Red Vienna was at the time.” He mentions the large municipal housing estates [Die Gemeindebau] and institutions such as public learning centers [Volkshochschulen], public libraries,  swimming pools and children’s daycare centers that were established at the time and are still an active part of Viennese life today. “We have, of course, raised all these institutions to the highest modern standards,” the mayor goes on. “In the 1920s it was the aim of the urban planners to bring sunlight and air into every dwelling. Today we aim at saving energy and constructing high-quality architecture.” The Social Democrats, he says, have been committed to achieving social justice ever since they shaped the city’s development.

“Social justice was our foremost aim in the First Republic and still is our main concern today,” he says. “So, yes, ‘Red Vienna’ is still alive. More than ever.”

Would the Bürgermeister call himself a socialist? This, apparently goes without saying: “Is the Pope catholic? – I am a committed Social Democrat!”

Research by the American management consultancy firm Mercer recently confirmed that Vienna has the highest quality of life in the world. Most ex-pats I speak to love living here – though, curiously, natives are less enamored of life here. This is partly a question of temperament, it seems. (“Whatever you do, the Viennese are never happy! It’s just the way they are.” the mayor told The Vienna Review on another occasion.)  It may also be perhaps because they haven’t tried living in grim London or soulless LA.

But what does the Mayor of the most livable city in the world feel makes life so good here? He begins by taking some of the credit, listing the constant care of and investment in the city’s many green spaces such as the Prater, Danube Island and Vienna Woods, as well as technological innovations such as low-energy social housing projects and district heating — all of which, he says, “have enhanced the environmental quality of Vienna to become one of the best in Europe.”

He is also proud of seemingly endless schedule of cultural events and festivals, and public celebrations of all kinds, again with a constant eye toward inclusion and something for everyone.  In addition to the extraordinarily rich cultural scene  in the traditional areas of theatre, music and art and history, the city organizes leisure activities “for all population groups,” he says, and mentions the ice skating rink and the film festival in front of Vienna City Hall, the public swimming pools and the sports facilities on the Danube Island.

“The list is nearly endless,” the mayor admits, adding the city’s drinking water “from pure mountain springs,” the public transport system and its location and infrastructure that make if among the top business locations. And for all their crankiness, he gives the citizens an important share of credit.

“Of course, the Viennese also contribute to the high quality of life. Vienna is a safe city and the Viennese literally have a ‘golden heart’. If you go to one of the many cafés or wine taverns in the city you will see for yourself that the Viennese know how to enjoy life”, Häupl concludes.

This concept of the locals having a golden heart is new to me. I aim to go off and research it. Perhaps it loses something in translation because it sounds slightly alarming in English. (The mayor’s comments have been translated from the original German, and capturing just the right tone can be elusive.)

But surely a part of the joy of living here is that locals are still prepared to pay for the upkeep of communal spaces like parks, and recognize that all public services have a price, but are also a big part of what keeps a society wholesome and harmonious. There is far less distance between the richest and poorest than in the Anglo-American model.

For those who cannot picture the Mayor, his image is used in many campaign posters around the city, such as the ‘Summer in the City’ pictures with a jacket slung casually over his shoulder. He wears a proud mustache and comes across as somewhat avuncular.

In a way he seems out of keeping with the slightly forbidding Rathaus, on the Ring, a massive Gothic pile both daunting and dark on the inside. Still it is very much open for business and many of it’s ornate public spaces spectacular — very much worth a visit. The acoustics can be a little tricky in these older buildings at press conference time, but this adds to the charm and old-school nature of Wien.

But what message does such the design of the building send out about Vienna politics? A fairytale city or a dark, medieval, place of mystery?

Mayor Häupl and two colleagues taking questions from reporters at the press conference held at the Rathaus on May 19 | Photo: David Reali

He answers with the story of when and how it was built in 1883 in a neo-Gothic style, as part of the new Ringstrasse, laid out by the Emperor Franz Josef  in the area formerly covered by the old city wall, and designed as a grand boulevard befitting Imperial capital. It was placed next to the neo-Classicist parliament building and the Imperial Palace, at the time still the emperor’s residence.

“Vienna City Hall was to be the citizens’ ‘cathedral’,” he said, “to show the emperor and the members of parliament that it was just as splendid and powerful [as the monarchy.]” I found this reply fascinating.

Vienna’s citizens feel close to their government, and believe their views will be listened to, as evidence by the high turnout — 36% — for a Swiss-style citizens’ poll conduced by city authorities earlier in the spring. There were five key questions, and the responses are already being implemented in city policy.

Was he surprised by any of the results in this exercise in people’s democracy?

“I was very happy with the turnout,” he said. “The only one that was close was the 24-hour metro service at weekends that will go into operation in early September. A dog owners license will be mandatory for people who own certain [dangerous] breeds, as of 1 July. And we have already started expanding the network of all-day schools in Vienna.”

Stories abound of Michael Häupl in action, when he is out and about meeting the people. He is charismatic, larger-than-life, with a big heart.

But he can also be blunt, as evidenced in a recent exchange with a young ORF journalist, where he became irascible and humiliated her in response to a question he did not like.

What’s clear is that Häupl himself appreciates the qualities he is working to preserve and constantly improve.

“One of the advantages for me personally is that even the Mayor can walk around freely and does not need bodyguards,” Häupl said. “What I also love is the typical Viennese humor. However, if you are not from Vienna it may take a while to get into it, I guess.” I can confirm this, having found waiters, for example, just plain rude, while my wife has to later explain that this was an exhibition of Schmäh, among other things, a dry dark wit that makes light of problems — as in the famous Viennese saying that “the situation is hopeless, but not serious.” I’ve also sat through interminable cabaret nights out.

But there must be something he will admit to disliking about life in Vienna, even in an election year?

“I love living in Vienna”, he counters. “But I have a very hard time living with people who discredit the reputation of our city in Austria and abroad and who try to stir up people against each other. It makes my alarm bells ring when I hear racist or extremely radical rhetoric.”

New arrivals are sometimes surprised how many appointments are made because of political party connections, and who knows whom. The cliché is that Vienna is a village and to nurture a career here, people will tell you, the most important thing is a large dose of Vitamin B — “Beziehungen,” i.e. relationships. Does he think this is healthy?

“It may be surprising for new arrivals that everyone knows everyone in Vienna. I have been in politics since my time at university and you just get to know a lot of people. But you have said yourself that Vienna has a high quality of life – so the personnel policy decisions of the past few years must have been quite good.” Hmmm.

For foreigners, the result can be living here in a kind of parallel universe, IN Vienna but not OF vienna. People who work at the UN or OPEC live in a separate world, rarely mixing with locals. I wonder out loud whether the Mayor feels the international community is well-integrated in Vienna? And if not, why not? His answer seems to miss the point.

“Vienna has always been a venue of conferences and international meetings”, he replies in appropriately diplomatic terms. “Just think of the Congress of Vienna in 1814 and the legendary meeting between Kennedy and Khrushchev. Today, Vienna is one of the official headquarters of the United Nations. The people from all around the world enrich our city. They bring their culture and their social background to Vienna and contribute to the great diversity.”

I try again. Is there anything the foreigners can do to get more involved in city life? Or does the first move need to come from the Viennese?

“We as a city do everything we can to get the international community involved in city life. But it depends on the individual people to get in contact with each other. I would say: just go out in Vienna and enjoy the atmosphere at the cafés and wine taverns and you’ll see for yourself how open and welcoming the Viennese are.”

Interior Minister Maria Fekter [from the centre-right ÖVP half of the governing coalition] is proposing some changes to the rules on immigration, with future arrivals required to learn German before they move here. It’s clear he doesn’t think much of the idea.

“It is undoubted that language is the key to integration. But you best learn a language by speaking it, preferably in the country where it is spoken. Which is why we in Vienna support specific language measures such as easily accessible and low-priced German courses. It is simply not feasible to ask family members of low-skilled third-country citizens to learn German before  moving to Austria. Many countries simply do not have the infrastructure for that.”

He continues, “I have the impression this new regulation is not meant as an incentive for future arrivals to learn German quickly but is in fact a new obstacle that is contrary to the principle of equality. There are some politicians in our country who do nothing but criminalize foreigners. And this is simply not the reality.” This is refreshing stuff from a man in a high place. But then, as he explained earlier, he’s a Social Democrat, and has no patience for those — particularly his FPÖ rival H.C. Strache — who plaza to the xenophobia so predictable in hard times.

“We need to understand diversity as an opportunity and value for our city. Nevertheless, speaking German is absolutely indispensable if people want to live together as good neighbors. You have to adhere to the house rules when you live in a housing estate and we ask everyone who lives in our city to adhere to the rules of living together. We can only live together peacefully if we respect each other.”

And finally, election posters are different in Austria because they invariably feature the politicians’ faces. Heinz-Christian Strache looks like a matinee idol in his latest campaign. If the 2010 election is between faces, Häupl or Strache, who wins? The mayor trusts the good sense of the voters.

“You may like one face, you may not like the other. But the Viennese know exactly which political beliefs, values and what kind of credibility are behind the ‘packaging.’”

So roll on September; at worst, it promises to be a colorful campaign.

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