As its Chancellor, Franz Vranitzky led Austria into the European Union. But first, he had to convince his party and then the people – with “communicable” positive aspects.
365 Sherpas: Dr Vranitzky, when you think back to the day that Austria joined the European Union, what do you remember in particular?
Franz Vranitzky: By and large, the tension had already died down on 1 January 1995. However, the phases prior to that had been so full of tension, dynamism, and a need for full personal and political commitment that the actual day we joined was more like confirming the inevitability of what had already been achieved.
365 Sherpas: What was this time like?
Vranitzky: I can break the accession process down into roughly three phases. In the beginning, it was about achieving political agreement in general. That wasn’t something you could take for granted in the SPÖ, because the party and its officials had been prepared almost exclusively not to join over many years. This was because we were already a member of EFTA, and also because of fears that joining the EC would lead to joining NATO as well. In addition, many people felt, mainly on the Soviet side, that it would be seen as an attempted Anschluss with Germany. The second phase include the negotiations in Brussels, and the third was the national referendum. The preparation phase was like a highly intensive election campaign.
365 Sherpas: As the chancellor, what were your expectations for a future within the EU at the time?
Vranitzky: The focus was on the economic policy side, though we were aware of Europe’s significance as a peace project. When we joined, the de facto discrimination against the close trade partner, Austria, stopped at a stroke. There were a great deal of expectations tied to that, ranging from better chances to have a say, weekly savings at the consumer level, even better export prospects, and job security as a consequence of freedom of travel. These weren’t just positive aspects, but they were benefits we could communicate to the people. People understood this, and they welcomed it.
365 Sherpas: It was also a time of progress in integration, which was going smoothly until the constitutional treaty brought it to a standstill. Had that been foreseeable at the time?
Vranitzky: We knew that the constitutional issue would be difficult in various Member States, but we were nonetheless disappointed when the project didn’t go through. You could say it was an expected disappointment, but a disappointment all the same.
365 Sherpas: This magazine is all about “Europe as homeland”. It seems as though “homeland” has recently become a contested term in Europe – between the right-wing, who use it as a call to arms against the elite, Europe, and globalisation, and progressive factions who are attempting to give it a more outward-looking connotation. Do you think we need a concept of Europe as homeland?
These weren’t just positive aspects, but they were benefits we could communicate to the people. People understood this, and they welcomed it.
Vranitzky: I reject the use of homeland as a call to arms for right-wing extremists, because in reality that’s a twisted misuse of the word. On the other hand, your political arguments have to be carefully made.
I have always said that European integration means different peoples coming together without having to give up their own qualities or unique characteristics. Being stirred into a diffuse, grey European porridge can’t be our vision. As a person, or as a state official, as I used to be, I would like to say: I’m a European with Austrian citizenship and a clear Austrian definition. That cannot be allowed to be a contradiction, and it shouldn’t be one either. Only those who oppose integration are still using it as a contradiction.
365 Sherpas: Are people increasingly thinking in terms of national borders, and ultimately retreating to their own home, because they feel overwhelmed in an increasingly complex world? A boom in wearing traditional clothing in response to globalisation?
Vranitzky: In a highly technical and glob-alised setting, one’s own home can be something that a person can hold onto in a world where there are international, economic, political and cultural explosions going off everywhere you look. But that shouldn’t be confused with any particular trends in fashion. If a few thousand people in Vienna decide to wear lederhosen and dirndls to the Neustift Kirtag festival one summer, that’s hardly a pledge to their homeland. That hardly diminishes or improves the concept of homeland.
I’m a European with Austrian citizenship and a clear Austrian definition. That cannot be allowed to be a contradiction, and it shouldn’t be one either. Only those who oppose integration are still using it as a contradiction.
365 Sherpas: What can Europe do in order not have these concerns projected onto it? Or to put it another way, does Europe have a communication problem?
Vranitzky: If it were just a communication problem, it would be solvable. I think that the underlying problem is that the governments in many Member States do not have a sufficient and active European policy. This means steering political practices towards a commitment to Europe. To put it in less abstract terms: It’s not enough to do social policy today, education policy tomorrow, energy policy the day after and then on Friday, if there’s any time left, a bit of European policy.
There has to be a political understanding that Europe is an entire issue in itself, and that European politics have to be implemented in a holistic way. There’s a European aspect in every area: in transport policy, energy policy, even in education policy – no, especially in education policy. Even when we think about the imperatives, we are facing in matters of energy and ecology today, no Member State alone is able to offer a satisfactory solution to the challenges.
365 Sherpas: What does that mean?
Vranitzky: Because of the passivity of governments, large sections of the population identify this European idea only as something peripheral, and so this gives rise to Euroscepticism or even the rejection of Europe. That gives groups on the far-right more fuel to reject this European idea. This is reflected in voting patterns and, in turn, amplifies these far-right groups that we could do without – not just in terms of European politics, but in a number of other areas as well.
In a highly technical and globalised setting, one’s own home can be something that a person can hold onto.
365 Sherpas: This sounds like politics has lost its enthusiasm for Europe.
Vranitzky: That also has to do with the fact that clear parliamentary majorities are becoming rarer. If a government is not especially secure, it tends to make easy – though not to say frivolous – compromises. In turn, such weak solutions do not lead to a strong presence in Europe. It’s a vicious cycle.
365 Sherpas: For a long time, Europe was seen as a peace project, then as a prosperity project. What might the next big narrative be for Europe to reignite precisely this enthusiasm?
Vranitzky: Narrative has become a buzzword in political discussion in the last few months; nevertheless, I think it’s justified. This next narrative has to look to the future. It has to take into account that Europe’s economic output is declining by world standards, and that people in Europe are exposed to overageing as a result of demographic developments. Thus, we need a different approach towards migration than simply blocking it. The necessary consequences can be derived from that, namely the harmonisation and joint development of our next programmes. This has to be recognised and anchored in the minds of the people of Europe. Then we’ll have the next European narrative.
365 Sherpas: Dr Vranitzky, thank you for speaking to us!
Dr Franz Vranitzky was the Chairman of the SPÖ, Minister of Finance and, from 1986 to 1997, Chancellor of the Republic of Austria. During his chancellorship, the Iron Curtain fell, and Austria joined the European Union.