4 min read
Discussion on European Politics with Dr. Gusenbauer

This month Platform got the chance to sit down with Dr. Alfred Gusenbauer, the former Chancellor of Austria from January 2007 to December of 2008. Dr. Gusenbauer has also worked in a variety of other fields, including consulting, work in academia and is a member of 7 different corporate boards. We discussed his views on European politics and the recent election win for Italy's far right party, the Brothers of Italy.

Platform: Is there anything the EU could be doing better to improve its punitive response to Russia?

Dr. Gusenbauer: I think what the EU has been doing has been quite right. To the surprise of Russia, Europe is staying united. The EU is using sanctions that are affecting the Russian economy. Maybe the effect is not happening immediately, but in the long or middle range run, the sanctions will be economically terrible for Russia. They're also basically isolated from all the supply chains in the high-tech sector which they also need for their armament industry. So sanctions are not creating a change in Russia immediately, but in the long run they're going to work. Even if these oligarchs that are affected by the sanctions, do not really have a strong say in Russian politics at the moment (because everything is controlled by the inner circle of Mr. Putin), I think it adds to the feelings of dissatisfaction that large proportions of the Russian population are feeling about the effects of the war in Ukraine on everyday life in Russia.Regarding the Western policy of supplying weapons to Ukraine, I think it should be continued, because without these weapons, the Ukrainian army would be in quite a dire situation. So supplying weapons to Ukraine is working and effectively supporting Ukrainian resistance. The fact that certain countries in the West don't want to go beyond that is a sign that these countries don't want a further escalation of the war. And as you know, the US has stated several times that they don't want to get directly involved, but at the moment it seems the war is going more in the direction of a Ukrainian victory than a Russian victory and I think that's good news.

Platform: With the recent election successes for the Brothers of Italy (a far-right Italian party) and the Swedish Democrats (a far-right Swedish party), how worried should European liberals be that the far- right will continue its successes in Europe?

Dr. Gusenbauer: Well I think it's a matter of concern because it shows very clearly the dissatisfaction of broad parts of the population. I think that you have to differentiate between the cases of Italy and Sweden. In Italy, the Fratelli D’Italia (Brothers of Italy Party) just became the strongest party and were able to form a coalition government together with their right and far-right allies. In Sweden, it's not quite the same. The Swedish Democrats did not become the strongest party. They're supporting a right and center-right bourgeoisie type of government but they're not the strongest party, which still makes a difference but of course it's worrisome. It was always a good strategy for more moderate parties to come together and refuse to partner with the far-right, because then those parties are reduced to a very vocal but consistent role within the opposition. There have been many concerns about the development of the (far-right party) AFD (Alternative for Deutschland) in Germany, but I think the AFD is a mainly a reaction to the fact that there was a grand coalition (of parties) in Germany and when you have a grand coalition people don't really have a choice, because there needs to be an ideological opposition to the government. When you have a choice between Center-Right and Center-Left governments, I think far-right parties are unable to garner support beyond a limited threshold, but they can play a role in the formation of right-wing governments. So they are an expression of that fact that some countries are moving to the right, but as long as there is a choice for democracies between center-left and center-right parties, I think the importance and influence of far-right parties can be limited and contained.

Platform: How likely is this to happen in Austria with the far-right FPö, (Freedom party of Austria)?

Dr. Gusenbauer: Well we aren't proud of it, but Austria has a long history with the Freedom Party. The Freedom Party was quite strong in the 90’s, then at a culmination moment for their political success, they entered the government in 2000, which was a complete disaster and all the legal investigations looking into the corruption that resulted from their time in the Government from 2000-2006, still has yet to be resolved completely because it was a broad range of time. So, it was a disaster. Then, they were out of government for quite some time and then went through a revival and became very strong and then the center-right joined forces with them, putting them back in power in 2017, which ended again as a complete disaster. So at the moment they are out of the government, but they currently have a strong showing in opinion polls. This is because, at the moment, we have a rather depressing situation with the major party in the government, the Conservative Party, which is dealing with their own corruption scandals and so they are dropping in opinion polls and this situation very much helps the Freedom Party. I think that in the next elections to come, if there is a government that is either led by the Conservatives or by the Social Democrats, I think that there's a good chance the far-right will not be a member of the government again and if they perhaps even had a competitor for votes within the far-right camp, one could limit their influence. I don't see the freedom party picking up more than 30% of the vote count. I think the other parties are doing quite fine if they can limit the far-right share of the vote count to within the 20’s, but beyond that would be a real problem.

Platform: Earlier this month, Alexander van de Bellen was elected to another term as president. Given the fact that the position of Austria's president is considered to be largely ceremonial, does this election have any significance as an indication of changing political attitudes or is it simply an election that is more a reflection of the political personalities that were the choices in the election?

Dr. Gusenbauer: Well, I think if he wouldn't have been re-elected it would have meant a lot. Since he was re-elected, we evaluated the results of the election as quite normal. It was quite normal because in Austrian history the standing president usually receives a second mandate and this has established a tradition that other parties respect, to support the re-election of the President when he has had an “OK” performance and does not come from their own party. So, I would not exaggerate the importance of the re-election of Mr. Van Bellen, as it is quite a normal result; but when you look around the world today, normality is a great success, isn't it?

Platform: Was there anything that surprised you about the role of the chancellor, during your time in office (January 2007- December of 2008)?

Dr. Gusenbauer: I think it was realizing that the political strengths of the chancellor are in dealing with responsibilities that are related to European and Foreign affairs. I think this dynamic isn’t only found in Austria but across all the EU member states and it is a result of the large amount of legislation and initiatives that happen on the European level. The chancellors influence on details within domestic legislation, where you have to battle daily with your own party and different groups in parliament, do not offer the same room for maneuvering then the role that an Austrian can play as a member of the European Council. And this was especially true when I was in office, as we had to manage the quite severe financial and economic crisis that emerged in 2008 on short notice and therefore the decision making that took place at the European level was necessary in order to avoid a crisis of the world economy. As you know, we were on the brink of economic collapse and in such a situation, a leader has much more responsibilities then normal times.

Platform: What policy achievement are you most proud of in your career?

Dr. Gusenbauer: [laughs] I think the list is endless of course. I think our government did very well in surviving and managing the financial crisis. The measures that we took were adequate and helped our country to enter recovery very quickly. We enacted some reforms for our social system that made sure it was more targeted for those who needed it and this made our social system more robust. We were also quite successful in expanding our education program, by moving away from the long time tradition in austria that pupils are only in school in the mornings and we were able to change the standards of our educational system to require a full school day and I think this was a major step forward in providing equal opportunities for people from different social backgrounds. We also passed many judicial reforms that modernized our democracy and improved our judicial system. We also provided opportunities for young people to learn and become involved with the political process, I think Austria was the first country that changed the voting age to 16, in order to motivate people to get engaged at an early stage, bearing in mind that most of the political decision that are made by the government will affect the future of our youth. So we enacted many reforms within a short period of time and I think we positioned Austria as a reliable, interesting partner for many countries around the world, given the context of the international developments that I was able to explore, during my time in office.

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