Politics

Austria’s Former President Heinz Fischer Talks to Fair Observer


Austria is known as a stable Central European country that is the capital of classical music. It is also the home of prominent figures in the world of science and philosophy, including Sigmund Freud and Ludwig Wittgenstein.

In 2014, Austria had the lowest unemployment rate in the European Union. That trend declined in the years that followed, but the economy remained largely competitive. Austria is also one of the top 10 countries with the fewest number of unemployed young people among member states of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).


Debate Over COVID-19 Is Exactly What Austria Needs

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Austrians will head to the polls later this year for elections. The incumbent president, Alexander Van der Bellen, remains undecided over running again, but he is eligible for a second term in office. In the 2016 election, he defeated Norbert Hofer of the Freedom Party of Austria, thwarting his rival’s attempt to become the first far-right head of state in the EU.

Recently identified as the world’s fifth-most peaceful country in the 2021 Global Peace Index, Austria has seen substantial economic fallout due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The government’s decision to introduce mandatory vaccination and hefty penalties for those who do not comply has stirred controversy.

Heinz Fischer, the president of Austria between 2004 and 2016, is a seasoned lawyer who had a long career in politics. He took his first step toward becoming a national leader in early 1963, when he served as a legal assistant to the vice president of the Austrian parliament. He later became a member of parliament himself and then served as the minister of science, before leading the national council, the lower house of parliament, from 1990 to 2002. He is currently the co-chairman of the Ban Ki-moon Centre for Global Citizens in Vienna.

I spoke to Dr. Fischer about the COVID-19 pandemic, the refugee crisis in Europe, the Iran nuclear talks in the Austrian capital and more.

The transcript has been edited for clarity.

Kourosh Ziabari: Mr. President; according to Statistics Austria and the Austrian Institute for Economic Research approximations, the total fiscal costs of the COVID-19 pandemic for Austria amount to roughly €70 billion [$79 billion] in the 2020-22 period. As of May 2021, the government had earmarked €37 billion for relief measures. Do you think this is a liability for the Austrian economy that may result in a short- or mid-term recession, or is it a deficit that can be made up for soon? Has the government been able to handle the economic burden of the pandemic efficiently?

Heinz Fischer: When COVID-19 reached Austria and the first lockdown became mandatory, I was surprised to hear the finance minister from the conservative party announcing that he would compensate the economic burden with “whatever it costs.” This was unusual language for a conservative minister of finance.

All in all, the government’s relief measures were crucial for reducing Austria’s economic damage of the pandemic. The Institute for Economic Research as well as our National Bank claim that Austria will be able to go back to the path of economic growth; this will reduce unemployment and keep recession lower than a traditional conservative finance policy of strict zero deficit would have done. But the performance of the government fighting against COVID-19 was less successful.

Ziabari: It was reported that the government is planning to introduce mandatory inoculation starting in early 2022 and that those holding out will face fines of up to $4,000. Of course, vaccination is the most effective way of combating the effects of the coronavirus. But does a vaccine mandate and handing out substantial penalties not go against democratic practice in a country known for its democratic credentials? You are no longer in office, but as an observer, do you support the decision?

Fischer: This is one of the hottest or even the hottest topic of current political debates in Austria. To answer your question promptly and directly: Yes, I believe it is necessary and legitimate to introduce mandatory inoculation — with justified exemptions — for a limited period of time in order to protect our population and our country in the best possible way. Other European countries start thinking in a similar way.

It is not a one-issue question. You have, on the one hand, the obligation of the government to protect basic rights and individual freedom and, on the other hand, the obligation of the government to protect the health and life of its population. And it is obvious that there are different, even antagonistic basic rights, namely individual freedom on the one side and health insurance and fighting a pandemic on the other. It is not an either/or but an as-well-as situation. The government must take care of two responsibilities simultaneously, meaning that the democratically-elected parliament has to seek and find the balance between two values and two responsibilities.

If I remember correctly, a similar situation existed already two generations ago, when the danger of a smallpox pandemic justified an obligatory smallpox vaccination until the World Health Organization proclaimed the global eradication of the disease in 1980.

Ziabari: Moving on from the pandemic, Austria was one of the countries hugely affected by the 2015-16 refugee crisis in Europe. When the government of former Chancellor Sebastian Kurz came to power, it took a hard line on migration and made major electoral gains as a result. Now, with the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan, a new wave of westward migration appears to be in the making. Does Austria have a moral and human responsibility to protect asylum-seekers fleeing war and persecution, or should the responsibility be outsourced to other nations for certain reasons?

Fischer: My clear answer is, yes, Austria has a moral and human responsibility to protect asylum-seekers on the basis of international law and the international sharing of responsibilities.

Of course, we must discuss the numbers, the conditions, the possibilities, etc. of the respective country. But immediately saying no, we will not take women from Afghanistan, or we will not participate in burden-sharing of the European Union with the excuse that earlier governments many years ago already accepted a substantial share of refugees, is not acceptable. One cannot outsource humanity and moral duties.

Ziabari: How is Austria coping with the effects of climate change and its human rights implications? While the average global surface temperature rise from 1880 to 2012 has been 0.85° Celsius, it has been 2° Celsius for Austria. Austria’s target for 2030 is to cut greenhouse gas emissions not covered by the EU Emissions Trading System by 36%, but the International Energy Agency has forecast it may only achieve a 27% benchmark. Will Austria need external help to overcome the challenge? Are you positive it can fulfill the EU expectations?

Fischer: I do not think that Austria needs external help to fulfill its climate commitments. I do, however, think it is urgently necessary for the Austrian government to find a way forward in combating the climate crisis, a way that does not only cut greenhouse gas emissions, but which will also help to achieve societal consensus on the measures that are to be taken. This means the government must also be supporting social coherence.

Combating climate change is a multi-stakeholder effort and includes a just transition to clean energy, rapid phase-out of coal and end to international fossil fuel finance. In Austria in 2018, already 77% of electricity came from renewable energy sources and the number is constantly rising. While building a sustainable and climate-friendly future, we must, however, not forget to create green jobs, uphold human rights around the world and leave no one behind. I am positive that Austria will fulfill its EU expectations because it has to. There is only one planet, and we have to protect it with all means.

Ziabari: Let’s also touch upon some foreign policy issues. The former US president, Donald Trump, was rebuked by European politicians for alienating allies and spoiling partnerships with friendly, democratic nations and embracing repressive leaders instead. But Austria-US relations remained largely steady, and despite Trump’s protectionist trade policies, the United States imported a whopping $11.7 billion in goods and services from Austria. Do the elements that undergirded robust Austria-US connections still exist with a transition of power in the White House and a change of government in Austria?

Fischer: Yes, the relations between Austria and the United States have a long history and stable basis. Austria has not forgotten the prominent role of the US in the fight against Hitler. It has not forgotten the Marshall Plan — 75 years ago — and other ways of American support after World War II. The United States was a lighthouse of democracy in the 20th century, including the time of Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Franco, Horthy, etc. in Europe.

Of course, the Vietnam War, the political and economic pressure on countries in Latin America, the false arguments as the basis for a military invasion in Iraq and the heritage of racism have cast shadows on US policy. But having said all this, it is also true that the US has strengths in many fields of foreign policy and good relations between the US and Europe are a stabilizing factor in the world.

I would like to add that Donald Trump was and still is a great challenge for democracy in the US and a danger for the positive image of the United States in Europe and elsewhere.

Ziabari: Are you concerned about the tensions simmering between Russia and the West over Ukraine? Should it be assumed that Russia’s threats of deploying intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe are serious, or are the Russians bluffing to test the West’s resolve, particularly now that one of Europe’s influential leaders, Angela Merkel, has departed? Are Russia’s complaints about NATO’s exploitation of Ukraine to expand eastwards and the ongoing discrimination against Ukraine’s Russian-speaking populace valid?

Fischer: Yes, I am concerned about the growing conflict between Russia and the West, and this conflict has a long history. World War II was not started by Russia, the Soviet Union, but brutally against them.

After World War II, there was a bipolar world developing between the East and the West, between Moscow and Washington, between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. After the fall of the Iron Curtain and the collapse of the Soviet Union, a new situation emerged. Gorbachev was honestly interested in a more peaceful world. He was accepting over the reunification of Germany and accepted the former Warsaw Pact member East Germany to become a member of NATO.

But the deal was that Russia’s security should not be reduced, and other parts of the former Soviet Union should not become part of NATO. And, in this respect, Ukraine is an extremely sensitive issue. It is already a while ago, but let’s remember how sensitive the United States reacted to the so-called Cuban Missile Crisis — the stationing of Russian weapons near the US. NATO weapons at the border of Russia are not supportive of peace and stability.

Ziabari: German Chancellor Angela Merkel stepped down after 16 years in power. Aside from being referred to as the de facto leader of the EU, she was praised for her leadership during the eurozone debt crisis and her role in mustering global solidarity to fight COVID. What do you think about the legacy she has left behind? In terms of relations with Austria, do you think her differences with the government of Sebastian Kurz on immigration, Operation Sophia and the EU budget blighted the perception that Austrians had of her?

Fischer: Angela Merkel was a great leader, crucial for Germany, crucial for Europe, crucial for human rights, crucial for peace. I admired and liked her. When former Austrian Chancellor Kurz and former German Chancellor Merkel shared different views, Merkel was, in my opinion, mostly on the right and Kurz on the wrong side. She was “Mrs. Stability and Reliability” in a positive sense.

And her legacy? She belongs with Konrad Adenauer, Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt to the four great German leaders after World War II. Under her leadership, Germany was the most stable nation in the European Union and her relationship with Austria was a mirror to her character, namely balanced, friendly and correct.

Ziabari: In the past couple of decades, Europe has been the scene of multiple terror attacks with hundreds of casualties, including the November 2020 shooting in Vienna, which European officials and media unanimously blamed on Islamist terrorism and political Islam. What are the stumbling blocks to the normalization of relations between secular Europe and its Muslim community? Is this civilizational, generational clash destined to last perennially, or are you optimistic that the two discourses can come to a co-existence?

Fischer: The melting of different nationalities, cultures and religions is always a difficult task. The Austro-Hungarian monarchy finally collapsed because of unsolved conflicts between European nationalities.

Conflicts become even more difficult when they include different religions and ethnicities. We can say that the conflict between our German-speaking, Czech-speaking, Hungarian- or Polish-speaking grandparents is more or less overcome, but the conflict between Christians and Muslims will last longer. We can study this in the United States. But it is my personal hope that multi-religious integration is possible in the long run in a fair and democratic society.

Ziabari: Talks to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, are underway in the Austrian capital. Are you hopeful that the moribund agreement can be brought back to life? Do you see the determination to save the accord in the Iranian side and the other parties, for the benefit of international peace and security?

Fischer: I was very happy when the 2015 JCPOA was signed between Iran, the United States, China and several European countries. And I believe it was one of the very wrong and unwise decisions of Donald Trump to withdraw from that agreement. To revitalize this agreement is, as we can observe these days, very difficult.

As you asked me about my opinion, I am inclined to a more pessimistic outlook, because the present Iranian leaders are more hardliners than the last government and President Biden is under heavy pressure and has not much room for compromises. On the other hand, I recently met a member of the Iranian negotiation team in Vienna and, to my surprise, he was rather optimistic.

One of my wishes for 2022 is a reasonable and fair solution for the JCPOA negotiations and a détente between Iran and the Western world. But the chances for a positive outcome seem to be limited at the moment.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.



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