VIENNA, June 26: Under fire from right-wing nationalists for helping out euro zone laggards, Austrian Finance Minister Maria Fekter stood before parliament this month to say why Europeans had to stick together.
‘Europe is our guarantor of peace. Europe is our greater homeland and our common destiny. We don’t want to have nationalism get out of hand. We had this once before and we know we have to avoid this,’ she said, in a reference to the rise of Austria’s far-right before its annexation by Nazi Germany.
‘Thus it is about creating this Europe together. And now we have a lot to create.’
You don’t often hear politicians in Europe talk in those terms nowadays because peace is taken for granted on this comfortably-off continent a lifetime after World War Two.
Public opinion at the ‘Stammtisch’, the regulars’ table in every Austrian pub, is driven more by economic anxiety and fear of losing national or regional identity.
As leaders of the 17-nation euro zone grope for closer integration to shore up the single currency and fend off Eurosceptics, Austria’s grand coalition may offer a model.
How to achieve to a unified, prosperous and financially sound Europe is a challenge for a governing alliance of centre-left Social Democrats and the conservative People’s Party that spans Europe’s broad left-right and north-south divides.
Leaders of both mainstream parties have found compromises that focus first on getting countries’ finances in order while seeking ways to promote economic growth and jobs.
They lend broad support to the idea of fiscal and banking union but are short on details of what the new European order should look like, suggesting a convention should consider amending the EU treaties. They are now ready to consider changes sweeping enough to require a rare Austrian referendum.
With elections due next year, they face catcalls from a resurgent Eurosceptical far right, led by Heinz-Christian Strache’s Austria-first Freedom Party, which opposes bailouts of weaklings like Greece and wants to break up the euro zone.
‘There has been a lot of learning,’ one government official acknowledged. ‘Things we loudly didn’t accept a couple of months ago seem less objectionable now in view of the alternatives.
‘Take for example euro bonds or any kind of debt sharing at European level – something to which we always said ‘no way, over our dead body’. We continue to say this is not our first option but in the long run this is something we would look at.’
That meant Austria was using a ‘backwards kind of decision making’, he said, adapting its positions where needed to ensure the euro’s survival and strengthen European integration.
The brassy Fekter, whose unvarnished language outshines that of conservative leader Michael Spindelegger and has irked many euro zone colleagues, says Europe needs fiscal union as members grow closer together by exercising iron budget discipline.
With powerful neighbour Germany, she shares a vision of corralling spendthrift countries in a tight European corset that would leave upright members like Austria alone. ‘I don’t want to pay for my neighbours’ loans,’ she has declared.
Spindelegger, who is vice-chancellor and foreign minister, said ordinary Austrians were worried about the future of the euro and saw a need for tougher enforcement of EU budget rules with sanctions to preserve the currency.
‘It has percolated down to a low level – to the Stammtisch – that things cannot go on functioning this way in a currency union. Everyone feels this,’ he told a small group of reporters.
‘Lots of people in Austria are worried: what will happen with my money? Is it safe? Do I have to worry? Should I have real estate or gold? Should I hide money under the bed? We are having this discussion here as well.’
ROSES AT MIDNIGHT
Chancellor Werner Faymann, inspired by fellow Social Democrat Francois Hollande’s ascent in France, is flying the pro-growth banner more boldly while stressing there is no way around belt-tightening to ensure Vienna controls its own fate.
He supports the idea of joint euro zone borrowing once conditions permit, but baulks at letting Brussels set binding rules on social policies like the retirement age.
It took Faymann a while, but he has come around to describing himself as an ardent European in a neutral country with a stubborn minority that is wary of foreign entanglements. (AGENCIES)