Photo: Students protesting in the streets of Vienna, Oct. 29. Photo Credit: Cremer / Der Standard.
“I feel already well-equipped, and speaking English daily will hopefully not cause me to forget German,” Johannes Hahn – the last name Hahn translated into English means rooster or cock – replied confidently in his first public interview with the daily Der Standard of Oct. 28, when asked about his English language knowledge after his surprise nomination as Austria’s EU Commissioner. The current Federal Minister for Science and Research, in office since January 2007, will be Austria’s most influential European politician as part of Emanuel Barroso’s second European Commission.
With the unanimous decision by the Austrian government of Oct. 27 lunchtime, the show-down between the two coalition partners – Werner Faymann’s Social democrats and Josef Pröll’s Conservative ÖVP – eventually found an abupt end. The contest of nomination was mere on the surface, though, as Faymann declared already months ago that his party – though strongest in the Austrian Parliament – would not nominate a commissioner, but played a risky tactical game of which Conservative nominee they would support.
Only in recent weeks Hahn’s name appeared as a compromise candidate of the government, as the Conservatives did not intend to send current Austrian Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner again to Brussels, though favored by Faymann; and for tactical reasons, the Social democrats would not support former Vice Chancellor Wilhem Molterer, who famously had quit the coalition with the Social democrats in July 2008 which led to snap elections.
More significantly, Molterer as Finance Minister, was primarily responsible for the disastrous attempts of privatizing Austria’s national airline Austrian Airlines, finally settled with the new owner Lufthansa in May 2009 but only after prolonged investigations by the European Commission. So, Hahn’s name surfaced eventually, and his nomination became a mutual convenience in the end:
Firstly, Hahn also still leads the ÖVP’s Vienna party section, and he would have led one of the weakest Conservative provincial party organization into election in October 2010. Hahn’s departure deprives the ÖVP of its best-known, though rather uncharismatic, leading candidate. So, Faymann set scores even with his former protege Michael Häupl, Vienna’s mayor and whose government he was once part of until he became party leader in July 2008, combating the fear of heavy electoral losses his party has suffered in recent provincial elections.
In an attempt to rescue the expected dramatic personnel situation of the Conservatives in Vienna, Hahn initially signalled that he would like to remain the party leader, as he wrongly assumed no conflict of interest, Barroso’ office clearly rejected the idea. Faymann’s move takes effect and Austria has nominated a Commissioner with little understanding or enthusiasm for European politics.
Secondly, the Conservative party leadership is able to elegantly depose of a troublesome minister, who has recently come under severe pressure by students occupying university facilities in a defiant gesture of demanding more money for a seriously under-funded university system. Since Oct. 21, student protests of some 2,000 persons have culminated in the occupation of the University of Vienna’s main auditorium and is still ongoing, entering its 10th day today.
Additionally, Minister Hahn is faced with a wave of German students that have flooded into the public universities ever since the abolition of tuition fees took effect with the current academic year – see my commentary. Hahn and the Conservatives, objecting the abolition of those fees, fell victim of a political, pre-electoral tactics of the Social democrats together with the opposition parties, FPÖ, the Greens and BZÖ – see also my commentary of September 2008. Consequently, Hahn opened the debate anew of re-introducing tuition fees on Oct. 2, promising “fair tuition fees and many more scholarships.”
CERN and other ‘Disasters’
The appointment of Johannes Hahn as minister with the responsibility for the state university system was a surprise as his political career showed no specific affinity for higher education issues. He was welcomed with skepticism, particularly once the suspicion surfaced that Hahn’s own P.h.D. thesis of 1987 might in part be plagiarized.
Matters turned especially sour on May 8, 2009 when he announced one-sidedly that Austria would cancel its membership at Swiss-based European Organization for Nuclear Research CERN. Austria has been a member since 1959, and CERN’s main function is to provide the particle accelerators and other infrastructure needed for high-energy physics research, and it is also noted for being the birthplace of the World Wide Web. But on May 18, Chancellor Faymann forced a retreat on the decision.
It made one thing clear: Hahn is by no means firm in his political opinions. That is the strength of the current protest movement that Austrian universities exposed to. Oct 29 saw one of the largest protests yet with a demonstration of some 40,000 students. But the occupation of the main auditorium of the University of Vienna, the spread of such activities to many other universities all over the country, is not the work of the politically structures student union (Österreichische Hochschülerschaft), but primarily organized through social media networks, particularly Facebook and Twitter.
One of the groups – Audimax Besetzung in der Uni Wien – Die Uni brennt! – has gained immense importance as a platform of coordination and communication to the outside world. With more than 22,000 members and constantly growing by the hour it has gained an enormous political potential that traditional party politics has not been able to instrumentalize or influence.
Austria got its first major Twitter ‘revolution’ – not quite like the Iran protests, but rather more evolutionary. And Hahn’s initial refusal to negotiate with the protesters showed that politics has no intention yet to take the protests seriously.
Georg Hoffmann-Ostenhof, political commentator of the weekly news magazine profil, predicts that the future of the protest movement is uncertain: “It could fizzle out, without having achieved anything; like many protests of the past, it could radicalize and crush at the public’s opinion. It could however, hold out some time, seek allies and might even spread into other areas.”
The protests have at least achieved one thing: Hahn’s removal from the ministry by his appointment to Brussels. The worst signal Austria could send to Europe. But it might offer a restart, both in Austria’s Higher Education system and for Hahn.
“It would be illogic for Austria, but (heading the directorate) for maritime affairs and fisheries would have some charm, for sure,” Hahn joked in the interview with Der Standard. Who, in any case, would entrust him with educational affairs on a European level?
Austrian students have made up their mind of Hahn. On one of the large banners shown at the demonstration reads: “Hahn, you cock!” He will, undoubtedly, ‘crow’ in Brussels instead.