The Rooster in Brussels or Austria’s Twitter ‘Evolution’

31 10 2009

Cremer_Hahn_28102009 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.
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Paying Peanuts for Monkeys

18 10 2009

Bergant_16102009

Photos: Boris Bergant chairing the discussion / Erhard Busek opening the session / Zoe Schneeweiss debating. Credit: Matthias Wurz

“It is most frightening to realize that history has not taught us a lesson ,” Boris Bergant uttered the words softly. The Slovenian radio and television journalist, current Vice President of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), addressed a distinguished audience of media professionals from Central and South-east Europe. His voice seems pressed and slightly nervous, but full of emotions. Before he could continue, however, his remarks were interrupted by enthusiastic applause.


It was Oct. 16, the evening event of the Standards of Evidence symposium, organized by the Commission on Radio and Television Policy for Central, East and South-east Europe alongside with the Forum Alpbach. The scheduled panel discussion on ‘The Media and the Financial Crisis’ with high-profile media professionals held at Vienna’s Haus der Musik, was preceded by a short but not less dignified award ceremony for Boris Bergant. The 61-year-old is recipient of the Dr. Erhard Busek SEEMO 2009 Award for Better Understanding. His short acceptance speech was a moving recollection of the Balkan’s troubled, repetitious and bloody 20th century history.

The SEEMO Award 2009 Ceremony

Austria’s former Vice Chancellor and President of the Forum Alpbach as well as Coordinator of the Southeast European Cooperative Initiative (SECI), Erhard Busek, was not only but also the benefactor of one of Europe’s most prestigious media awards but also host of tonight’s award ceremony. Just a few introductory words were needed for one of the finest and eloquent journalists the Balkan region has. “You have to earn your award,” Busek amicably addressed the delightful award recipient when he referred to the following debate that Bergant would chair.

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EP Elections: ‘Where Do You Go?’

7 06 2009

I admit: I have cast my vote in the elections to the European Parliament at about 10.40 am this morning. So, I am one of about 35 to 40 percent of the Austrian electorate – my estimation – that by the end of the day will have cast their vote for the 17 Austrian seats in the European Parliament. In 2004, 42.5% went to the polls.

There were a few novelties for me: For the first time, I made my way to the polling station without any idea who I am going to vote. As resident of Vienna’s most-populated district Favoriten, it is a five-minute walk to the primary school at Keplerplatz, right at the administrative center of Vienna’s 10th district, just off the underground station of the same name and the pedestrian Favoritenstrasse.

While attentatively walking through the streets at a humid but cloudy Sunday morning, I recall No Mercy’s 1996-hit ‘Where Do You Go?’ Indeed, where is Europe heading, I wonder.
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Healthy Euro-skepticism?

25 05 2009

020_19_Merritt

Photo: Giles Merritt (center) speaking at the Public Opinion and Europe symposium. Photo Credit: Matthias Wurz

“Reporting on EU Affairs is boring, and it’s not the journalists’ fault,” exclaimed Giles Merritt, Editor of the Brussels-based bi-lingual journal Europe’s World and Secretary General of the think-tank Friends of Europe, and paused. And while the audience of academics, diplomats, politicians, the occasional journalist and those interested in European affairs caught their breath, he added, with a twinkle in his eyes, “I used to be a journalist reporting on European Affairs.”

Merritt’s provocative remarks were part of an international symposium on ‘Public Opinion and Europe’ held at the Diplomatic Academy on May 6 – 7. Co-organized by the Austrian-French Centre for Rapprochement in Europe and the French Institut Français des Relations Internationales, the conference was chaired by the Centre’s director and former Austrian Foreign Minister Peter Jankowitsch.

In six panel sessions, high-ranking diplomats, civil servants and academics from Austria and a number of EU member states, sought answers to questions on how the public views the European institutions and what could be done about Euro-skepticism. Speakers included French Senator Hubert Haenel, who chairs the senatorial committee on European Affairs; former Director General of Austrian National Bank Heinz Kienzl or Christian Leffler from Sweden, currently Head of Cabinet for EU Commissioner for Institutional Relations and Communications Strategy, Margot Wallström.

The conference concluded at the palatial French Embassy, prominently located at the picturesque Schwarzenbergplatz, in eyesight of the Memorial of the Soviet Army across the large square with its spectacular fountain. As the some 100 participants enjoyed the delicious cuisine française – charmingly hosted by His Eminence Ambassador Phillippe Carré – Giles Merritt, former Brussels correspondent for the Financial Times and regular contributor to the International Herald Tribune, offered and in-depth view on Europe over a glass of exquisite French red wine. Read the rest of this entry »





NATO passé – Austria’s NATO Strategy

3 05 2009

FRANCE-GERMANY-NATO-SUMMIT-DEFENCEPhoto: from left to right, (Former) NATO General Secretary Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, U.S. President Barack Obama, French President Nicholas Sarkozy and Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel at the NATO Summit 2009. Photo Credit: Getty Images

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), found cause to celebrate this year: On Apr. 4, 1949, the collective defense alliance was founded in Brussels on the eve of the Cold War. Sixty years later and now with 28 member states – Croatia and Albania were formally accepted this year – the organization set out to redefine its role after the collapse of communism 20 years ago.

For the first time, the annual NATO Summit was jointly hosted by two member states, France and Germany, whose “close partnership during the course of NATO’s history symbolizes a vision of a Europe whole and free,” according to the NATO website. Following the Summit, member countries’ leaders called for a new doctrine, as the previous one of 1999 neither reflects the changes in Russia nor takes global terrorism – like the 9/11 – into account.

The 60th anniversary also marked the return of France to the allied command structure – a move hailed by members, though deeply controversial within France. French President Nicholas Sarkozy defended his decision by saying that now was time for change:
“Our strategy cannot remain stuck in the past,” he urged at a talk at France’s Strategic Research Foundation in mid-March, “when the conditions of our security have changed radically.” France, Sarkozy argued, will have more influence in NATO missions while the independence of the nuclear-equipped French military will remain untouched.

But all seems well without NATO for Austria, now surrounded by alliance members, except Liechtenstein and Switzerland. The dramatic NATO membership plea by news magazine profil journalists Gernot Bauer and Georg Hoffmann-Ostenhof in the article ‘Holt uns da rein!’ (‘Get us in there!’ Apr. 6 edition) did not, however, spark any further political debate. All political parties seem happy to remain neutral, including those who once argued for NATO membership. Read the rest of this entry »





Obama in Prague: The Speech at Hradcany Square – an Analysis

1 05 2009

About 30,000 people gathered at Hradčanské náměstí (Hradcany Square) on Prague Castle of Apr. 5 to hear U.S. President Barack Obama. The whole city seemed to have turned out to hear this most eloquent of politicians, waiting patiently in the chill morning.

Today, 20 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, Obama praised the role the Czechs had played through peaceful protest:

“The Sametová Revoluce – the Velvet Revolution taught us many things,” he said, pausing, to allow the applause to die off. Not only was his pronunciation nearly flawless, said Czechs in the audience, but it touched those who had taken to the streets so long ago.

“It showed us that small countries can play a pivotal role in the world events, and that young people can lead the way in overcoming conflicts.” As in 1989, “moral leadership is more powerful than any weapon.”

Obama’s visit to Prague came at a difficult time for the young democracy, with a deepening political conflict between President Václav Klaus, first post-Communist Prime Minister and architect of the Czech Republic’s economic success of the 1990s, the conservative minority government of Mirek Topolánek and the Social democratic opposition, led by former Prime Minister Jiří Paroubek

On Mar. 24, just days before Obama’s arrival and in the midst of the EU presidency, Topolanek’s government lost a no confidence vote in the Czech Parliament over whether to allow some of the controversial U.S. missile defense shield to be installed on Czech territory. Topolanek will step down by May 8 to make way for a transition government of technocrat Jan Fischer, head of the Czech Statistical Office, before interim elections in October. Read the rest of this entry »





Obama in Prague: The Ceremonial Act

30 04 2009

Barack Obama in PraguePhotos: Matthias Wurz

It was Apr. 2, early in the evening when I received the confirmation via email: an accreditation by the Czech Presidents Office for the visit of U.S. President Barack Obama with Czech President Vaclav Klaus on Palm Sunday, Apr. 5.

There was only one catch: I could only go as a photographer for the Welcoming Ceremony at the castle, also a chance for getting closer to the man. For Obama’s long-expected speech on his vision of peace and non-proliferation at Hradcany Square, I had to take a pass.

My train journey from Vienna to Prague on Saturday evening was uneventful, and the city itself did not seem to be ‘under siege,’ as in June 2006 when former U.S. President George W. Bush came to Vienna.

But that changed the next morning, just hours ahead of the presidents’ meeting. Following advice from the hotel staff, I took public transport to the castle. When I boarded the No. 12 tram near my hotel at about 6:00, every American in the city seemed to be going the same way.

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Business Analysis: Rewarding Dishonesty

31 03 2009

This article is co-written by Ing. Werner Krauss – see information below

Toxic Assets Cartoon

Cartoon: © Dave Granlund, www.davegranlund.com

The Problem of ‘Toxic Assets’

“Our job is to fix the problem in the financial sector at the least risk to the taxpayer,” U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner stated the objective on Mar. 23. Supported by President Barack Obama, Geithner unveiled yet another bailout plan for the struggling U.S. financial system.

Rumours had it, that the Obama Administration would revive a plan that the Bush Administration had drafted in September 2008 but put back into the draw: Spending billions of U.S. dollars taxpayers’ money to free the financial system of ‘legacy assets’ – real estate loans as well as securities backed by loan portfolios – colloquially known as ‘toxic assets.’

Those assets cause “uncertainty around the balance sheets of these financial institutions, compromising their ability to raise capital and their willingness to increase lending,” so the Fact Sheet of the Public-Private-Investment Program of the U.S. Treasury, which confirms what has been rumored in early March.

According to the new bailout strategy, the U.S. government will spend yet another staggering U.S. $ 75 – 100 billion in order to help raise $ 1 trillion as to stimulate the economy and ‘flush’ the U.S. financial system of the ‘toxic assets.’

Geithner admitted that this plan fuels public anger as Wall Street seems to benefit at times where average Americans suffer. The financial sector has indeed been a major recipient to previous support: As an example, the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP) worth more than U.S. $ 700 billion, included $ 25 billion packages each for Citigroup, J.P. Morgan Chase and Well Fargo, the largest amounts ever given to any bank, among others.

“The (public) anger and outrage is perfectly understandable,” and he firmly added that “we have to make sure our assistance is not going to award failures.”

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Competing with the Far-Right on Europe

28 01 2009

Saturday, Jan. 17, was a historic moment for Austria’s Green Party. On the party congress, held in Klagenfurt, Eva Glawischnig, the nominated new party leader succeeding Alexander van der Bellen, received 97.4% of delegates’ votes (228 of 234), a truly remarkable result and the highest approval rate for any Green Party leader in its history.

Party officials hail this convincing result as a sign of unity of the party, severely shaken after its disappointing election result of Sept. 2008, where the Green Party dropped to the fifth place in parliament with 10.4%, unable to defend the third place (11 %) of 2006.

Glawischnig, in an attempt to differentiate herself from her more conservative-leaning predecessor van der Bellen, evidently plays the populism card on questions of the European Union in order to regain national attention.

“The Treaty of Lisbon is dead”, she declared in rhetoric similar to the far-right parties in an interview with Der Standard on Dec. 11, 2008. And she continued on the perspective that the accession negotiations with Turkey were successfully completed:

“Since the (European) Union failed at the Treaty of Lisbon, it has to ensure that its institutions work effectively with the new number of members. This is still a huge construction site. Under the current conditions, the EU is not receptive (to new members).”

This dramatic shift in European politics, announced first in a newspaper interview, inevitably provoked an open conflict with Johnannes Voggenhuber, longstanding MEP and as a member of the European Convention intimately acquainted with the EU constitutional process. Not surprisingly, Voggenhuber has been an adversary of the Constitutional Treaty and the succeeding Treaty of Lisbon.

Indeed, Glawischnig’s tactical shift on Europe was aimed at the removal of Voggenhuber as leading candidate for the elections to the European Parliament, to be held in June 2009. Following election result for the party at the last general elections, among young voters – a majority of voters aged 30 and younger supported the FPÖ with 44% – at the national election of September 2008, Glawischnig seems determined to win back this traditionally Green-leaning electoral segment at all costs.

Despite Glawischnig’s clumsy attempt of publicly undermining Voggenhuber, she did indeed succeed at the party congress on Saturday, Jan. 17: Ulrike Lunacek received the support of the majority of party delegates (54.7%) and consequently sent Voggenhuber into early retirement.

Nevertheless, Voggenhuber hit back by declaring his intention of a solidarity candidacy on 16th place. If he is supported by seven or more percent of the Green party electorate, he will be guaranteed the parliamentary seat.

Eva Glawischnig, the newly elected party leader has impressively demonstrated her assertiveness in personnel matters, yet the party has paid a high political price: Like the two far-right parties, sacrificing long-term political aims for short-term electoral gains. Soon we will know whether this was a wise strategy.

This is an excerpt, the full article was published in February 2009 in The Vienna Review.





Discussing the “European Dilemma” – Interview with Erhard Busek

1 10 2008
Courtesy of Erhard Busek

Copyright: Courtesy of Erhard Busek

In April 1994, after the negotiations for Austria to join the EU were successfully completed, the campaign for the enabling referendum on June 12, began to heat up. At the height of the debate, Brigitte Ederer, the then Social Democrats State Secretary for EU Affairs and now CEO of Siemens Österreich, projected that joining the European Union, every Austrian family would save about 1,000 Schillings a month (about €75) in living expenses through more competitive pricing.

Despite the ongoing political campaign for the general election Sept. 28, 2008, and a busy schedule as a leader of political dialogue, Erhard Busek, former Conservative ÖVP party leader, took time for a discussion about fundamental European issues.

Ederer’s ‘Tausender’ is a promise that has been criticized by political allies and opponents alike, even earning it a Wikipedia entry. Among those critics – then as today – was Busek, at the time Austria’s Vice Chancellor.

“No one can sensually experience this ‘Tausender’,” Busek argued assertively. He is still in disbelief that anyone could seriously make such an argument.

“Everyone expected that they would be handed 1,000 Schillings when leaving a supermarket,” he said incredulously. Not without irony, he points to the current general election campaign, and the “nonsense” – this time, that the Social Democrats could propose to cut the 10% VAT rate on groceries by half – is being repeated almost exactly.

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