Einem: the State of der Staat
Grand Coalition: “Not a Love Relationship, but Just the Way Things have to be Done.”
Casper Einem is a leading politician of the Austrian Social Democratic Party (SPÖ), deputy speaker of the SPÖ in the National Assembly, the lower house of the Austrian Parliament and the party’s spokesman for Europe. In an interview with Vienna Review correspondent M.T.M Childs, he shed light on campaign politics, education, the labor pains in the birth of an administration, and declining Austrian trust in the EU – plus his predictions of how and when Austria will have a new government. Einem began his career as a parole officer in 1972 and by 1997 he was the SPÖ councilman for the 9th District.
Vienna Review: People from the Socialist Youth and Linkswende were standing in front of parliament today to protest the Eurofighter and to press the SPÖ to keep their promises from before the elections and not succumb to pressure during the coalition negotiations. Do you think it’s possible to keep these promises?
Caspar Einem: What we promised is that we have a clear programme and will fight to realise it. We were of course very happy with the outcome of the elections, because we were first. But it has also raises the large problem that there is only one possible partner, of almost equal strength and they want the opposite of most of the things that we want.
Under these circumstances, it will be especially difficult to realise our programme. Basically we go into the coalition negotiations with our program, and insist that the ÖVP make counter-proposals. It’s not enough to just say, "No, we have to continue the way it’s been until now." Since 2002, their governing majority has been 52%; now it is 38 percent. That’s not a call to continue, but a mandate to think anew.
VR: So the SPÖ will only accept that ÖVP meet them halfway?
Einem: No, the voters decided that things needed to change. And while they didn’t clearly decide to realize our program, one can assume that the reason we were first in the elections was because of our content. And 35% is 35%, and the others have 34%. And that makes things difficult.
VR: How would you describe the mood in Parliament since Oct. 1st in general, besides the fact that the ÖVP is disappointed?
Einem: That’s hard to say at the moment because we haven’t had many encounters since the elections. Today is the constitution of the parliament, where one will feel it more distinctly. The ÖVP is very disappointed – we also weren’t very happy in 2000 – and we came to see sides of the coalition partner we had for 13 years that were unthinkable for us…
This is not a love relationship but rather [the way] that politics have to be done in this country and we have to try to approach each other in an adult and responsible way.
In the case of the Eurofighter contract, first of all we need to see it, secondly, initiate a special investigation and thirdly, if possible, make the contract obsolete.
VR: So you won’t sway on that point?
Einem: No, asking for a special investigation is not an accusation of criminal acts. We just want to know exactly what’s going on. It wouldn’t be the first time that things are toned down in this kind of weapons deal. We just want to know. "That’s it."
VR: You said earlier that the SPÖ had disappointments of its own in 2000. In your opinion, has the SPÖ changed fundamentally during the years as an opposition party.
Einem: If you are the leading party in the government for 30 years at a time, there are signs of fatigue and a certain pragmatism develops in getting through day to day tasks of governing What was necessary, and this was the good side of our time in the opposition, was a reviewing of the questions of education, health care, government financing – the chance just to think about what we really wanted to do and how it should work. In 1999, one has to admit, we had exhausted our content. Now our program is sufficiently defined for a leading party.
VR: Where do your personal hopes lie for the new government? What do you think will be possible?
Einem: It should be possible to actually do real education reform, reform that provides the children and young people of today with a program that concentrates on their gifts and interests and doesn’t bury childish or youthful curiosity.
We want an educational system where the people that come out of it still want to discover new things. We always talk about how it’s important to never stop learning but then 50% of the children who finish the obligatory school years say the never want to go school again.
The system needs to concentrate less on disciplining the children and more on supporting their gifts and interests. To a certain extent you could say that we could use a parts of the philosophy behind the Anglo-American educational system, especially the American. Instead of our custom of taking weaknesses hostage, supporting strengths. We want more self-assured children who believe in themselves and leave school with a certain strength, ready to discover new things.
I say discoveries on purpose, because it’s not just that when the economic system requires change, that the people are expected to adapt. That’s the wrong philosophy. We need people who direct the process themselves, who can bring their strengths into the system. We have to support these people completely differently. In this respect I have a certain amount of hope for change. It is of course difficult and I’m not promising that it will happen immediately.
Einem: In economic policy, which in recent years has mostly favored large, wealthy companies and large export-oriented businesses with tax benefits. What we need now are measures for the small, domestic companies, where we can support their growth. I think we’ll be able to come to an understanding. But you can’t just spend money, you also have to collect it, and in that respect we also have ideological difficulties.
There are of course subjects where our views don’t differ so much. In EU and foreign policy issues, for instance we don’t go at each other’s throats. There is a level on which we can understand each other.
What is important – to answer your question – I think parties in a coalition, in order to work, have to define themselves on common projects, that are mutually desired. These projects are really the basis for a coalition to hold. It’s not enough to push and pull and somehow make a government. Both parties have to agree with the content of projects in order to realize them.
VR: A short look to the past: Were you happy with Austria’s EU policy under Schüssel?
Einem: Yes and no. One country alone, and also a small country like Austria, cannot hope to change EU policy. So alone it’s hard to change anything. But in my opinion, Schüssel wasn’t planning to change anything. Most member states in the EU have the tendency to blame the EU for everything bad that happens and credit themselves for the good things.
In my view there are two problems: First we have gone through a very fast expansion process not only the ten in May 2004 but this January two more are waiting at the door, so to say. This has definitely overwhelmed the EU and the EU citizens. No club that is already having difficulty handling15 members can grow to 25 and not have communication problems, especially when the cultural and political background of the new states is so different from that of the ones that are already there.
In truth, we don’t know much about the new ones. The leaders of the first member nations and their citizens have invested so much in the new states and the truth is, suddenly they were there. We were abstractly for a unified Europe, but in reality, not really. That’s the first problem that needs to be solved.
The second is that many people in Europe feel that they have, both economically and socially, not gotten what they hoped for from the EU. The high unemployment in Europe, the low levels of economic growth, the low employment dynamic, all come together with a continued process of liberalization of parts of the Market that have been very protected until now.
There are also many people whose work situation is getting worse or more precarious, or they are losing their jobs all together. In the end, all of it can be traced back to the EU.
This means that for many people the EU does not give the impression of being a socially geared project. It seems more like an economic project in favor of large corporations and business interests.
My critique is, Schüssel didn’t try to do much. I have no illusions of it being easy, I know that it’s very hard. I myself have been president of one of the three European social partners for a year and as the employers’ representative for companies with public participation, and in public interest services. That is a pretty big segment in Europe. I also take part in the summit conferences, and it is difficult to get things to change there.
But what we missed under Schüssel was the fight for these changes. During the Austrian EU presidency, the government was a good mediator. But the political expectations were too low. And that was their line of thinking, not ours.
VR: In a debate after Schüssel’s presidency, you stated that Austria was the most skeptical of all the EU member states.
Einem: In the polls, it still seems to be true, which is of course tragic, but that’s the way it is. We need to invest in the trust of the Austrian citizens. The Austrian people need to understand that it’s about their life, and they can get something out of it. Otherwise it’s so abstract.
You also have to go into the statistics more. The younger and better educated a person is, the better their attitude towards the EU, because they understand where the difficulties are.
And the older and less educated, the more skeptical they are, because they belong to those who can lose from the EU, and that’s where we have to react.
VR: What does the SPÖ see as a way of helping Austrians understand the EU?
Einem: Words don’t win them at the moment, but what is important is that the dialogue in the government is definitive to the way people see the EU. You have to be careful. If you debate against the EU in a casual way, you shouldn’t be surprised [that public opinion reflects that]. Just think of the Freedom party, or the BZÖ, in the past seven years blaming the EU for all kinds of things, without the ÖVP countering whatsoever.
Weak managers are now under a lot of pressure, because they can get substantially cheaper alternative locations. So we want to bridge the gap that was created because no one thought of this earlier, see which industries are under pressure from the new competition and what can we do for them. They need to get the feeling that they are being taken care of, that we are working with and for them.
And of course find decent work for the unemployed, where they can earn enough to live well. These are the points by which we hope to win back the trust of the Austrian citizens in the EU.
VR: In conclusion: When do you think that Austria will have a new government?
Einem: The way it looks now, in March. But both possibilities are real. Without new elections it will take a long time, and with them as well.