On the Ringstraße

Columns | Vindobona | April 2013

The Piefke Saga: a 'fondly remembered' series (Photo: Alsat Film)

 Piefke Saga revisited

There are now enough German students in Austria to fill the entire University of Heidelberg. Many of the 30,000 are refugees from Germany’s strict numerus clausus rules (which Vindobona is anxious to point out does not necessarily make them stupid). Others simply prefer living here. Also it’s much cheaper.

The issue, a long-term headache for the politicians, is starting to affect everyday life. With half of the 14,000 by-no-means-all-stupid German students in Vienna, absolutely un-Viennese words such as "lecker" (delicious) and "tschüss!" (bye) or much, much worse, actually taboo, "tschüssi!" (byee!) – are now a fixture on the newly-named Universitätsring.

That’s students. They may go away. German academics tend to stay put at the Uni Wien, founded in 1365 and, while it may be sliding in the ratings, is still the oldest university in the German-speaking world. Moreover, they also tend to appoint each other rather than Austrians, a cause of much grumbling.

On the street, there is also some moaning about the cost to the Austrian taxpayer of financing the studies of so many foreign students. However, the blame can conveniently be laid at the door of the EU, whose rules have meant it has thus far only been able to somewhat curtail the invasion of medical students.

Journalist Otmar Lahodynsky of profil disputes that germanisation is the major factor in pushing down academic standards. "Not getting through the numerus clausus does not necessarily mean you’re an idiot," he insists. But with nearly all courses held in German, there is a tendency to "suffocating provincialism".

With the choice of academic staff restricted to tiny Austria and huge Germany, "who is going to answer advertisements in Die Zeit?" he asks, answering: "Not Oxford professors. Why not simply hold more courses in English? It works in Budapest." And not just there. But the answer is obvious: the usual cocktail of entrenched interests and institutional torpor.

But if nothing happens the German takeover will soon be unstoppable, as in Swiss medical faculties. And in academia, subtle but profound cultural differences will eventually be neither understood nor respected.

What worries Vindobona is the danger of an academic version of the Piefke Saga, the fondly-remembered Austrian TV series, which caused such ructions over the border in the ‘90s.

The son-in-law also rises

Politicians in the notoriously quarrelsome Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) stick to the politician’s golden rule – get your retaliation in first. But later is fine too, and tastes sweet for genial, unpopular Euro-MP Othmar Karas, Waldheim son-in-law, and victim of a famous humiliation.

In 2009 he was suddenly and unexpectedly kicked out as head of the ÖVP delegation to make way for know-it-all tough-guy, former Interior Minister Ernst Strasser, seen by the then-Vice Chancellor Josef Pröll as a proper "politician’s politician".

This alas proved to be all too true, and Strasser is now appealing against the four-year stretch he was handed down after his conviction in the cash-for-Euro-laws scandal.

Karas, 55, is in the happier position, back in the saddle as head of the People’s Party delegation, and vice-president of the European Parliament, as he notes whenever possible (without pedantically emphasizing that there are 13 more of them), which makes him, as he says, the most senior Austrian on the premises.

Even better, he is currently that rarity, a Euro-MP who is mentioned – sometimes favourably – in the press, as rapporteur on the Capital Requirements Directive, and allowed on TV sometimes, where he basks in the glory of the EU-wide agreement to cut bankers’ bonuses to a maximum of a year’s salary.

This has pleased everyone apart from the bankers and the British ruling class, who are wussy about irritating their plutocratic "non-doms"; even asking them to pay tax on their annual cash tsunamis is considered too harsh.

Will Karas’ triumph turn back the tide of anti-Europeanism? Probably not, though one has to admire his determination. In his early days in Brussels he became known for having his assistants track down the (sometimes invented) EU-bashers who write letters to the Kronenzeitung, then telephoning them and mixing it up with them.

These days he is Facebooking about Europe like a teenager, but finding time for a determined jihad against his ex-colleague in the European Parliament, Michael Spindelegger. Now Vice-Chancellor and ÖVP boss, Spindelegger is in a good position to retaliate. Karas’ excessively pro-European statements are quietly "disappeared" by ÖVP mission control in Vienna.

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