Commentary by Francois Crépeau : “Respect for human rights and diversity is not a given, but a daily construct, resting on the strength of standards, the resilience of institutions and the courage of individuals. Providing an effective protection for the human rights of all, and making palpable that equality and non-discrimination are key principles upon which our society is built, are probably the best answer to nationalist populism. This means investing much more in the institutions that help people access their rights, such as the judiciary, national human rights institutions, ombudspersons, labour inspectors, social workers… Unfortunately, this does not seem to be the way Global North States are headed. »
A GOLDEN late-summer light filters through the windows of the Café Landtmann. Bow-tied waiters move among towering hot-house plants. Officials huddle around a table. They are fretting about fragmentation : Europe’s north is peeling away from its south ; easterners feel like second-class citizens ; outside powers are trying to divide and rule. This might be a scene from the final days of the Austro-Hungarian empire in 1918. In fact it is today, 100 years later. For once more the spectre of European fragmentation haunts Vienna.
It haunts other capitals, too. In Berlin, Angela Merkel urges her ministers to read “The Sleepwalkers”, an account of the political failures that led to the first world war. Political Brussels is rediscovering Stefan Zweig’s tales of post-Habsburg Austria. In Rome a populist government is preparing to battle the EU institutions over budget rules and to seed a new nationalist block in the European Parliament. Emmanuel Macron, France’s liberal hope, is losing his sheen ; his proposals for euro-zone reform have been diluted. Autocracy is gaining ground in Warsaw and Budapest. Meanwhile China, Russia, Turkey and America are interfering ever more in European affairs. The geopolitical centrifuge is spinning European states away from each other, like dancers at a ball.
Vienna is the pivot. Austria is two months into its six-month presidency of the EU Council under Sebastian Kurz, the darling of the continent’s conservatives. To his critics he has cosied up to the far right by bringing them into his government, and indulged Islamophobia. To his fans, he is the smooth diplomat staking out a middle ground between liberalism and nationalism and building bridges between east and west. He will host Europe’s leaders in Salzburg on September 20th and get them talking about the things pulling Europe apart : Brexit, the next EU budget, trade and immigration. “We need to get everyone on board again,” says Alexander Schallenberg, the co-ordinator of Austria’s presidency.
It is also in Vienna that the memories of the old Habsburg multinational order reside. “Our history shows how quickly things can change for the worse,” cautions one Austrian intellectual. The empire once run from here had a larger budget and more power than today’s EU, not least its own army and tax-raising powers, but both stand as triumphs of liberalism over nationalism. Ten languages were once spoken in the Habsburg parliament. Following its annexation of Bosnia, the empire was the first western European state to recognise Islam.
Like the EU, the Habsburg empire seemed to suspend history. Germans, Hungarians, Slavs and sizeable Muslim and Jewish populations mingled in cosmopolitan cities like Vienna and Prague, Trieste and Lviv. Paul Lendvai, a Hungarian-Austrian writer born in Budapest in 1929 recalls : “My father always said peace was not having to show your passport.” The old order’s full value became clear only after it collapsed, when the dark energy of them-and-us took hold and the region succumbed to petty hatreds, economic disintegration and the whims of outside powers.
One lesson above all lives on : do not take the loyalty of a multinational block for granted. The Habsburgs charmed their subjects by giving them relative freedom, material benefits and protection under the law from the whims of local barons. “They created a situation where ordinary people could see their own interests in institutions of empire,” explains Pieter Judson, a leading historian of the empire. But when tough times came with the start of the war, he explains, it turned out that these loyalties had been contingent : “The state didn’t provide what it promised to provide. There was no food and no fuel. Men went to the front, women to the factories and children were left on the streets. Loyal nations—the Ukrainians, the Serbs, the Czechs—were persecuted without foundation.” When the empire was dissolved after its defeat, it was not greatly mourned.
Today’s EU is even weaker, fears Mr Judson : built on good living but without deeper roots. His home country, America, is a multinational, federal state that survives on common feeling. “But as an American living in Europe I feel that the stakes of belonging to the EU are not understood at all.”
Hearts and minds
European leaders can learn from the weaknesses of Austria-Hungary. Europe’s citizens today may have no affection for the bureaucracy, but like the subjects of the old empire they will tolerate it for as long as it generates wealth and preserves their freedoms. Yet complex institutions, second-rate European commissioners, wasteful policies like the common agricultural one and incompetent national governments across much of the continent all undermine that goal. To survive, the liberal European order, of which the EU is a pillar, must become leaner and more capable. Margrethe Vestager and Cecilia Malmström, the European commissioners taking on the digital giants and forging massive new trade deals for the union, are two of the better examples.
But the fate of Austria-Hungary also showed that multinational units cannot survive times of hardship without a sense of common purpose. Thanks to the rise of English, budget airlines, the internet and university exchanges, today’s young Europeans live much more “European” lives than previous generations. But politics is not keeping up. Nurturing a clearer European identity is not just a romantic goal ; it is the only way to make the project sustainable in the long term, hard though history shows this to be.
So Europe’s leaders must face the balancing act that defeated their Viennese predecessors. They must show the pragmatism needed to keep their union afloat in the short term, while cultivating the vision needed to build common feeling in the long term. Mr Lendvai sums up the landscape : “Social democracy is a shambles ; liberals are arguing with each other ; Christian Democrats are losing their Christian feeling.” They’d better get their act together, he reckons : “For the ghosts of the past are coming back.”