1st July Austria took the rotating presidency of the European Union. The sinister leaders of Austria, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, vice-chancellor Heinz Strache and interior minister Herbert Kickl – each of them masters of far-right doublespeak – have chosen the slogan ‘A Europe that Protects’.
The minister for Europe, Karin Kneissl, like Strache and Kickl, is a member of the neofascist Freedom Party, founded by nazis after the Second World War.
Back in 2000, when its leader Jorg Haider entered into coalition government, European leaders expressed their outrage, and for some time there were sanctions on Austria. The entry of the neofascists to the government went almost unremarked this time around. And this weekend, at the opening ceremony of the Austrian Presidency, the President of the European Council Donald Tusk said ‘I feel we could not be in better hands’.
Sebastian Kurz is not nominally from the neofascist party, he is rather from the traditionally more ‘centre-right’ Austrian People’s Party. His willingness to adopt the language, ideas and personnel of the far right to win power is symbolic not only of the situation in Austria but more generally in the European Union. To give only the most flagrant examples: back in 2016 he proposed that asylum seekers to Europe should be held on islands, without being able to specify which islands. In the last weeks he suggested creating and new anti-migrant ‘axis of the willing’ with Germany and Italy. The problem with such statements is not only that they are dog-whistles to the racist far-right, are morally unconscionable and historically solipsistic, but that they do not propose any real solution to any real problem. For over a decade European leaders have made arrangements with the far-right rather than fighting it, and instead of dealing with real issues around migration, economic inequality or lack of investment, they have pushed these issues into the future and hoped they would go away. Now we risk entering into a political space in which the language and ideas are all dominated by the imaginary of fascism, and where popular discontent and disillusionment is explosive.
The same symptoms of a mix of irreality, moral and political irresponsibility were again shown at the European Council last week, dedicated to migration. Asides from a general will to push the ‘problem’ of asylum as far away from their responsibility as possible (perhaps as far as Sudan, never mind the human-rights considerations, never mind the wasteful cost of doing this) the leaders made vague commitments to build closed migrant ‘controlled centers’ (otherwise known as migrant prisons), without any country saying it is willing to have them, and of offshore ‘disembarkation platforms’ in countries like Libya and Tunisia, which have ruled-out hosting them as illegal and shameful. Even if such policies were put in place, they would only make the situation of migrants and asylum seekers worse, do nothing to address the real material inequalities and injustices in Europe which generate anger, nothing to address underlying cultural causes of nationalism and fascism: each of these can only be addressed by European solutions based on hospitality, education, justice and openness.
We must ceaselessly point out that what the far-right proposes is no solution and even undermines the very possibility of finding sustainable and just solutions, which is precisely their strategy: to create permanent political crisis and international division to justify authoritarian discipline, exploitation and the punishment of enemies.
In the 2010 elections, Strache’s face defiled streets of Austria on posters with the hateful slogan ‘More courage to Viennese blood: too much of the foreign is not good for anyone’. The racist nationalists pose as the only people with a handle on reality, the only ones with the courage in their blood to grasp the problems in their hands decisively.
Europe does not have to be like this, and we cannot be passive spectators. We should not tolerate these messages on posters or in the speech of politicians. The minimum we can do is speak-up, interrupt this spectacle where we feel we already know the disastrous ending. We must ceaselessly point out that what the far-right proposes is no solution and even undermines the very possibility of finding sustainable and just solutions, which is precisely their strategy: to create permanent political crisis and international division to justify authoritarian discipline, exploitation and the punishment of enemies.
Europe still has alternative symbols, a different language and a different side of its history from which we can draw inspiration. Whilst the shameful opening ceremony was being carried on in Vienna on Sunday, Simone Weil was placed in the Pantheon in Paris. We are reminded of her words:
“Coming from all continents, believers and non-believers, we all belong to the same planet, to the community of humans. We need to be vigilant and defend it against not only natural disasters which threaten it, but also and much more against the idiocy of men.”