Austrian-Dutch similarities

Minister Timmerman's reaction on Secretry of State Winkler about the Austrian-EU presidency

Thank you very much for your thought-provoking intervention. I think there are a lot of similarities between our two countries, and I would like to point out some of them in relation to our position in the European Union.

One of the points you made is that our citizens are no longer impressed by references to past successes; people want to be convinced by the prospect of a bright future. Nevertheless it is sometimes important to dwell on the successes of the past. It is evident that European integration has brought a great deal to Austria, as it has to the Netherlands. One of my mentors is Max van der Stoel, with whom I worked for many years in Vienna at the OSCE. In the mid-nineties, Vienna was in the middle of a huge economic boom, which made it one of the richest and most successful cities in Europe. When we travelled to Vienna, Max would reminisce about the late forties, when he first came to Vienna. He would describe in great detail the poverty, the destruction, the lack of opportunities. People may not have been starving, but they were struggling to sustain their livelihood in those years. There was also a widespread feeling of abandonment, of living at the margins of Europe. Now Austria is again at the heart of Europe and enjoying the fruits of that position. It is booming because of its strength as a bridge between different parts of Europe: east and west, north and south. Yet this is not enough for our citizens. They say, ‘That’s done. We’ve got that already. Now we want to hear where you can take us from here.’

This brings me to my second point. The basic problem is that the middle classes – people with a certain education, working in the services or in industry – actually feel that they’ve reached a pinnacle. They feel there’s nowhere to go but down, because of globalisation. Many people in our societies believe that their children’s future will be less prosperous than their present situation. Now if this thinking is widespread, as it appears to be in Austria, the Netherlands and Germany, people will become extremely conservative. I don’t mean this in a political sense. I mean this in the sense of wanting to keep what they have, in the sense of seeing every change as a threat to their position, because every change inevitably leads to a decline.

This is a situation we need to break out of, and I believe that the EU is only one part of the debate. The fundamental questions are: can I sustain the way I live, and can my children live the way I do now? Will they have jobs? Will they be able to get better jobs or at least the same jobs we have? In the past ten years the European economy has been tremendously successful at creating jobs. Millions of jobs have been created in Europe. But it has been far more successful in generating revenue from capital, so in the popular perception, you can make much more money with capital than you can just by working. And in that sense the perceived inequality between the gains of capital and the gains of labour is seen as something Europe has done. So it has been good to capital, but it has not been as good to workers. That is one element.

The second element is that the quality of the jobs that have been created is perceived as inferior. You yourself mentioned flexicurity. Flexicurity is not seen as something positive by the middle class. It is seen as a threat to their position, because it means that they can be fired more easily than in the past. So the mere fact that jobs have been created is not enough, because the quality of the jobs is seen as less than that of traditional jobs. And only in a very few European countries, like Denmark and Sweden, is the security you have within a job seen as less important than the fact that without security you will still always be in the job. That perception has only really taken hold in Denmark and Sweden, but not in Austria, not in the Netherlands, not in Germany. And so we have a long way to go to convince our people that it is far more important to have a job than to have security within a single job. And this is the element of flexicurity which we haven’t been convincing in explaining.

I insist on these points, because I think frankly that they are far more important than the general EU debate on the success of individual EU policies, et cetera. People will be receptive to our message on the EU. And I fully share your message on the EU. People will be more open to our arguments If they feel secure in their livelihood and if they feel more positive about their future, and these feelings are tied to job security, safe neighbourhoods, good education, etc.

Finally, the research we have done lately on what people find important in the EU never points to the economic benefits of the EU. People see this as something – as we say in Europe – ‘acquis’. People understand that the EU is important for our economy, but this is not at the forefront of their thoughts. People are concerned about their identity. That is the fact in the Netherlands. I think this is also the case in Austria. People see the world changing at an incredible pace. So there is a lot of change coming from the outside. I would see this as positive. It is a positive thing that all the benefits are not just in the hands of 800 million people while another six billion struggle to get by. It would be a wonderful thing to have 6.5 billion people, all of them profiting more from the benefits, the change, the economic growth. But it is seen very often as a threat from those who have their privileges in Europe and the United States.

Secondly, the middle classes are also concerned about an internal threat. I don’t know about Austria, but this is certainly the case in the Netherlands: ‘ The Muslims are taking over.’ This is not simply a xenophobic argument. There are honest people in the Netherlands, people of good will who honestly believe that their way of life is under threat from Islam. And we need to make sure that this is not the case. And these are the prerequisites, security in the world, social security, plus security in people’s identity. These are the prerequisites to get a new basis for European integration. If we don’t get this right at the national level, we can talk from now until kingdom come about benefits of European integration, and convincing people starts at home, and I believe this is what links Austria to the Netherlands. Thank you.