Politics as a career booster - ok or not? 

So Brigitte Ederer will be the next chairwoman of the board (similar to a CEO in US business practice) of the Austrian branch of Siemens, an organisation with a staff of 18,000 (DerStandard, [DE]). Ederer, 49, has been on the Siemens board since 2001. For Austrian standards, it is remarkable that a woman gets such a top job in industry, and it seems that no other woman has held quite such an influential business position in Austria before.

In fact, as DerStandard points out in a portrait of Ederer [DE], for her, being the first woman on the job is not new - she has been through this experience several times during her successful career. The interesting bit is that before joining Siemens, Ederer has had a high-profile career too - but in politics rather than industry. In 1995 she became the general manager of her party, the socialdemocrat SPÖ. Even before that, she was a junior government minister responsible for European affairs at the time of Austria's accession negotiations with the EU. She is still best known to the public for her media-heavy charm-powered performance in this function and her promise that every Austrian would save 1000 old Austrian schillings per year if the population would approve accession in the referendum. In 1997 Ederer, who has a degree in economics, became responsible for the finances of the Vienna city administration as a member of the municipal goverment. It was from this job that she switched over to a role on the board of Siemens.

It is said that good links into the political system have often been helpful for getting a top job a Siemens, which does a lot of business with Austrian government institutions and exercises significant influence on them as well. It is also rather clear that Ederer would not have been able to join Siemens at board level in 2001 if it hadn't been for her political acumen.

But what about this latest promotion, to the number one slot? How cynical should we be about it? I am honestly not sure. On the one hand I am quite convinced that Ederer is hard-working, intelligent, and an excellent communicator, and I expect that she will do no worse on the job than any other qualified candidate. For this reason, it is great news that a woman has made it so far. At the same time, would she ever have accomplished the same without her party-political credentials? Probably not. Is this a problem?


On Blair's speech to the EU parliament 

Blair's speech from today on his plans for the British EU-presidency is here. He stipulates one implication that I find convincing and important:
I tell you in all frankness: it is a contradiction to be in favour of liberalising Europe's membership but against opening up its economy.
A weakness of Blair's speech is however that it does not acknowledge the problem for his allegedly pro-EU position that may be summarised as "false friends": a good part of the changes he requests from the EU would be ones that those forces who want to see the EU reduced to a free market would cherish as well; while leftist forces who believe that a race-to-the-bottom in welfare policy can only be avoided by social harmonisation within the EU would witness short term changes in the opposite direction from what they want - Blair could only prove to them that he acts in their real interest in the long term ("we have done it on the basis of and not at the expense of a strong economy"). The continental anti-Blairites won't suspend their disbelief in his true motives until then. Blair clearly spells out his policy disagreements with the continental center-left, but he says too little about where he differs from the EU-sceptic British right.


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Let's say there are politicians you like and politicians you don't like. Why is that judgement intensified so much when you come to know them in person?

Why do the bad guys appear to be mere mechanics of power, whereas the good guys impress as passionate fighters for the common good?

If my preferences and policy agreements were reversed, would I also make these attributions in reverse?

Rather than becoming more relaxed in my judgements upon personal acquaintance, why do I seem to become even more judgmental?

Is that something in my mind or is politics a stage that attracts a mix of the very good and the very bad?


Slovak creativity and the SPÖ's idea of solidarity 

Faced with stubbornly high unemployment, currently at 17.5% in spite of a rapidly growing economy, the economically liberal Slovak government is experimenting with a new idea to reduce its burden. Unemployed residents of several border regions are to receive a subsidy of up to 50 euros per month for a period of three months to cover travel expenses if they commute to a job in the border regions of EU-neighbours Poland, Czech Republic, Austria (unemployment 4.6% but rising), and Hungary. (Der Standard [DE]).

The Austrian yellow press is fuming, as this cover [DE] shows: "Slovakia sends us unemployed". No need to worry, says chancellor Schüssel in a rapid intervention, the Austrian homeland is saved by the 7-year suspension of the freedom of work that bars all citizens of the new EU-members from taking employment here.

And here is what the socialdemocrats of the SPÖ have to say [DE], through chairwoman Doris Bures:
SPÖ-chairwoman Doris Bures characterised the plan of the Slovak governement as "extreme unsolidarity". This export of unemployed from Slovakia was another mosaic-piece of the mistaken European politics, criticises Bures, who appealed to [conservative] chancellor Schüssel to pronounce a firm verdict [Machtwort].
Right at the moment when the mistaken neo-liberal course of individual European governments had received a clear rejection by the European population, the Slovak government wanted to go one step further in the direction of neo-liberal deregulation, criticised Bures. Moving problems from one EU-country to another was not what the SPÖ understood by European solidarity and ambitious European politics.
This is the correct translation and not a parody. Well-understood European solidarity, SPÖ-style: "Solve your own problems, beggar-my-neighbour dude!" Stupid me, and I thought that the lack of labour mobility within the EU was one of Europe's structural deficits that is threatening the viability of the euro and putting Europe at a competitive disadvantage to the US.


Waking up at last: political blogging in German 

One of the reasons why this blog is written in awkward English rather than in unintelligible German is that in early 2004, when I started, it seemed to me that there was no critical mass of German-language bloggers with a sufficiently narrow-minded focus on politics, the few honorable exceptions notwithstanding. Since then I've seen gradual progress.

But I've now found out that over the last few months a number of good political blogs in German language have sprung up that are quite compatible with my highly subjective political tastes. I'll try to pay more attention and link to them in the future, for which this obviously incomplete list of new ventures may prove helpful:

From Switzerland, there's eDemokratie.ch, which takes a closer look at the big ideas underlying day-to-day politics.

Germany meanwhile is getting closer to reaching the common 10-fold-multiplier when comparing German political blogging output to its Austrian equivalent:Additional spots to watch would be welcome.


UK isn't everything, multi-speed EU, and national reforms 

I have been reading around a bit in the current debate on what next for the EU. The topic has a tendency to provoke lofty political speculation. For people like myself who have an unhealthy inclination for such non-concreteness, it is therefore rather dangerous territory. Health advisory: Don't think about the future of the EU for more than fifteen minutes a day.

At two opposite poles of the range of different conclusions from the referendums in France and the Netherlands, there are two arguments which establish a kind of symmetry, I'll call them "EU, become like UK" and "UK, get lost".

EU, become like UK. On June 2nd, Timothy Garton Ash wrote in the Guardian
Blairism is the answer to Europe's ills - but we need someone else to deliver it
The combination of economic and social policy exercised by the Labour governments under Blair are the only successful model so far of a European response to globalisation, writes Garton Ash. The leaders of France and Germany, in contrast, are not only weak, but they also lack a working political programme to address current challenges to the European model that the French voters wanted to preserve. However, the UK is unqualified as a messenger of its correct policies, because it is abhorred or feared across the continent. Blair will have to work behind the scenes if he wants success. [On a point of local interest, Garton Ash wants Blair to wait for and make use of the Austrian EU-presidency in the first half of 2006.]

UK, get lost. On the Vienna-based 'Euroblog - a Northern perspective' written by Swedish expat Bengt O. Karlsson, you'll find the pamphlet The perfidious Albion, which discusses the prospects for a compromise over the EU budget and for a European economic policy that would heed the voice of the French population and others:
The economic policy of Europe must be overhauled and redirected towards employment creation and a fair distribution of the production gains. This will require an active financial policy and a reconquista of the abdicated political responsibility by reducing the influence of the monetarists and despite the protests of the market fundamentalists, the only winners from present conditions.
There is only one obstacle: the UK, which spoils everything with its free market sensibilities and its insistence on the British rebate.
It is strange that the UK does not take its policy to its logical consequence and leaves the Union. It would be a gain for everyone, particularly for the British.
I believe that the importance of specifically the British position is exaggerated in both of these arguments. Garton Ash neglects the complexity of the political landscape of the EU25, where many governments support rather similar policies to the UK in many areas - think of, starting in the west, Ireland, the Netherlands, Denmark, Austria, Czech Republic, Slovenia, Slovakia, and the three Baltic states. The personal fate of national leaders such as Blair, Chirac, and Schroeder is less important than Garton Ash wants us to believe - and as an aside, the importance of the eventual replacement of Schroeder with Merkel and Chirac with Sarkozy will therefore also be more limited than is widely assumed (for example by Will Hutton in the Observer, who seems to believe that Sarkozy would make a big difference).

I agree with Karlsson that the persistent disagreements among EU countries are a key problem of the EU at this time. But I believe neither that these disagreements would disappear upon an eventual exit of the UK, nor, in fact, do I agree with those optimists on the left of the political spectrum who argue that there is a window of opportunity now to commit the whole EU to the social agenda of tax and labour law harmonisation (for example Austrian Green-politician Peter Pilz in DerStandard [DE]: "The constitution can now only be achieved through a social turn").

Nosemonkey had an intriguing post at Europhobia, 'EU Pick 'n' Mix', in which he argued for a multi-speed EU as a consequence of the referendums - I counted four different speed-levels in his taxonomy. Yet, as a commenter remarked:
the way in which the EU splits over any one issue is always slightly different, case by case. Granted, there's a pretty clear 'liberal arc' most of the time (UK, Ireland, Scandinavia, Central Europe) but it's not always the same. Eg. on the working time issue a couple of days ago Austria, Germany and Italy backed the UK, but Sweden and Finland were with France etc.
For the medium term, I'm cautiously optimistic that the EU bureaucracy, whose sophistication one should never underestimate, will come up with ways to manage multiple incongruent and temporary groupings of countries in different treaties all within its institutional boundaries, but for the short term I don't think this can be the solution to the current deadlock.

The solution for the short term will have to come from the nation states themselves: each of them will have to find its own way to a sustainable reform process that achieves adaptation to the challenges of the global economic environment, and thereby defuses the time-bomb of populist chauvinism. National traditions and social sensitivities vary widely between member countries, and no single recipe will fit all countries. Relatively liberal member states will have to be patient with the speed of reforms in the more statist member countries, or risk to alienate voters there to the political processes at EU level, as has happened in France. On the other hand, the more statist member countries will need several electoral generations of responsible politicians who abstain from scare-mongering and populism. A lesson of the last years from some such countries has been that liberalisers will meet massive popular resistance. The biggest political challenge lies exactly where socially ambitious political forces in statist countries will have to define reforms that are acceptable to their electorates, but that are still able to trigger economic growth and thereby reduce unemployment in a sustainable manner. Personally I regret that the Red-Green coalition in Germany seems to have ultimately failed this test under particularly difficult conditions, at least for now.


Election Watch Albania: Preparing the Debate 

Albania's longterm rivals for power, prime minister Fatos Nano of the socialist party (PS) and former president Sali Berisha of the democratic party (PD) are preparing a televised debate at the height of the electoral campaign for the general elections on 4th July. While they are both keen on having such a one-on-one debate to suppress the challenge of socialist anti-Nano maverick and former prime minister Ilir Meta with his newly founded "LSI"-party (seen at 18% in polls), the two sides are still negotiating over a suitable format and topics.

Nano, in power for the last 8 years, hopes to focus on Berisha's period of rule in the 1990s, which was brought to an end by an anarchic revolution in 1997 over a pyramid scheme scandal of epic proportions. With all the talk of arrangements and conciliatory gestures between Nano and Berisha, electoral rhetoric is still resolute, as in the following Nano-excerpt translated from an article in the newspaper Shekulli [AL]:
"We are all convinced that these elections are as important for Albania as those of 1997, therefore on the 4th of July we will liberate ourselves for good from the political power of Berisha, who tried in vain to kill your future", said Nano. "You know this enemy and opponent of freedom well, he is the opponent of development, of integration, he is the opponent of education, of welfare, of employment, of caring for the poor. I invite you to send him home on the 4th of July, so that he can enjoy his freedom. Listen, Mr. Berisha, to the sophisticated and powerful voice of the people of Elbasan, so that you walk out of the life of these people, out of the life of all Albanians who love the future. So that you climb down from the pedestals of primitive wildness, so that you don't threaten everybody's freedom."
Popular daily Koha Jone, which can probably be attributed to the camp of challenger Ilir Meta, expresses doubts [AL] about the viability of Nano's campaign tactic:
...Nano forgets that even the year 97 doesn't make him the winner of the debate. His sense of security that Berisha can be damaged in this field is illusory. It derives from the fact that the PD and its leader avoid this period. But in reality this is part of their opposition strategy to focus on the current problems and to propose solutions to come out of the crisis, since this is perceived as the the way to reach as many people as possible in a direct manner. Yet even if we are stuck in 97, this cannot be seen as a drama for Berisha. He needs to convince the public that he is ready to confront the facts. And in this sense he, but not Nano, has already expressed his mea culpa. In his public statements, Berisha has accepted his responsility for the events of the time, for the pyramid schemes and everything else that can be brought up against him as head of state at the time.

Meanwhile Nano, the inspiration of the revolts of the South, and the direct beneficiary of the fall of the state, has still not given any explanations for his role and his guilt. By now public opinion has slowly become aware that the head of the socialists does not come out of this story without getting wet. They said about him that he was an angel, but in his own camp they don't know him as such. Later everybody realised that he was a satanic machiavellian, a fact that was clearly visible especially after his second appointment to power.
Further reading: Albania! at Fistful of Euros


Blair fails.., part II 

Anglo-Saxon bullshit-bingo (this quoted from The Times):
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said yesterday that there was no point in spending the time arguing over areas of disagreement and Mr Blair would instead focus on the G8 agenda in general terms.

“We know the American position on the IFF [Brown's International Finance Facility for aid to Africa, ed.], and the 0.7 per cent (aid target), and Kyoto. You can either have discussions on areas where you know you are not going to get agreement or you widen the lens and try to see as a whole and try to get agreement on the overall problem,” he said.
I cannot tell you how excited I am about the power to work for good causes that Blair has built up over the years in his special relationship with America. After all, what more could anyone dream of than to widen the lense, see as a whole, and agree on the overall problem.

Tony Blair fails to get the job done 

From an interview with the FT:
Mr Blair indicated he had given up trying to persuade the Bush administration to back Mr Brown's scheme to double aid to Africa by tapping the capital markets.

Mr Brown's idea for an international finance facility, allowing government to spend future aid money now, was one of “certain things we know they are not going to do, that we are not asking them to do”.


EU, spell out internal disagreements 

(originally posted as a comment at Margot Wallström's blog)

It is a sad political moment. Two types of reactions should be distinguished:

1) What would we like to happen next? It seems pointless to proceed with ratification. Neither will France and the Netherlands overturn such big No-majorities in a second referendum, nor is there now any chance for a Yes-vote in the UK. DK, CZ and Poland also seem rather unlikely. Therefore the procedural improvements over Nizza - voting rules for example - should be secured by a different, much less ambitious treaty, the constitutional treaty as such should be put on ice, to wait for a better day.

2) What can we realistically hope to achieve? Some proposals are unrealistic, for example the idea of a Europe-wide constitutional referendum. How could this possibly be 'communicated' in countries that have scheduled their own national referendum already?

All this talk of listening to the population - how can that actually work? Proceeding more slowly would be wrong - in some cases self-damaging (Lisbon agenda), in others unfair (further extension). Yet I agree with the section of sean's comment above where he writes

"It is now apparent that various countries want various kinds of Europe. The attempt to build a kind of superstate on these shaky sands of compromise is what has led to this disaster; you can no longer square the circle of France versus Britain, old Europe versus New, south versus north etc. You can certainly no longer hide behind obscure phrasing in treaties to fudge these issues, as you have hitherto done."

I believe that we need the courage to spell out the internal disagreements and accommodate them institutionally, even though this will always favour the side that wants less integration. But without doing so, there is a lack of honesty towards the population, for example towards those left-wing opponents of the constitution (decisive in France) who think that much more EU-wide harmonisation of taxation and social policy is a realistic option. Ambiguity of goals is a deadly premise when we want to let the people make the decisions.


[curly edition] News! [corrected] 

[UPDATE 06-02: Several corrections required due to unuseful facts. Ah, the standards of quality journalism.] As the tabloid weekly News will report [DE] reports [DE] in its edition of tomorrow, Frank Stronach has fired[laid off] the curly former football-star Toni Polster from a short-lived job as general manager of the Viennese tradition football club Austria Wien. Polster is not allowed to talk about this before tonight’s cup final, which pitches Austria Wien against arch-rivals and new champions Rapid Wien. [Austria won 3:1]

Stronach has been showering Austria Wien with money for several years to make it the richest club in Austria, but results on the field have been disappointing. Rapid has been operating on a comparative shoestring, but nevertheless denied Austria Wien its second championship victory in a row, while Stronach has frantically hired-and-fired coaches and players, but without much luck. Many fans hate him, and a late championship match had to be aborted when enraged Austria-fans stormed the playing field at a score of 0:3 against last year’s champion and this year’s runners-up, GAK.

According to tomorrow’s News, Austria is now undergoing a revolutionary situation. Toni Polster, who played at Austria Wien in the successful early years of his career, is said to be planning a coup d’etat against puppet-master Frank Stronach, with the help of another former Austria Wien football-star and national coach, the equally curly Herbert Prohaska.

In a legal fight pitching Polster/Prohaska against Frank Stronach’s industrial Magna-empire, one would have to favour the latter’s prospects over the two players, whose heavy Viennese accents and working-class backgrounds have made them the butt of many jokes about their intelligence during their careers. But despair not, because News claims that Vienna’s socialdemocrat mayor Michael Häupl may be riding to their rescue, just at the beginning of the election campaign for the Vienna municipality. Häupl is a political patron of Austria Wien, and the only one who could potentially face down Mr Stronach. News even talks about a plan to replace Magna with Siemens as the main sponsor of the club.[Siemens is in talks with Austria about sponsoring the club's youth-work.]

A beautiful tale of adventure, compared to which the Dutch EU-referendum must look pale and insignificant. We will know by tomorrow whether there is any factual basis to the saga too. [NEE won with 61.6% of the vote]

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