Handelsblatt Interview Austrian Chancellor: Europe Needs to Regain Self-Confidence

Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern calls for a new debate on economics and refugee policy – one which shows European strength in the face of rising populism.
Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern believes optimism is necessary for political change. Photo: VLADIMIR SIMICEK/AFP/Getty Images

Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern is no stranger to the complexities of negotiation.

Before he rose to his current position in May 2016, the 51-year-old Social Democrat had been the chief executive of the Austrian state-owned railway ÖBB for more than six years.

Today, he finds himself at both the geographical and political center of various European crises, as well as a shifting European alliance with the Unites States. But it has not caused Mr. Kern to shy away from voicing criticism of other European leaders – or imploring them to show self-confidence as representatives of a global economic power and a bastion of liberal democracy.

For the Austrian chancellor, the key to quelling populism is to address issues head on.

Mr. Chancellor, how important are revolutionary reforms in times of widespread dissatisfaction with the system? What does a leader need to do in order to fulfill voters’ expectations of change?

Quite a bit, I believe. What we are currently experiencing is a development that can no longer be regarded with calm detachment. There is much is at stake. We are seeing a massive polarization between nationalistic, reactionary right-wingers on the one hand and the radical anti-capitalist left on the other. The space in between for reasonable politics is rapidly dwindling. For this reason, the political center must think in more disruptive terms. The center has no hegemonic concept – but it desperately needs one.

With Donald Trump trampling on Western values of liberal economics and morality and the British opting for a sharp break with Europe, is there any room for reasonable politics?

It's interesting with Theresa May. I listened to her nomination speech. Here in Austria, the head of a labor union might give such a speech, but not the successor to Margaret Thatcher. She seems to be trying to speak plainly. The question is whether her words will be followed by concrete actions that fulfill the expectations she’s raising. The fact remains that 8 percent of Europe’s exports go to Great Britain, but 44 percent of British exports go to Europe. Theresa May endeavored to appeal to the British, but she didn’t define a negotiating position.

All bark and no bite – is that true as well for Donald Trump and his threatening stance towards Europe?

It’s hard to say. The only chance we have of finding out is to measure him by his deeds. Until now he has basically functioned as a kind of marketing machine. And in marketing, nothing happens by chance.

Shouldn’t centrist politicians be learning something from his effectiveness?

Of course. But there is a dilemma, which is if you have moral standards, then you are at a competitive disadvantage. That you must accept. You can’t simply make any claims arbitrarily. But we also have to make sure not to allow everything simply because nobody is willing to take a stand.

Do matter-of-fact politics simply lose their luster when compared to Mr. Trump’s expressions of fury? For example, a week ago, you presented your “Plan A” for a new Austria, which aims at strengthening the middle class, creating jobs and reducing bureaucracy. These goals seem almost halfhearted in comparison to Mr. Trump's rhetoric.

Actually, I was accused of the opposite in Austria. But it's true that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to maintain a serious presence amid the overwhelming brashness. It’s possible though. We saw that in the Austrian presidential election with the victory of Alexander van der Bellen, who was a calm and level-headed candidate. We must say how we intend to shape society, not simply manage it. Because what is currently happening – also through developments in migration – represents a massive change to how we live. We need to provide answers.

Wouldn’t an upper limit for refugees be that sort of answer?

An upper limit isn’t a solution. But on the other hand, we have to acknowledge that the level of migration we’ve experienced is too much for us. There must be a middle path.

Such as?

We have to engage in a discussion of establishing an upper limit for refugees. But I’d like to warn against mere symbolic politics. Those seeking an upper limit must also be able to say how they would send back all of the refugees without shutting down Europe entirely. How would that work? Chancellor Angela Merkel is making a great effort to reach agreements with the migrants' countries of origin. We can be grateful that she is showing leadership. But we’re scarcely making any progress. Which is why exclusively discussing an upper limit is distracting from the larger context.

Apropos distracting discussions: Does a government's focus on balancing a budget – as in the case of Germany – fulfill voters political expectations?

Of course we also aim to balance our budget over the long run. But one of the side-effects is that in terms of investing in infrastructure, Germany is ranked next to last in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Being in the black comes at a price for growth in the middle term.

So investment would be more important given the current economic situation?

Both goals should be combined as much as possible.

That doesn’t often work.

Indeed. It’s a balancing act.

While governments always find sources of funding, citizens today don't get much for the money they save. Are politics failing to meet people's expectations?

I know this is currently a topic of conversation in Germany. But I greatly respect what Mario Draghi has done. He showed leadership in a situation where politics was unable to make decisions. It’s clear to him, too, that these measures won’t work forever. If we can't find a way to bring fiscal policy and the currency union together, then Europe will be faced with some really big problems.

But we’ve already encountered these problems! Monetary policy polarizes more than it helps.

I’m also convinced the time to discuss this is now. Otherwise Europe will fall apart.

Despite past decisions by the E.U., do you remain hopeful?

Without optimism, nothing can be achieved.

A great deal of optimism is required to believe that in a year full of national elections, Europe will pay attention to the real issues.

That’s true. On the other hand, we can’t succumb to despair. Europe is the strongest economic zone in the world. It is a community of shared values. We can be proud of this.

You’ve been chancellor for barely eight months now since leaving your position as chief executive of Austria's federal railway. Have you found your stride in politics?

Definitely. But I hope to never become fully assimilated. It’s not my life goal to remain in politics until my dying day. This is a phase of my life.

Is managing a country very different from managing a big company?

Yes. When there are 14 members on a company’s management board, discussions are held, a decision is made, and eventually everyone supports it. In politics, you can at best hope for seven out of the 14 to be against your idea. Usually it turns out to be nine.

Do you have a fixed time frame for your political involvement?

It seems realistic to think in 10-year periods. I believe that the office also does something to people. The mechanisms of compliance and power leave traces. After my term in office, I want to be able to live a normal life again.

At the beginning, you were being called the Obama of the Alps. Did that set the bar quite high?

You need a realistic perspective right from the start. Something like that tends to leave me contemplative – mostly because such expectations can’t be fulfilled.


Miriam Meckel is the editor in chief of WirtschaftsWoche. Sven Prange is deputy editor in chief of WirtschaftsWoche.