Austrian ex-Chancellor Gusenbauer: Europe at a crossroads

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Berlin, 14 December 2018: The return of identity politics, growing social and economic imbalances, and the breakdown of traditional political patterns such as the left-right divide are at the heart of the deepening crisis across European societies. In his lecture – ‘The 2019 European elections: Europe at a crossroads’ – at the Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute (DOC), former Chancellor of Austria Alfred Gusenbauer presented an unsparing analysis of the major drivers behind recent developments. Technological progress in the form of digitalisation, automation, and – as we are increasingly seeing – artificial intelligence, is leading to a rapid devaluation of labour, primarily in low and unskilled sectors. Whole chunks of society fall out of – or never get a chance to enter – what used to be defined as a meaningful existence, with meaning deriving from the practice of some sort of profession, be it simple or low-paid. Gusenbauer cited an OECD prediction according to which 30-50% of jobs in industrialised countries are going to disappear over the coming decades. Among the consequences across all developed societies will be a sharp contraction of the middle classes, generating further imbalances and polarisation. The “era of the European welfare state is over”, Gusenbauer said. For that reason, the former chancellor demanded an urgent and radical review of the labour-based taxation system, and its restructuring, focusing on the “taxation of profits, capital, wealth, certain forms of consumption, and in particular, ecological consumption”.

Globalisation and the aforementioned social and economic changes are equally instrumental for the comeback of identity as a determining collective value. According to Gusenbauer, European societies are culturally moving to the right and socially to the left. Thus, the ‘leftist’ demand for state intervention to protect the poor and the masses coincides with the ‘rightist’ claim for national sovereignty and citizens’ preferential rights. Asked whether that may lead – again – to an approximation towards nationalist and socialist tenets, Gusenbauer admitted that the persistent susceptibility to at least pseudo-fascist ideas was grounds for some of his darker potential future scenarios.

Thus, the populist threat to the established political class can hardly be overestimated. Gusenbauer described the May 2019 European Parliament elections as “potentially disastrous”.

In terms of foreign policy, Gusenbauer insisted that Europeans, in spite of the US pivoting to the Pacific Rim and away from their old brethren, had no alternative to the transatlantic security system. “There is no Russian or Chinese card on the table; it simply does not exist”, he stressed repeatedly. Both China and Russia were engaged in a deepening rivalry with the old superpower, and a strong and united Europe was neither in Russian nor Chinese interests. China in particular, Gusenbauer said, is busily deepening the incipient divide between the old EU and the new members of Central and Eastern Europe. A tangible tool has been the 16+1 cooperation concept shaping increased Chinese economic and political engagement in that region over the last six years.

Gusenbauer described the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as “the smartest geopolitical move”. Although he does not expect truly major additions to existing infrastructure like roads, railways, and ports – apart from communication lines and also besides strategic projects like the Sino-Pakistani link – he nevertheless sees a quantitative leap as having been made by the Chinese, who for the first time have successfully managed to familiarise the rest of Eurasia with their unique political and economic approach.

The event was a part of DOC’s new ‘Meet in Mitte’ series of insightful discussions and lectures.

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Full video of the event

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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