Tuesday, December 5, 2023

“Major world political challenges are not decided in the capitals of Europe”

Interview with Karl Habsburg

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Karl Habsburg, the media entrepreneur and Chairman of the Austrian section of the Pan-European Union spoke to New Europe about the EU’s deficits, the crisis of the welfare state, sanctions against Russia and the next round of enlargement.

Habsburg was a member of the European Parliament from 1996 to 1999 and is involved at the international level in the protection of cultural assets in crisis areas (Blue Shield). As the eldest son of Otto Habsburg, he is also head of the Habsburg family.

NEW EUROPE (NE): How much has the Covid pandemic changed Europe, the EU in particular?

Karl Habsburg (KH): All the prerequisites would have been there to strengthen Europe through this crisis. A paper on European defense was published about ten years ago in which a pandemic coming from Asia was mentioned as a possible threat scenario. So everyone could have been prepared. The principle of solidarity is present in the European treaties. Few people know that there is even an EU commissioner for crisis management. There would have been the necessary instruments to react to this global challenge in a European way. What’s more, it was not national interests that were affected, but all the citizens of the European Union, and even the politicians, were directly affected. So the European dimension was clearly there.

NE: But instead, the pandemic made nation-states stronger.

KH: The crucial question in a crisis is always how to respond. Do you accept the challenge? In this case, the question is about a global challenge that is not limited to health policy, but also has geopolitical and economic aspects that react together. And, furthermore, do you dig up old political patterns and retreat into the apparent security of the nation-state? How one responds and how policy responds is a question of political foresight. It is a question of political leadership and a question of the European idea. I have the very strong impression that we have buried this European idea in the state parliaments and chancelleries of Europe, but also in the management personnel at the EU level. They are making policies with soulless ideological concepts that only look until the next election and are normally characterized by the dates of press conferences.

NE: EU cooperation in terms of a common foreign and security policy still leaves much to be desired? 

KH: It’s nice that we now have a deputy president of the EU Commission, Josep Borrell, who is responsible for foreign policy, but the old slogan of the German publicist William S. Schlamm still applies: “For a domestic policy, you need good accountants; for foreign policy, you need statesmen.” Borrell does not have this geostrategic eye, as he showed during his ill-fated visit to Moscow last year. Everyone advised him against making the visit, then he was literally paraded in Moscow by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. This also showed how Russia sees us (in Europe) amidst this fragmentation. 

NE: Putin does not want a strong EU. He has promoted anti-EU parties. The EU has imposed sanctions against Russia and Belarus, but do they work at all?

KH: If applied correctly, sanctions can have an effect. But economic sanctions hardly help because they have a strong repercussion on us. Russia responded to the EU’s sanctions with reciprocal measures. The geopolitical approach is still valid. During the Cold War, Moscow determined the Soviet Union’s foreign policy for the eastern half of Europe in a totalitarian way. For the free Western part, the US, as a partner, was the determining power. Without wanting to offend anyone in Paris, Berlin or Madrid, it is still the case today that the major world political challenges are not decided in the capitals of Europe, but in Washington and Moscow, as well as in Communist-ruled China. Europe lies on the periphery of various conflict hotspots. Let us think of the Middle East, but let us also think of the eastern border of the EU, where we have a zone of instability due to hybrid attacks. There is no other way to name the weaponization of refugees by the totalitarian regime of Alexander Lukashenko. I advocate indicting Lukashenko’s regime at the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.

NE: How should the EU react to Putin’s threats? 

KH: If you want to take action against Putinism, then you have to go after Russia’s oligarchs. Every one of them wants to have his account in Luxembourg, on the Isle of Man or somewhere else. Everybody wants to send their children to Swiss schools or to Oxford. Everyone wants to use their house on the Cote d’Azur, their yacht in Monaco. This is where we should start. You have to make it clear to them: “You can’t have the cake and eat it, too.“ Our goal must be to support Russia on its path of decolonization towards a peaceful, democratic state, based on the rule of law, with which we can live in a genuine partnership.

NE: Back to the EU. You warned against the massive new debt that came about because of the Corona aid package. But without them, the EU economy would have collapsed. 

KH: My warnings go beyond Corona aid. We have built up a wonderful system, the welfare state. But we have simply reached a limit where we can no longer expect the whole world to switch to a Scandinavian system. The problem of a welfare state, which is no longer affordable, has existed for a long time. And we have simply passed on our problems – including climate protection – to the next generation. 

NE: A conflict has broken out in the EU over the rule of law. The European Commission wants to punish some countries – especially Hungary and Poland – with cuts in EU subsidies because of violations of basic values violations, including attacks on media freedom and LBGT rights. What is your position on this as a media manager?

KH: In principle, it’s right to defend basic principles in the EU, i.e. human rights, democracy and media freedom. But I also stand by the principle of subsidiarity, which was enshrined in the Maastricht Treaty. When I look at certain agitations that are taking place against Hungary and Poland, they seem hopelessly exaggerated. 

NE: So you are defending Viktor Orban?

KH: In Hungary, too, things are not eaten as hot as they are cooked. I am in favor of implementing a set of fundamental European principles for all EU members. I have the feeling that Orban is a pragmatist in many areas, one should not condemn, across the board, everything he does. It is well known, for example, that I stand for a European foreign policy and that I also support the direct election of a strong European Parliament. The conflict is not a conflict between Western and Eastern Europe, even if some people are now stylizing it as a new division between East and West. This narrative is driven by ideologues who use it to portray themselves as victims of Western Europe’s oppression of the former Eastern Bloc in order to build the story that they are the only ones (and the last ones) to defend Europe’s true values. In fact, it is a conflict between two statist, paternalist ideologies, where one places statism at the level of the nation-state, the other at the level of the supranational EU. Both ideologies are characterized by a primacy of politics, not by a primacy of law.

NE: You run a pro-European radio station in Ukraine. How did that come about?

KH: There’s relatively little state media in Ukraine, so there is a lot of room for private media. Originally, I took over a music station there. I have always kept my business area separate from my political interests. With this good intention, I quickly reached my limits in Ukraine. I worked with an oligarch (and later president) named Petro Poroshenko, who was not so well known at the time. He was a shareholder in my first radio station, which we brought into the black and then sold. When he became president, I was asked if I didn’t want to turn it into a pro-European radio station. It was the Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine that put the country on a European course and also united it. I bought the station back. It was called JE, which stands for Yes and EU in Ukrainian. Musically, we were a kind of Eurovision song contest. We also brought news about the EU. Later we changed the station again because we also wanted to report on the war in the east of the country. In Kiev, people hardly heard anything about the fighting in the Donbass. Now the station is called “Kraina FM” and broadcasts more Ukrainian music. I am also trying to get more licences, for example in the Donbass.

Ukrainian soldiers at a checkpoint in the country’s eastern Donbass region.

NE: Should Ukraine join the EU and also NATO? Putin has threatened to launch a military invasion of Ukraine if this were to happen.

KH: The simple answer is ‘yes’. If you want Europe to be complete, then you have to make an effort to bring in European countries that are not yet EU members. Of course, they have to fulfil the conditions. But Ukraine is a European country. For me, it’s also rubbish when someone says that the West has made promises to Russia not to admit certain countries. That has not been documented anywhere. We offer countries a system with a democratic and market economy perspective. There is another offer from another state – a planned economy and dictatorship. They are free to choose. Ukraine has made it clear that it wants to orient itself towards the West. EU accession will certainly not happen tomorrow, but the prospect of accession must be opened up. The same applies to the nations of the Balkans, but not to Turkey, which is a rival of the EU. People who want to prevent this enlargement have not understood the history of the European Union. 

NE: You are the chair of the Pan-European Union’s Austrian branch, which was founded 100 years ago.

KH: 100 years ago, an organization was founded in Vienna that is still considered the origin of the idea of European unification: the Paneuropa Union. On November 17, 1922, Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi published his appeal “Paneuropa: A Proposal”. Two days before, he published this appeal in Vossische Zeitung in Berlin. There will be an anniversary congress of the Paneuropa Union in Vienna from November 17-20, 2022.

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