After what feels like an eternity Austria finally has a new federal president. The timing could not be better for a liberal democrat to take up the highest office of the Republic of Austria, right in the heart of Europe.
Van der Bellen is committed to an Anglo-Saxon style of liberalism. This means having a healthy scepticism towards any over-elevation of the state. The concept of freedom and its defence has moved into Austria’s Imperial Palace, the Hofburg, along with Alexander Van der Bellen.
With one fell swoop Austria has suddenly (a slight exaggeration as the election campaign lasted almost one year) taken on a role that goes far beyond Austrian borders. In times of regionalization, nationalization, etatism and protectionism, Austria has at its head a politician who, from personal experience and political conviction, advocates the freedom of the individual, self-determination and the equality of citizens as the basis for liberal democracy. This is a challenge for civil society, for politics, and also for the European Union. A soothing challenge nonetheless.
How is this embodied? Here are some examples.
- Alexander Van der Bellen is passionately concerned about Europe and he always emphasized this in the election campaign. Following on from Hans Dietrich Genscher’s words “Europe is our future. We do not have another”, Van der Bellen recognizes the EU’s deficits 60 years after the Treaty of Rome and the immense challenges it faces (nationalism, the Eurozone crisis, immigration law, security concepts etc.). Therefore, he has broken with tradition and instead of making his first visit as president of Austria to neutral Switzerland he instead plans his inaugural presidential visit to be to the European Parliament, which is the centre of European democracy. This is a strong sign for Europe and its conceptualization, which is based on the principles of enlightenment and freedom. Van der Bellen is an ambassador of such.
- The debates on data retention, video surveillance, and similar measures, are currently back on the agenda. These are issues which restrict the personal rights of the individual and they have a critical observer in Alexander Van der Belen as well as a possible opponent. The continual curtailment of the principles of the liberal constitution are liberties which are given up in favour of security, recalling Benjamin Franklin’s famous words “Those who surrender freedom for security will not have, nor do they deserve, either one”. These curtailments cannot be tolerated in favour of populist ad hoc politics, but need to be weighed-up from the perspective of the freedom of the citizen, which is something Van der Belen has impressively described, and described critically, in his book The Art of Freedom.
- There is an advantage of presidential office in that it brings with it a form of freedom for Alexander Van der Bellen because he does not have to think about re-election for the next five years. The question of re-election will not accompany him in his political work because he does not have to make the daily headlines, but can instead mediate and moderate in the background. In times of populism, in times of shortened, excited presentations, it is a blessing to know that there is a liberal democrat such as Van der Bellen at the head of Austria who, due to his academic career, is also well able to cope with the complexity of a topic. To quote Ralf Dahrendorf, one of the great liberal thinkers in Europe: “To live with complexity is perhaps the greatest task of democratic political education.”
Alexander Van der Bellen will face many challenges in the coming years including globalization and the end of work as we currently know it, climate change, terrorism and migration. At both national and international levels, politically and economically, socially and culturally, we find ourselves today in unexplored terrain, indeed in a “wobbly, unstable world”. This creates uncertainty and disorientation, anomie and a longing for authoritarian solutions. These are difficult times for freedom.
Alexander Van der Bellen’s electoral victory came at the right time, in the right place. In the middle of Europe, Liberal Democracy once again has a supporter, who, because of his confidence, his experience, his independence and his free spirit, is able to fulfil an important role: to embody the centre of the free world in Europe.
Ralf Dahrendorf said, “Freedom must not become a privilege, and this means that a guiding principle of the politics of freedom is to provide more people, in principle, all human beings with the rights and the conditions which we ourselves already enjoy.”
At the end of Alexander van der Bellen’s (first) term of office we expect an open or more open society, a society which is open to or even more open to change, in fact we expect a society of free citizens.