Father Weber and Mare Nostrum

Only 45.39% of Austrians voted last May in the EU elections, which was a disappointingly low turnout – and no better in the other EU states either. Fascinating to see, then, how the EU is now being called by “its citizens” to act (for Mare Nostrum reasons) in response to the refugee tragedies in the Mediterranean. In actual fact, the EU does not have any majority legitimation from the European population and hasn’t had it for years now.

Media coverage of the massacres by Boko Haram militants has so far been relegated to “other news”. Brief articles about warring factions on the African continent appear from time to time but that is about as far as the coverage goes – no word about who supplies the weapons (usually USA, Russia, China or Germany, for instance). No analysis to suggest it will trigger, or already has unleashed, a wave of threatened or persecuted migrants who, in fear of their lives, are turning to Europe and using the Mediterranean Sea route as their passage to a safer and better future. There is no research into the structures and political regimes that have set themselves up in the wake of the “Arab Spring”. Increasingly, radicalisation within North African countries tends to be treated as isolated events, with no connection being drawn between the removal of unpopular African dictators by major Western powers and their cooperation with local radical militia, (like the jihadists), and the impending tidal wave of asylum seekers, or the (deliberately engendered) political chaos.

Enlightened Europe – where R you?

The Europe I am so proud of is the Europe of Enlightenment, of humanitarian ideals, of the freedom and protection of the personal liberties of ordinary citizens. The EU certainly set itself the task of upholding those values, but it has yet to gain the widespread support of its citizens at the ballot box. Instead, national interests continue to prevail well before those of the Union. Particularly from an economic perspective, close cooperation over the harvesting of raw materials, fishing rights etc. is certainly on the agenda when it comes to Africa. Yet what tends to be overlooked in such cases is that the political partners involved are typically not democratic but rather authoritarian rulers of post-colonial countries. And that is fundamentally wrong. The task for Europe here, as it was more than 200 years ago on its own continent, is to give the African population access to the kind of education and enlightenment that makes individual citizens capable of critical thought – citizens able to economically emancipate themselves to the point where they can afford to live their own lives and engage as equals with their politicians, able ask questions and maintain their personal independence. This will ultimately serve to make their country an enlightened, liberal society.

Father Weber and Karlheinz Böhm

It was Father Weber, amongst others, who in post-1815 Austria laid the foundations for the self-sufficiency and personal responsibility of ordinary citizens with his idea of a bank account for every person. He and many others, who understood that economic security and autonomy lead to a contented and progressive society, are classic examples of protagonists for the social economy. In reality, that is one of the best export items Europe can bring to the African continent. It is not only a vehicle for transporting the approach of an enlightened and humanitarian Europe but also a form of development aid that enables the local people to be spared the prospect of an uncertain, or worse, future.
The EU has enough clout to carry out such a project. And the fact that such ideas can be successful was illustrated by Karlheinz Böhm more than 30 years ago in Ethiopia. He and Father Weber had the same bright idea.

There are not five billion humans, but ONE human being five billion times over, Karlheinz Böhm

Fighting for the middle class

There was a major power in post-war America: its middle class. And yet this class has been on the verge of dissolving, disintegrating and vanishing. For nearly 30 years. Elizabeth Warren has made it her goal to protect it – and will not make the presidential campaign easy for Hillary Clinton by doing this.

In European terms, Elizabeth Warren is actually a working class child. Her earliest negative experience was when her father was seriously ill. The only way to fund the health insurance was through a loan which seemed reasonable at first, but which was in fact high-risk and kept the family in a state of tension for a long time. And as she herself emphasises, this was just the beginning of an unfair financial system which worked its way from Wall Street throughout the country. Senate and Congress are reliant on Wall Street and its lobbyists thus manage to repress main street banking and its influence in American centres of power. The last remnants of the Glass-Steagall Act were repealed during the Clinton Administration (i.e. under Warren’s political colleagues and Bill Clinton, husband of the most promising Democratic presidential candidate). In Europe or rather the EU, this model is known under the general term “separate banking system” and its individual approaches by Volcker, Vickers and Liikanen.

“Too big to fail, means too big”

Warren has styled herself as the protector of the middle class against dubious financial institutions and high-risk lending, and her popularity is increasing. Two thirds of Americans are now scrutinising activities on Wall Street very closely and consider “Too big to fail” to be a provocative topic. Elizabeth Warren is a great advocate of reinstating Glass-Steagall and also regards the fight against the Wall Street mechanisms as a key issue in the Democratic presidential campaign. Former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley is one of many in support of Warren attempting even now to make Glass-Steagall an issue in Senate. His belief: “If banks are too big to fail, they are too big.”

Meanwhile the figures suggest that a further financial collapse in the US is imminent, which is being expedited and encouraged by the continuing unrestricted activities of the “big banks” and their methods.

Many Americans have still not recovered financially from the 2008 financial crisis and detect in their government support of the Wall Street Banks rather than focus on consumer banks. Warren quotes in this respect the average annual income which is USD 4,000 below the annual income in 2008. There are twenty million people registered with the food stamp programme, in order to have basic food security at least. Student loans are at unprecedented levels because of the high interest rates of federal loan programmes.  Warren is very critical of this, as it is causing a rapid rise in the debt burden of young Americans.

In addition, many families are faced with the problem that they are not able to pay their monthly rent or housing loans.

Financial reforms weakened the middle class 

According to Warren, the financial sector reforms have not cleaned up the banking sector and made it more trustworthy. Instead, they have allowed the already large banks to grow by a further 30-40%. She believes that the restructuring and reform of the financial sector is still unfinished. Her proposals include:

  • Financial institutions and individuals should be accountable if they cheat customers
  • Taxpayers should no longer have to foot the bill if banks default
  • Tax policies which encourage financial instability and risk-taking should be changed
  • Clear guidelines should be developed for tougher regulations on the shadow-banking sector

Meantime there has been great approval and support for Warren at all of her public appearances. She will not enter the ring herself against Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries, but Clinton will nevertheless not be able to ignore the party’s progressive left wing represented by Warren. Whether she will make Glass-Steagall an issue is probably already difficult. In any event Warren, the fighter for the middle class, is an important component in the 2016 presidential campaign, and encourages perhaps for some a political scheme in the EU and/or Austria.



Parliamentarianism – “Locke-ing it in”

The Hypo Commission of Inquiry was celebrated as a great achievement in the development of Austrian parliamentarianism – except, on closer inspection, it appears to be the exact opposite, or rather its swansong.

I first consult (Austrian legal philosopher) Hans Kelsen, who defines parliamentarianism as:

Development of decisive state will by a collegial body democratically elected by the people on the basis of universal and equal suffrage and according to the majority rule principle.

It is more than the will of the people that transparency, information and communication prevail in the case of Hypo. But it seems as if disclosure of all the facts and files is declining at the same time as the need for information is rising.

Separation of powers is painful

It is probably the blurring of a matter so important to our political system – the separation of powers – that is also at fault here. Montesquieu and Locke were the founding fathers of that principle. And they would be a little annoyed at the way it is being applied in the case of the Hypo Commission .

The Chairwoman of the Hypo Commission is the President of the National Council (the lower house of the Austrian Parliament). She is the second-highest ranked politician in this country, which means she holds a position of great responsibility to her people, i.e. to us. However, up until recently, that responsibility rested with Doris Bures in her role as SPÖ (Social Democratic Party) Infrastructure Minister in the government. And she has long been viewed as a trusted friend of Chancellor Faymann. To stay with that party: Jan Krainer is the Whip responsible for Hypo matters, Finance spokesman for the SPÖ and also a government advisor. No “Locke-ing it in” there either. And the current SPÖ party supremo is the former State Secretary, who was present for the nationalisation bail-out.

In the case of the ÖVP (Austrian People’s Party), on the other hand, there is a tendency for a protective wall to be erected in front of the ÖVP Finance Ministers (including Grasser). Yet the very opposite should be the case. After all, a new wing within the ÖVP – generally described as liberal – is now at the helm. Liberals tend to set store by values like the right to information. At the same time, however, that party is also obliged to uphold the liberal principles of data privacy and the right to private sphere protection (professional confidentiality and banking secrecy). It will be fascinating to see how that balancing act plays out. Judging by the first few meetings, stonewalling is the initial approach.

The opposition is divided. The FPÖ (Freedom Party) has to try and keep the damage away from its own party and frame it as a failure of the system and evidence of corruption – even though that party also contains members who had both federal and provincial government dealings with Hypo. Team Stronach is faced with similar dilemmas. Their man on the Commission of Inquiry, Robert Lugar, moved back in the day from the BZÖ (Alliance for the Future of Austria) to Stronach. They have to walk the tricky tightrope between denunciation and dismay – as do, incidentally, the Greens since they had MPs in the Carinthia provincial government when Hypo first got into strife. However, it has to be conceded that, to their credit, the Greens and the NEOS (The New Austria) – the only party, incidentally, that had nothing to do with Hypo thanks to its late birth as a political party – are fighting like mad for parliamentarianism, whether in an activist manner like Kogler or very pragmatically in the case of Hable.

95% of the Hypo Case files are not publicly accessible. This means that media reporting will be very much dependent on “Hypoleaks”, if any relatively objective or factual overview is to be provided. To which we as citizens of this country have a right, by the way – in view of the billions we are providing as financiers of this solution via such things as the tax system.

Transparency harms parliamentarianism?

Yet it would be really simple to arrange: an official Twitter account for the Hypo Commission of Inquiry, direct transmission of certain witness statements (with their consent and that of all parties involved), regular press briefings, etc.

The media is already casting aspersions that this minority commission is a unique phenomenon in the history of Austrian parliamentarianism. We can all only hope we are wrong, and that parliamentarianism will emerge strengthened rather than weakened by this Commission of Inquiry. As well as achieving clarity over Hypo, that should be the common goal of all the parties involved.

John Locke
…. The first and fundamental positive law of all commonwealths is the establishing of the legislative power; as the first and fundamental natural law, which is to govern even the legislative itself, is the preservation of the society and…of every person in it. This legislative is not only the supreme power of the commonwealth, but sacred and unalterable in the hands where the community have once placed it; nor can any edict of anybody else, in what form soever conceived, or by what power soever backed, have the force and obligation of a law, which has not its sanction from that legislative which the public has chosen and appointed ….