Austria: a bridge, haven, stopover and melting pot

Integration is a challenge in need of role models, says Gertrude Tumpel-Gugerell

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When Christopher Clark, the Cambridge historian, describes in his book Sleepwalkers how tensions between Serbia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire culminated in the first world war, Austrians are reminded of their past — a multicultural, multi-ethnic population of 50m that had experienced nearly half a century of peace and economic transformation until 1914.

The trauma of that war, the disintegration of an economically and culturally connected entity into nation states, the economic crisis of the following years, hyperinflation and unemployment laid the ground for the future extinction of this new state.

Today, Austria’s growing population of 8m is changing its identity again. From a poor country where people were starving in the winter of 1945 following the second world war, Austria has been rebuilt and now stands proudly at number three in the list of European Union states in terms of GDP per capita.

Migration has always been a part of our history. When thousands of Hungarians left their country in 1956, Austrians helped in a spontaneous wave of solidarity. When, in the summer of 1968, the dream of the Prague Spring was destroyed, many intellectuals moved to Vienna.

The industrialisation of the 1960s and 1970s brought workers from Turkey and citizenship for Muslims in an otherwise Catholic country. Yugoslavia was the origin of labour migration for decades, but the war in the region led to nearly 100,000 refugees, mainly from Bosnia, making Austria their home. The fall of the Iron Curtain was the beginning of a fundamental transformation of central and eastern European economies, and Austrian companies found new opportunities and new markets.

The summer of 2015 has changed Austria again. The war in Syria has moved ever closer, with the number of asylum seekers twice as many as last year.

The resistance to the allocation of refugees resulted in new legislation, with greater powers for central government. The steady stream of arrivals and many deaths, including children, have led to changes in government policy in Austria and Germany.

Non-government organisations and networks of volunteers have risen spontaneously to meet the challenge of providing food, medical treatment, housing and clothing, as Vienna has become an important stopover for thousands of refugees on their way to Germany, Sweden and other destinations. For more than 11,000 refugees seeking asylum, Vienna has become a haven — for the time being.

But the challenges remain. Hundreds of thousands of refugees are waiting in camps in the Middle East, including Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. Nobody knows how many will try to escape. The EU is taking action, supporting refugees and structuring the process of immigration and integration.

It is only 25 years since other fences and walls were torn down in Europe. The freedom to travel, work and live wherever Europeans wanted to, and where they could find employment, has become an important symbol of the European project.

How to deal with refugees who are waiting at the borders, who cross the sea in shaky boats and on long marches remains the next challenge. It cannot be geography alone that determines the degree of solidarity necessary. Making it a joint responsibility for the Union will take the pressure off governments in Austria and Germany which are closer to the stream of new arrivals. True integration means having access to work as soon as asylum status is confirmed.

It is true that the political system is under pressure. But xenophobia must be met head on. Integration is a challenge that requires role models, addressing fears and prejudices.

During the Cold War Austria saw itself as a bridge between east and west, adopting a neutral stance firmly rooted in the values of the west. Today we have become a harbour for thousands of people who want to get to Germany. Those who stay will settle and make Vienna a bit more of a melting pot of cultures and languages. Just as we were 100 years ago.

The writer is a supervisory board member of Commerzbank, OMV and VIG, and a former board member of the European Central Bank

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