A Plea for Solidarity

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Pot calling the kettle black? Picture source: Reuters.

Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern has accused some European Union member states of treating the union like a “cash machine,” accepting financial assistance from Brussels while shirking their responsibilities to the bloc – especially when it comes to refugees.

In an exclusive interview Mr. Kern, a center-left Social Democrat, called for more unity across the 28-nation bloc and singled out Poland and Hungary for refusing to take in refugees while receiving billions in subsidies from Brussels. He said the EU has tried to appeal to Warsaw and Budapest’s sense of European solidarity, but to no avail.

For all his calls for greater solidarity, Mr. Kern, who faces a tough re-election battle in October, defended his own government’s move to reintroduce border controls at the Brenner Pass at the Italian border. The Austrian defense minister, Hans Peter Doskozil, this week said Vienna may even deploy troops to ensure no migrants cross the border. Italy responded by summoning Austria’s ambassador to Rome.

“The Italian authorities face huge challenges right now and they are mastering them in an admirable way,” Mr. Kern said. “But for me it’s clear that we have to be prepared in case the situation escalates, because it’s clear that the conditions of 2015 cannot be allowed to repeat.”

The Austrian chancellor called for the European Union to provide Italy with more financial assistance and for the other member states to do their duty and take in refugees to relief pressure on Rome. He went as far as to say that Brussels should impose sanctions against Poland and Hungary if they do not meet their obligations as member states.

“If someone does not meet to their obligations to the rule of law, this position must lead to consequences,” Mr. Kern said. The chancellor said net financial contributors to the European Union, such as Austria, should use EU subsidies as leverage against Poland and Hungary. He held out little hope of diplomacy working instead: “I wish the best of luck to anyone who believes that they can convince the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban with good humanist arguments,” Mr. Kern said.

More broadly, Mr. Kern said Britain’s decision to leave the bloc offers an opportunity to re-invent the European Union in a way that makes it more appealing to young people. The European Union and the euro zone had not adjusted their structures in the early years of the new millennium to meet the challenges of the future, the chancellor said.

For too long, the euro zone has focused on optimizing markets, keeping inflation near 2 percent and implementing rules on budget deficits, Mr. Kern said, and called for a greater focus on human welfare.

“Europe is not just about markets, it’s above all about people,” Mr. Kern said. “We have overlooked that Europe is increasingly dividing itself among winners and losers. We have to complete the economic and currency union with a social pillar.”

The chancellor went so far as to propose giving the European Commission the power to sanction member states for failing to meet minimum social standards on public investment, employment and education. No person in Europe under the age of 18, for example, should go without some form of further education, Mr. Kern said.

Hans-Peter Siebenhaar is Handelsblatt’s chief correspondent in Vienna. To contact the author:

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