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POLITICS

Corruption trial begins for Austria’s former far-right leader

Austria's former vice-chancellor and longtime leader of the far-right Freedom Party went on trial for alleged corruption on Tuesday, in a case linked to a scandal that brought down the government.

Corruption trial begins for Austria's former far-right leader
Austria's former Vice-Chancellor and disgraced former leader of Austria's far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) Heinz-Christian Strache. Photo: ALEX HALADA / AFP

Heinz-Christian Strache, one of Europe’s most high-profile far-right leaders, was forced to resign as vice-chancellor in 2019 after a video was published showing him offering public contracts in return for electoral campaign support from a woman posing as a Russian investor.

The scandal, dubbed “Ibiza-gate” as the video was secretly filmed on the Spanish party island, spawned a sweeping corruption investigation which uncovered several different accusations of wrongdoing.

‘Ibizagate’: What you need to know about the corruption scandal which continues to grip Austrian politics

A prosecutor laid out the charges at the beginning of Tuesday’s proceedings, saying that what Strache said in the Ibiza-gate tapes was “burned into the collective memory”.

Strache arrived at the court in Vienna wearing a mask and a dark suit, refusing to comment to journalists covering the trial.

The 52-year-old struck a combative figure as he sat in the dock, taking copious notes as the prosecutor spoke. 

Leaked messages

The trial concerns charges that Strache helped change a law for a Freedom Party (FPOe) donor when he was in a coalition government with the centre-right People’s Party (OeVP) of Chancellor Sebastian Kurz.

The donor, Walter Grubmueller, owns a private clinic in Vienna and told a parliamentary committee that he had invited Strache aboard his yacht and on a vacation at his holiday home on the Greek island of Corfu in 2016.

While negotiating the coalition agreement with the OeVP, Strache directly asked the clinic owner “which amendment to the law” he would need for his “clinic to finally be treated in a fair manner”, according to chat messages uncovered in the investigation which were leaked to the media.

In the messages, the donor reportedly said that he would deliver a draft law to the FPOe’s party headquarters.

After Strache took office in 2017, the far-right took charge of the health ministry and went on to oversee a change in the law that widened the category of establishments eligible for public funding.

According to expert estimates, this means clinics like Grubmueller’s were allowed to apply for as much as 2.2 million euros ($2.6 million) in funding in 2019 alone.

Grubmueller is also standing trial alongside Strache, but denies any wrongdoing or that he profited from the amendment.

When the “Ibiza-gate” footage emerged in 2019, the coalition between the Freedom Party and the People’s Party collapsed.

In the video, Strache claimed that several high-profile billionaires and international gambling company Novomatic had been funding political parties through off-the-books donations to associations, some owned by high-ranking OeVP politicians.

All those named by Strache deny any wrongdoing. The claims triggered an array of investigations, including a probe into the appointment of Thomas Schmid — a civil servant and Kurz ally — as head of the Austrian state holding company OeBAG.

Kurz told a parliamentary committee that he had no hand in the appointment, but leaked chat messages have suggested otherwise.

Prosecutors have now put him under investigation for the possible offence of making false statements to the committee.

Far-right infighting

Kurz, who returned as chancellor after a snap 2019 election, denies the allegation. If he is indicted, he faces going on trial for an offence which can be punished by a prison sentence of up to three years.

Since Strache resigned after 14 years at the helm of the Freedom Party, he has also been accused of embezzling party funds to pay for his luxurious lifestyle.

The revelations disillusioned many of the party’s voters, and the FPOe slumped from 26 percent of the vote in the 2017 general election to 16 percent in 2019.

Last year Strache attempted a comeback with a bid to be Vienna’s mayor, but his list won just three percent of the vote.

The FPOe has spent much of the time since the scandal consumed by infighting.

Last month Strache’s successor as leader, Norbert Hofer, resigned after weeks of tension with party colleague and former Interior Minister Herbert Kickl.

Kickl, seen as a party ideologue and mastermind of some of its anti-Islam and anti-migrant campaigns, swiftly took over as leader. 

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ENERGY

Air-con, ties and lights: How Europe plans to save energy and get through winter without blackouts

In the face of possible energy shortages due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, countries around Europe are taking action to cut their energy use and ensure that the lights remain on this winter. Here's a look at some of the rules and recommendations that governments are introducing.

Air-con, ties and lights: How Europe plans to save energy and get through winter without blackouts

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and ensuing sanctions has seen energy prices soar, while the Russian leader is also threatening to cut off gas supplies to the west in retaliation for the sanctions.

All this means that countries around Europe face a difficult winter and the prospect of energy shortages – so many are already taking action to stockpile gas and cut energy usage.

Here’s a roundup of what actions are being taken. 

Germany

Heavily dependant on Russian gas, Germany is already feeling the effects of the energy squeeze, with many households and businesses turning down the thermostat or dimming the lights as gas storage facilities are being filled at a slower pace.

RulesEarly in July, Germany’s lower house of parliament or Bundestag passed a plan to turn off the hot water in its offices and keep the air temperature no higher than 20C in the winter. This limit is merely recommended for households.

However homeowners will not be allowed to heat private pools with gas “this winter”, according to government plans, while a regulation requiring minimum temperatures in rented homes is expected to be suspended “so that tenants who want to save energy and turn down the heating are allowed to do so”.

As well as national rules, many German cities have also adopted their own energy-savings plans.

The Bavarian city of Augsburg, for example, has turned off its fountains, dimmed the facades of public buildings at night and is debating switching off some under-used traffic lights – and a housing cooperative in Dresden made national headlines when it announced it would limit hot water to certain times of day.

With certain exceptions, public buildings in Berlin will not have heating from April to the end of September each year, with room temperatures limited to a maximum of 20C for the rest of the year. In areas such as warehouses, technical rooms, corridors, the maximum will range from 10 to 15C.

Private enterprise has been getting in on the act too – Vonovia, Germany’s largest property group, plans to limit the temperature in its 350,000 homes to a maximum of 17C at night.

The head of consumer chemicals group Henkel has said that work-from-home practices may be reintroduced, while chemicals giant BASF has raised the possibility of putting its employees on furlough.

Recommendations – Economy Minister Robert Habeck has made headlines for extolling the virtues of shorter, colder showers.

France

France has an ambitious plan to cut its energy usage by 10 percent within two years and a government plan for sobriété énergétique (energy sobriety) is expected by September.

In the meantime, some rules have already been put in place while there are also some official recommendations. The general principle is that changes will be obligatory for government buildings and businesses, but voluntary for private households. 

Rules – In 2013, a law obliging businesses to switch off outside lights by 1am came into force. That deadline may be brought forward and towns and villages may have to switch off streetlights earlier – some areas have already taken this decision.

Shops that have air conditioning may not leave their doors open, so that less energy is lost.

Limits have been suggested for heating and air conditioning – keep heating to a maximum of 19C and air con to a minimum of 26C at the height of summer. The Prime Minister says she ‘expects’ government buildings to show an example and adhere to these, but they are voluntary for households.

Meanwhile, the heads of large supermarket chains in France have made a voluntary agreement for all stores to employ energy-saving techniques, such as turning off electric signs at closing times, reducing light usage, and managing store temperatures, from October 15th this year. They will also cut lighting by half before opening time, and by 30 percent during “critical consumption periods”.

Additionally, they will “cut off air renewal at night” and “lower the temperature in outlets to 17C this autumn and winter, if requested by a regulatory authority”.

Recommendations – The government has urged individuals to adopt energy-saving practices – by switching off wifi routers when on holiday, turning off lights, unplugging electric appliances when not in use, and lowering the air-con.

France’s energy transition minister Agnes Pannier-Runacher has urged people to keep heating to a maximum of 19C and air con to a minimum of 26C at the height of summer.

Spain

Spain has introduced perhaps the most wide-ranging set of rules in its new energy-saving bill, which comes into force on August 10th.

Public buildings as well as shops, restaurants, cafés, supermarkets, transport hubs and cultural spaces must:

  • Set heating and cooling temperatures to limits of 19C and 27C respectively;
  • Install doors that automatically close by September 30th to prevent energy waste, as can happen with regular doors that are left open;
  • Lights in shop windows must be turned off by 10pm;
  • Posters must be put up to explain the energy saving measures in every building or establishment, and thermometers must be displayed to show the temperature and humidity of the room.

READ ALSO: Is it realistic for Spain to set the air con limit at 27C during summer?

Recommendations – the above rules do not apply to private homes, but it is recommended to follow the heating and cooling limits.

Meanwhile, working from home is recommended for large companies and public administration buildings to help “save on the displacement and thermal consumption of buildings”, Spain’s Minister for Ecological Transition Teresa Ribera said.

And have you thought about your outfit? Here’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez explaining why he’s ditching his tie to stay a little bit cooler.

Italy

Back in April the Italian government approved limits on the use of air conditioning in public offices and schools from May 1st, to save energy and wean itself off reliance on Russian gas imports.

At the time Ministers said that Italy would be able to end its reliance on Russian gas within 18 months, after previously giving a timeframe of at least two years.

Rules – In public buildings, energy use will be measured in individual rooms of each building – the temperature must not exceed 19C in winter and cannot be any lower than 27C in summer, with a margin of tolerance of two degrees – meaning the lowest allowed temperature is actually 25C.

Fines for non-compliance with the rules are said to range from €500 to €3,000. The measure does not currently apply to clinics, hospitals and nursing homes.

Italy has long had rules in place limiting the usage of heating in homes and public buildings during winter. Northern and mountainous areas are allowed to switch on the heat in October, while some parts of the south can’t turn up the dial until December.

Even then, there are limits on how long you’re allowed to keep the central heating on each day, ranging from six hours in the warmest parts of the country to 14 hours in chillier regions.

And there are rules on maximum temperatures – private homes, offices and schools should not be heated to more than 20C, with a 2C tolerance. Meanwhile factories and workshops should generally be kept at 18C.

Austria

The Austrian government has said it will work on measures to encourage energy saving among households and businesses while putting a cap on electricity prices.

The aim is to “support the Austrian population to ensure unaffordable energy supply for a certain basic need”, according to a government statement. 

The government didn’t give details on the price cap but said that conditions would be developed by the end of August.

Sweden

Sweden has announced no new measures in response to the energy crisis, but already has certain limits in place. 

Many Swedish apartment buildings and housing cooperatives have a strict maximum heating limit of 21C indoors and in some buildings radiators have a limiter on them so they cannot be turned too high.

In Denmark, too, the government has introduced no specific new measures.

Switzerland

In common with other countries, Switzerland is at risk of a gas shortage this winter and the government has warned that restrictions on consumption during the coldest months cannot be excluded.

Nearly half of its annual supply is of Russian origin. “We are not an island, so the war in Ukraine and the global energy crisis also affect Switzerland,” Energy Minister Simonetta Sommaruga said at the end of June. “In this context, there is no certainty about what awaits us.”

The possibility that Swiss households will have to turn down the thermostat this winter is very real. 

In the event of an actual shortage, “consumption restrictions may be ordered, for example restrictions on the heating of unoccupied buildings. The switching to biofuel could be imposed by ordinance”, Economy Minister Guy Parmelin has said.

If shortages persist, a quota system would be implemented – with households and essential services, such as hospitals, among the last to be affected.

But Parmelin insisted, “the role of the State is to guarantee a good supply of gas and electricity to the country. We want at all costs to avoid a disruption in supply, which would have a strong impact on businesses and  would then lead to an economic crisis”.

UK

Less reliant on Russian gas because of its own gas reserves, the UK is currently less worried about supply than price – soaring utility bills may force many households into poverty this winter, campaigners have warned.

Households in the UK will start receiving a discount worth a total £400 (€478) off their energy bills from October, the British government has said, with the support package rises to £1,200 (€1,430) for the poorest households.

A recent report by National Grid said there was little chance of the lights going out in the UK this winter – though experts have warned that a severe cold spell could prompt action, such as shutdowns of non-critical factory operations, to ensure homes can be heated.

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