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POLITICS

OPINION: Austria’s vaccine mandate is politically high-risk with limited benefits

Austria has approved its controversial vaccine mandate but it comes with much risk for the government and unclear benefits for the country, argues Marcus How.

Demonstrators wave Austrian flags during a rally held by Austria's far-right Freedom Party FPOe
In this file photo taken on November 20, 2021 demonstrators wave Austrian flags during a rally held by Austria's far-right Freedom Party FPOe against the measures taken to curb the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic, at Heldenplatz square in front of the Hofburg Palace in Vienna, Austria. (Photo by Joe Klamar / AFP)

On February 4th, President Alexander Van der Bellen signed the legislation governing the mandatory vaccination programme, which accordingly entered into force.

Under the legislation, unvaccinated individuals who are over the age of 18 and resident in Austria on either a primary or secondary basis will enjoy a grace period until 16 March, whereupon the police will begin spot checks to determine vaccination status. Fines of up to €600 are possible, which may rise to €3,600 in the event of non-compliance.

The programme is a flagship policy of the coalition government between the centre-right People’s Party (ÖVP) and centre-left Greens. It was devised in the autumn, imposed in response to a surge in infections from the Delta variant of COVID-19, which was aggravated by the relatively low level of vaccination at the time. It was supported by a lockdown for the unvaccinated, which is now being lifted.

Fragile consensus

Politically, the programme is high-risk. Social polarisation is already at high levels, perpetuated by the previously bellicose government rhetoric against the unvaccinated, who the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) and anti-vaccination list People Freedom Fundamental Rights (MFG) are attempting to champion. 

Neither party is especially credible, with the FPÖ wavering over the radical course its leader, Herbert Kickl, has adopted. MFG is a single-issue party that would be unlikely to survive a legislative term, assuming it secures parliamentary representation at all. Yet polls indicate that the FPÖ and MFG enjoy the combined support of a quarter of the electorate. 

EXPLAINED: How Austria’s vaccine mandate will work

Just as Austria’s mandatory vaccine programme is unprecedented in Europe, so too is the level to which the anti-vaccine movement is politically organised. This reflects the longer-term trends of social polarisation in Austria, which has its origins in the 1980s. The anti-vaccine movement is another manifestation of culture wars and conspiratorial thinking.

However, such thinking exists along a spectrum and is not the sole domain of populists and the far-right. According to recent polls it extends into the political centre, with a narrow majority of respondents emerging that is either opposed to the programme or believing that it should be delayed. This is not reflected by the parliamentary landscape, where four of the five parties represented voted in favour. 

Limited upside

The electoral impact is already being felt – and the ÖVP is particularly exposed. Nationally, pandemic management is but one part of the story, a potent ingredient in a toxic cocktail that is corroding the party. 

In autumn 2021, the ÖVP underperformed in the regional elections in Upper Austria, one of its strongholds – while the insurgent MFG took up a small chunk of the vote. Last week, in the local elections in Waidhofen an der Ybbs – another ÖVP bastion deep in Lower Austria – the absolute majority of the ÖVP collapsed, with MFG winning 17% of the vote.

These are dark clouds that may herald deepening disaster for the ÖVP. The region of Tirol is set to hold local elections at the end of February, which are looking ominous for the ÖVP.  

Meanwhile, Lower Austria is set to hold regional elections no later than January 2023. The region is the jewel in the crown of the ÖVP, the strongest of the pillars upon which the national party rests. Polls are currently indicating that Governor Johanna Mikl-Leitner will preside over the loss of the party’s absolute majority in the region, its last nationally, largely to the benefit of MFG. 

Such a result would come as a severe blow to the morale of a party that is already facing an uncertain future. Following the resignation of former chancellor and party leader Sebastian Kurz from politics in December, the ÖVP remains directionless. Kurz’s successor, Karl Nehammer, was assigned by ÖVP grandees to steady the ship, whereupon he signalled an openness to dialogue with stakeholders largely shunned by his predecessor – while doubling down on law and order. 

Last roll of the dice?

The mandatory vaccination programme is part of this agenda. Nehammer is banking on increasing the vaccination rate in order to guard against future variants that may emerge, rather than Omicron per se . Yet there is every possibility that it will flash in the pan. 

First, 72 percent of the population have received at least two jabs, with a further 3 percent pending. Children under the age of five may not be vaccinated and comprise 5 percent of the population. That leaves some 20 percent of the population, a large share of which is either under the age of 18 or subject to exemption from the programme. The remaining share will be difficult to convince, not least owing to their increasing militancy. 

The government is not helping this situation by sending mixed signals, namely through relaxing restrictions while the Omicron wave has barely begun to crest. Such ambivalence does not act as an incentive, especially amid declarations by the World Health Organisation (WHO) that the end of the pandemic in Europe is in sight.

Second, it is unclear whether the legislation will survive the scrutiny of the Constitutional Court (VfGH). A legal challenge is certain to be filed, with the VfGH typically issuing rulings within four months. If this backfires, the ÖVP and Greens will face further questions over their competence in addressing the pandemic. 

This is playing out against a backdrop of tense relations between the ÖVP and Greens. In the coming weeks, a parliamentary committee of inquiry will be established to probe suspected corruption by the ÖVP. Such allegations already led to the resignation of Sebastian Kurz. 

The Greens and particularly the ÖVP are not in a strong position to fight new elections. As the ÖVP wobbles, as further investigations mount, holding the line will prove challenging. 

While the ÖVP may face heavy electoral losses, the polls indicate that the winnings for the other parties will be modest at best. This underscores the sombre truth: that the Austrian electorate are weary, disaffected and apathetic. 

Marcus How is the Head of Analysis at VE Insight, a political risk consultancy based in Vienna

Member comments

  1. Meanwhile across the ocean in Canada Truckers are besieging Ottawa against the vaccine mandate over there.

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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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