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UKRAINE

ANALYSIS: How do Austrians feel about the worsening refugee crisis?

Austrians across the political spectrum have showed support for a potential influx of Ukrainian refugees, with 200,000 predicted to make their way here. Austrian journalist Stefan Haderer asks whether this support differs from previous refugee intakes - and whether this support will waver?

People attend a demonstration against the Russian invasion of Ukraine in Vienna on March 5, 2022. (Photo by ALEX HALADA / AFP)
People attend a demonstration against the Russian invasion of Ukraine in Vienna on March 5, 2022. (Photo by ALEX HALADA / AFP)

The war in Ukraine which started less than a month ago may continue many more months or even years.

Europe has so far shown great solidarity with the Ukrainian people.

The UNHCR estimates that more than four million refugees could leave their war-torn country and seek asylum.

EXPLAINED: What would ‘Austrian-style neutrality’ mean for Ukraine?

While a majority of them move to Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Hungary, Western and Central European countries are also preparing for new waves of migration.

About 200,000 refugees are expected to stay in Austria. Migration expert Gerald Knaus believes a lot more people will come than in 2015, the peak of the European migration crisis.

How does the Austrian population react to this new wave of refugees and asylum-seekers? And is public opinion, like in 2015, oscillating between “welcome culture” and growing resentment?

A new political narrative

Let’s take a look back to summer 2015: The war in Syria led to a massive wave of migration resulting in what has been termed as the “European migration crisis”.

Some Austrians were eager to help and assist Middle Eastern refugees in the beginning. However, a clear turning point was reached after New Year’s Eve 2015/2016, as videos of sexual harassment by migrants of Arabic appearance in Germany and Austria circulated.

Both the political and public opinion changed.

Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz (ÖVP) and his supporters clearly opposed German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s “open door” rhetoric and her mantra “Wir schaffen das” (“We can manage”).

Political experts agree that Kurz mainly owed his chancellorship and success to his restrictive stance on migration and asylum in that period.

A number of Northern and Eastern European leaders followed suit by embracing Kurz’s way.

Ukraine conflict: Would NATO protect non-member Austria?

As the war in Ukraine broke out, however, the conservative ÖVP and its new leader, Karl Nehammer, obviously changed their narrative.

The new Austrian chancellor and his cabinet aren’t tired of repeating that the present situation is “completely different” than 2015 and that “of course” Austria is willing to help Ukrainian war refugees.

Flights have now been organised to bring some of them from Moldova to Vienna.

Ukraine, whose western region was once part of the Habsburg Empire, is considered to be a “neighbour” in need of help.

A person hands out Ukraine flags at a rally opposing Russia's invasion in Vienna. Photo: ALEX HALADA / AFP

A person hands out Ukraine flags at a rally opposing Russia’s invasion in Vienna. Photo: ALEX HALADA / AFP

Still, Nehammer and other politicians reiterate that Austria is “not a number one destination” and only a “transit country” for those fleeing from the war.

Does this narrative have any effect on how the population assesses the new migration crisis?

To a large degree it does.

According to a recent poll by Peter Hajek, 85 per cent of the 800 Austrians interviewed supported the admission of refugees from Ukraine.

Probably the most surprising aspect of this survey is the fact that even 75 per cent of right-wing FPÖ voters accept Ukrainian war refugees in Austria.

These figures are in stark contrast to 2015, when most ÖVP and FPÖ voters were alarmed and demanded a more restrictive migration policy.

‘This crisis feels much closer to us’

In forums and on social media channels, Austrians reflect the political narrative that Ukrainians are “neighbours” and “real war refugees”.

“The Ukraine border is closer to Vienna than Bregenz,” some persons I spoke with said, repeating political statements.

“This crisis somehow affects us more.”

In their comments, many users compare the current crisis with 2015.

READ MORE: How Austrian states are preparing for Ukrainian refugees

Some argue that Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis were “economic migrants” rather than “war refugees”.

They stress that those who arrived in 2015 were “mainly young men” crossing a number of safe countries just to get asylum in Austria, Germany and Sweden, the countries with the most generous social security systems.

This definitely isn’t the case with the war in Ukraine: Mainly women and children left their country while the men were drafted.

In a recent commentary, journalist Barbara Coudenhove-Kalergi also emphasised that public perception is different although the causes are pretty much the same.

“The bombardment of Aleppo in Syria or Grozny in Chechnya was at least as horrible as the airstrikes on Kharkiv (Ukraine),” she notes.

Some social media users, however, believe the Geneva Convention was “abused” by refugees in 2015.

At present, they see stronger parallels to the Balkan wars in the 1990s than to the war in Syria.

Religion and mentality are another key factor to public perception.

A commentator on “Der Standard” puts it bluntly as he writes, “These people (Ukrainians) basically ‘tick’ like us.” – a statement likely to mirror the discourse in the ÖVP, a party relying on its Christian democratic roots.

However, despite all the empathy and support for Ukrainian refugees, some commentators express fears of an increasing finance and resource crisis linked to new migration flows.

Many Austrians expect the war to continue over a longer period. They also wonder if the refugees are going to return to their devastated home-country at all.

Others are angry that Ukrainians will be used as “cheap labour force” in Austria.

Critics warn that national deficit spending may reach new levels as debts are already soaring due to the Corona pandemic and the costly measures that the government still imposes.

In the Austrian population there is no doubt that more refugees will arrive in the country. Many citizens already offer their private apartments to accommodate refugees.

Some of them feel a need to do so because bureaucratic procedures are still rather complicated.

Vienna doesn’t have a large Ukrainian community.

Nevertheless, the city of 1.9 million inhabitants may turn out to be more attractive than other Austrian provinces.

Political disputes over which province should take how many refugees may soon arise. And then this debate wouldn’t be much different from 2015.

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LIVING IN AUSTRIA

Five of the biggest challenges facing Austria right now

Austria is known as a rich and neutral country, but this doesn't mean it is immune to the problems sweeping across Europe right now. Here's what you need to know.

Five of the biggest challenges facing Austria right now

For several decades, residents in Austria have enjoyed stability and an ongoing high standard of living, but the Alpine Republic has been shaken by recent global events – like many of its neighbours.

First, there was Covid-19 that brought up various political issues across the country, most notably in relation to vaccination.

Then, just as it seemed the pandemic was being brought under control, Russia invaded Ukraine, sending shockwaves of anxiety across the continent and sending energy prices skyrocketing.

FOR MEMBERS: Reader question: Should I buy an electric heater in Austria this winter?

More recently, Europe has also hit new records when it comes to high temperatures with many regions now suffering from drought – something that is impacting Austria too.

These are all challenges that require immediate and long-term solutions, and are set to impact residents in Austria in the foreseeable future. 

(Photo by Daniel ROLAND / AFP)

Energy crisis

Rising energy costs is a multi-faceted problem as it impacts everything from the price of petrol and diesel at the pumps, to the cost of heating a home in the winter. And with the autumn and winter season looming, this is a challenge that needs immediate attention.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February and the subsequent rounds of economic sanctions imposed by the EU, it has become acutely obvious just how much Austria relies on Russia for energy.

Up until very recently, Austria sourced around 80 percent of its entire natural gas consumption from Russia. This has put Austria in a tricky situation as the government has condemned the war and publicly declared solidarity with Ukraine and EU sanctions, while also having to ensure the gas supply from Russia remains intact. 

READ ALSO: Energy crisis: What to do in case of a power outage in Austria

So far, Austria is still receiving gas imports from Russia (albeit at a lower than contracted level), but the government activated the “gas alert” in April as part of its emergency plan to ensure gas supply for the country amid fears that Russia could cut supplies to western countries.

There are three stages in the emergency plan. Only the third one contains the possibility of adopting energy control measures such as rationing. However, E-Control, government’s energy regulator, said the measures do not target households but industries instead. 

All of this has resulted in a steep increase in energy prices and high inflation (more on that below), with no sign of it slowing down any time soon.

In fact, energy companies in Lower Austria and Vienna announced further price rises for both gas and electricity just last week. This was shortly after the Austrian Federal Government announced plans for a nationwide electricity price cap with the aim to bring prices to a “more favourable price at pre-war levels”.

how to beat rising inflation spain

(Photo: Soydul Uddin/Pixabay)

Inflation

In July, inflation in Austria hit 9.2 percent, leading to many essential items becoming increasingly more expensive.

So far, the wave of inflation (that has been steadily increasing since early 2022) has mostly affected energy and food prices but has now also arrived in the gastronomy sector, with rising prices in bars and restaurants across the country.

As a result, household budgets across Austria are being tightened and a recent survey by Swiss Life revealed that more than 50 percent of Austrians do not feel financially well prepared for any unexpected turns in life.

READ MORE: Cost of living: Why are restaurants getting more expensive in Austria?

As with rising energy prices, inflation is not expected to slow down in the coming months, and the government has now stepped in to help Austrian residents with the high cost of living with a series of one-off payments. 

The measures include a “special family payment” of €180 per child in August, a €300 payment for low income and vulnerable people in September and a €500 bonus for everyone in Austria. The latter is made up of €250 as a Klimabonus (the planned climate bonus) and €250 as an anti-inflation payment (Teuerungsbonus), which will be paid out in October. 

READ ALSO: When will you get your cost of living ‘bonus’ payments in Austria?

However, despite the government payments, Austrian residents are still set for an expensive autumn and winter season.

austria parliament house flag

(Photo by ALEXANDER KLEIN / AFP)

Neutrality

Austria is committed to a stance of “engaged neutrality” while avoiding membership of a global military alliance, like NATO, and most Austrians agree with this approach.

But the war in Ukraine has raised many questions about the sustainability of Austria’s neutrality and resulted in the publication of an open letter in May to Austria’s Federal President, Federal Government and National Council. 

The letter, which was published in German and English, said: “Our neutrality – interpreted very flexibly in practice – was never checked for its current expediency, but raised to the supposedly untouchable myth. 

“As an EU member and participant in the EU’s common security and defence policy, Austria is already obliged to show solidarity. Given the current threat, there needs to be a debate without blinkers.”

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: Why isn’t Austria in NATO?

At the time, The Local also talked to neutrality expert Martin Senn, Professor of International relations at the University of Innsbruck and Lecturer at the Vienna School of International Studies, who said neutrality can no longer be a ‘marginal issue” in Austria.

Senn told The Local: “In my view, it’s important for Austria to come to terms with the tensions between neutrality and solidarity in Europe. 

“For example, what would Austria do in the case that another EU country was attacked? This then leads to the question of what type of armed forces do we need.”

These are tough questions that the Austrian Federal Government and Austrian population find hard to answer.

And while Austria’s neutrality can in theory be changed, there is very little appetite to do so, with 52 percent of Austrians believing neutrality protects the country and just 14 percent in favour of joining NATO.
Cafe Sperl is one of Vienna's oldest, and most famous, coffee houses. AFP PHOTO / ALEXANDER KLEIN

(AFP PHOTO / ALEXANDER KLEIN )

Labour shortage

A labour shortage is not a problem unique to Austria as the global workforce ages, birth rates decline and unemployment remains low. 

But some essential businesses in Austria, like Vienna’s transport network, are now thinking outside of the box to attract more workers.

READ ALSO: Working in Austria: Why foreigners find it hard to integrate in the workplace

Vienna’s state-owned public transport company, Wiener Linien, is lowering the German language requirements and offering a 4-day work week in a bid to boost it’s team by hundreds of workers, as reported by The Local.

Why? Because in 2022, the company responsible for the buses, trams, and metros across Vienna will see around 600 employees from the so-called “baby boomer generation” retiring, which means they need to recruit hundreds of new employees.

Additionally, earlier this year, the federal government announced a comprehensive reform in its residence permits and work visas to attract more workers into shortage occupations and make it easier for high-skilled professionals to immigrate to Austria.

A man takes a picture standing on the dried out lake bottom of the Zicksee in St. Andrae am Zicksee in Burgenland, Austria on July 20, 2022. - Ongoing heat led to draining of the lake. Hundreds of fish died in the dried out lake. (Photo by Alex HALADA / AFP)

(Photo by Alex HALADA / AFP)

Climate crisis

It’s no secret that temperatures have been high across Austria this summer, and while many have welcomed the long, hot days, the heat is having a negative effect on Austria’s water reserves.

In July, popular holiday location Lake Neusiedl in Burgenland reached its lowest levels in almost 20 years. This led to the Austrian and Hungarian governments announcing a joint plan to protect the water level in the lake, including a canal of fresh water from the Danube River.

The plan was met by criticism from environmental activists who say the lake drying up is part of the natural cycle, but many farmers and tourism businesses in the region rely on the water for their livelihoods.

FOR MEMBERS: How to avoid getting heat exhaustion in Austria’s scorching weather

Similarly, forests in Lower Austria (including the Vienna Woods) are being hit by drought conditions due to low ground water levels, according to ORF. This follows several years of limited snow and rainfall in autumn and winter in the region, and forest managers are now debating the best course of action to tackle the problem.

Changes are also taking place in the Alps with temperatures rising by nearly two degrees Celsius in the past 120 years — almost double the global average, according to the International Commission for the Protection of the Alps (CIPRA).

In Austria, the Jamtal glacier has been losing about one metre (three feet) from its surface annually. But this year it has already lost more than a metre, and there are predictions that the glacier could completely disappear within five years.

For environmentalists and alpinists, this is a looming disaster. And for the government, Austria’s changing climate is another crucial issue that requires an urgent risk management plan for the future.

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