Either Europe changes the rules, or we lose the EU – Norbert Hofer to RT
Although Austria’s right-wing presidential candidate was defeated in a close election, his success has sent ripples of panic across the EU. As anti-establishment politicians gain momentum across the bloc, many predict a political storm gathering in Europe. With the victory of Donald Trump in America’s presidential election emboldening right-wing politicians, will we see a new mainstream take over the European Union? We ask the Freedom Party’s presidential candidate in Austria’s 2016 election and the third president of the National Council – Norbert Hofer.
Sophie Shevardnadze: Norbert Hofer, runner-up in the Austrian Presidential election, a president of the National Council , welcome to the show, it’s great to have you with us. Mr. Hofer, after a neck and neck contest you lost the race for the Austrian Presidency - why? You had huge support - what swayed the vote in the end?
Norbert Hofer: First of all, it was very exhausting, you know, to run for victory for 10 months, it wasn’t too easy, but you have to know, I was there all alone, I had all the other parties against me: the Social democrats, the Christian democrats, the NEOS, the Greens of course, some media too, so all in all - I’m not too not unhappy. You have to know that in nine polls, we, the Freedom Party, are the strongest party in Austria, so this was the first step for us to become a real strong party.
SS:Your supporters blame the mainstream media for vilifying your candidacy - you’ve been called a ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’, then likened you with the Nazis - how do you explain this solidarity of the media against you?
NH: It;s really bad, you know. I was born in 1971, my father was no nazi, and my grandfather was no nazi, and I’m not a nazi. In Austria, sometimes, when someone is getting too strong, the person out of the Freedom Party, they try to call him a ‘nazi’, and it still works, somehow in Austria, but now I have time until next elections in Austria, and I hope that can show the people that I’m a pretty normal person. Of course, I’m very straight, but I’m not a nazi. The nazis, they killed millions of people, and they are first to be calling everyone a nazi. It’s a dangerous thing for Austria, because in other countries, like in Russia, maybe the people think there’s a lot of nazis in Austria and it’s not true.
SS: I understand it’s dangerous, but do you have an understanding of why all of them ganged up on you, all of them?
NH: It’s because we have a strong system in Austria, we have two parties: Social democrats and Christian democrats, building partnerships for decades. It was always something between these two parties. Of course, in the media, there are persons who are members of these parties, Social democrats, Christian democrats and some Greens. You have to know who’s the owner of the media, so there’s no strong media owned by the Freedom Party, of course. Of course they are against you. So, you have to become stronger, step by step, and we need maybe just another six years to win such elections.
SS: Now, the newly elected president, Alexander Van der Bellen said his win sends a message to ‘the capital of the European Union that one can win elections with a pro-European position’ - does this mean people are not after radical change in the way things are run?
NH: It’s not too easy for the EU. You have to know that there are a lot of difficulties between the member-states, and the people, they are a little bit afraid. Van der Bellen says he wants to build some “United States of Europe”, but this is not my way. What I would like to have is subsidiarity, we have to talk about the big things in Europe, but now we are talking about gloves and bulbs and all these little things. I think we do need new contracts in the European Union. If we are not able to do that, maybe, in a couple of years, we can lose this European Union, and it’s so important for freedom and peace, of course. Another thing: we have to build friendship with Russia. If there’s no friendship with Russia and the States, it’s not possible to build peace and Freedom, and so all these sanctions against Russia, they are really wrong, and I would like to find a way to kick these sanctions out.
SS: We’re going to get to Russia a little bit later, but let’s talk about Van der Bellen’s win for now. Does his victory mean Austrians’ want to stay with the EU, and this wish outweighed concerns over migration - the issue that you centred your campaign around?
NH: Me… I would also like Austria to stay a member of the EU, but we have to rebuild this Union. If Turkey becomes a member, it's not possible to have a positive future in the Union, or here in Austria. Or, if we build something like the “United States of Europe”, it wouldn’t work, and this is what Van der Bellen would like to see and would like to do. I’m telling people all the time that this is a wrong way, we do need new contracts, we have to work for subsidiarity, and then we will have future in the Union. If you’re not able to do it, we will have the old situation here in Europe, with states working together, but without the EU.
SS: Freedom Party has a strong chance of winning the upcoming parliamentary vote in Austria, but Van der Bellen has said he would not swear in a Freedom Party government - will he stay true to his word, risk a political crisis?
NH: Yes. It will be a crisis, because if the Freedom Party can win the elections and Van der Bellen would say: “Okay, I don’t care what the people want, the Freedom Party isn’t allowed to be a part of the government”, it would be a pretty difficult situation in Austria. So, we have to wait, maybe we will have the elections next year, maybe in 2018, Van der Bellen will have some time to see how the things are developing here in Austria, but if he really would say that the Freedom Party is not allowed to be a member of the government, we would have a government between the Social democrats, Christian democrats and the Green party, and we never had that before, in Austria, a government which was build out of three parties. It would be a very unstable situation, and I think it wouldn’t work.
SS: Austria’s former President Heinz Fischer told our channel in an interview that there’s too much integration going on in the EU, Germany’s president recently said the bloc needs a pause - is Brussels granted too much power over individual countries’ policies?
NH: In some political areas there’s too much power, in other political areas there’s not enough power. If you’re talking about economy, we have to work together in a more stringent way, because if we are talking all the time about gloves, bulbs and all this stuff, it’s a wrong way for Europe, we don’t want Brussels to decide about bulbs in Germany, or in Austria or Italy. It’s not important, but we have to talk about a proper way to have a strong economy, and we have to talk about how to secure the border of Europe, the Schengen contract, Dublin and other things. Yeah, we have a lot of things to realize.
SS: Austria is a small economy and it profits a lot from the trade with the EU - are the economic benefits of the EU outweighing the political concerns? Can Austria survive without economic integration with the EU?
NH: Yes, it’s true, because the Union was build with the idea of having a strong economic relationship between all of the member-states. Then, later on, we had a political union. So, we have to think about the ways to have a strong economy. If we have a weak economy, we will have a lot of problems in Europe - you can see what happened in Greece, you can see what happens in Italy. It’s not too easy for us to have a common market, to have euro in such different economies, and, yeah, we need a better partnership.
SS: Another non-traditional politician, Marion le Pen of France’s Front National, told me that they’re not against the EU, but want it reformed. Germany’s Left Party MP Sarah Wagenknecht shared the same concern with me. Do you feel a consensus is forming on both left and right of the political spectrum? Will it drive the EU to actually reform?
NH: You shouldn’t care if you’re left or right, or if you’re a member of party which is in the middle of this system. We all have to know that we have to reform the European Union, and you’re right, there are politicians from the Right side, there are politicians from the Left side with this idea, and it’s really necessary, we have to do it.
SS:In a bid to win over the support of the voters to the right Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel has endorsed a burka ban ‘wherever legally possible’. Are we going to see mainstream politicians adopting a more radical approach now with the pressure from the populist forces?
NH: You should never be radical. It’s so important to talk… parties which are in the Parliament, they have to talk, because it was the will of the people that those parties are in the Parliament and they have to work together. We have to see what happens with the AfD in Germany. Chancellor Kern said, I think, yesterday or the day before, that he would like to talk with the Freedom Party. He called me the day after the elections here in Austria, and he said: “Okay, I supported Van der Bellen, but you did really good” - so we have to talk, talk, talk, because it’s so important for the country that there are parties that are working together. Nevermind if they’re right, left, or whatever - we have to work together for the country.
SS: But do you feel like there are the new political forces driving establishment to rethink its policies, you, for instance?
NH: In fact, we all are part, somehow, of the establishment. I am a second speaker in the Parliament, of course I am a part of the establishment. But, the important thing is, that you always have to try to rebuild the contact to the people, you have to talk with the people all the time. I spend a lot of time out of my office, talking with the people, visiting the people, visiting the companies, visiting hospitals. Yes, you may be a part of the establishment, but you are still a normal person -and that’s for me, a proper way to make good politics.
SS: Austria’s Chancellor Christian Kern has called you and has also said that he wants to work with you, that he believed the Freedom Party also wants to take the country forward. Can traditional centrist and more radical forces like your party work together - do you see yourself in a coalition with, say, the Social democrats?
NH: It would be possible, but first of all, I would like to say that we are not radical. We are a party which is right, yes, but it’s middle-right, it’s not radical. We have no extreme-right party in Austria, we don’t have an extreme-left party in Austria, like you can see in Germany. So, of course, it’s possible to work together.
SS: Another vote that rattled Europe was the referendum over an institutional reform in Italy. The non-establishment parties led the campaign against the reform - and won. Will the emboldened fringe politicians now move into the mainstream in Italy? And what does that mean for the common European future?
NH: You have to see what politicians will do, and what they're talking about. This is something I learned in the last years. Politicians are talking so much, they’re talking all the time, in fact. In some things you have to wait, to see what they will do, in fact. So, we have to wait for the new mainstream in Italy - you’re right, there will be a new mainstream - but I’m not sure yet if this could be a problem for the union or not. We have to wait for, maybe, one or two years.
SS: All over the continent, we see the traditional two-party politics system cracking - the centre-left and the centre-right are not enough for voters anymore - not in Germany, not in Austria, not in Italy, not in France, etc. - are we inside some gigantic political shift in Europe, or is this voter frustration going to fizzle out soon?
NH: Of course, there will be a shift, but we had it all the time in the past... What we had in the past, in Austria it was the case, the people voted always for the same party for their whole life. We had the Social democrats, the people voted for the Social democrats. We had Christian democrats and other people voted for Christian democrats for their whole life. It’s not something different. Sometimes the people are ready to support the Freedom Party, if the Freedom Party is doing things wrong, they support the Christian democrats or the Social democrats, and it’s good because we have to try all the time to do our best.
SS: Another thing that is certain is that the EU is seeing a change of leadership - Matteo Renzi is stepping down as Italian Prime Minister, President Hollande won’t run for the French Presidency, David Cameron left his post with Britain deciding to leave the EU, it is still to be seen if Chancellor Merkel will secure her seat next year - is a revamped political elite going to change much for the EU? With so many members going to the polls, is 2017 going to become a turning point for the EU?
NH: It could be a turning point, yes. I think it’s not bad for the Union. We need something new. The old system wasn’t able to ensure freedom and to ensure a strong European Union. So we do need something new, a new power in the EU. In some countries there are left parties, in some countries there are right parties, but we have a common idea to build a good EU, a Union of the member-states. Because, what’s the Union? The member-states are the Union! Austria is part of the Union, Germany is part of the Union, Italy… This is something we have to know and it’s not a good idea to build a very centralized Union, it wouldn't work.
SS:You have said that Angela Merkel’s refugee policy was ‘causing serious damage to Europe’ and that her open-door policy allowed ‘terrorists to trek through Austria’, but Austria was supportive of this policy, at least in the beginning, so can the blame for the outcome be placed only on Germany?
NH: And it was a failure - the support for Merkel. There’s something Merkel did good, she’s not a bad Chancellor, but to say “we can manage it, come to Germany, come to Austria, come to Sweden” - it was a failure, because we are not able to welcome all these people coming from Northern Africa to Austria. We had 90,000 people last year, in a country with 9 million citizens - it was just in one year. Then there will be the husbands, the wives, the children coming over, the parents. The people came last year, we have to pay for them in the upcoming years 20bn euros! It’s too hard for us, it’s too much for us.
SS: Austria’s refugee policy is tough - there are fences on the border with Slovenia, with Italy, Vienna set a cap on asylum-seekers, the government instituted curfews for migrants in some towns. Do you believe that’s not enough?
NH: We do need solutions, and the best solution would be to have a safe zone in Northern Africa. There the refugees could find help, there we’d have to see if they’re real refugees or they are not, and if they are real refugees, they should be able to come to Europe in a safe way - because so many people died in the sea. They should be able to come in a safe way, but just if they are real refugees. From the 90,000 people coming to Austria last year, there, maybe would be 15, maybe 20 thousand real refugees.
SS: Who were the others?
NH: They came because they would like to have a better life. We pay a lot of money to those people. You can get between 800-900 euros per month if you’re coming to Austria, and of course it’s interesting for people from Northern Africa to come to Austria or Germany, because you can get some money. I think this is a part of the refugee crisis. Why they are coming to Sweden, to Germany and to Austria? Why they don’t want to come to Italy or to Greece or something - it’s because you can get a lot of money.
SS: All over Europe parties which call for controlled migration are on the rise - do you and like-minded forces in other countries owe your popularity to the refugee wave, in a way?
NH: Somehow, yes, but it’s not the only reason why we’re strong. We had very good results 2 years ago, 3 years ago, when we had no refugee crisis. It’s, maybe, one aspect of why we’re so strong, but it’s not the only aspect.
SS:You were criticised for admitting you carry a pistol - at the same time gun sales in Austria are up 350% due to the unease over migrants. You called it a natural reaction...
NH: It’s not so easy here in Austria to be allowed to buy a pistol and to carry it. I have a pistol at home, I don’t carry it - it’s in the safe. I think if someone is allowed to have a pistol, it’s okay to buy it. But it’s not too easy… we are not Texas, you know, it’s not so easy here in Austria.
SS: In an interview you expressed hope that Trump’s victory in the American presidential race would lead to mending ties with Russia - how would that affect Europe, would that mean Europe’s ties with Russia will also be restored?
NH: It would be so important. I hope that Trump is able to build a strong relationship with Russia and it’s also important for Europe and Austria to have a strong relationship. Russia was so important for us in the WWII and the time after, and it’s still important for us…. I will visit Russia this weekend, I’m looking forward to it.
SS: Austria actually opposed new EU sanctions against Russia. Now you have said that Vienna could become central for ending the new Cold War phase between Russia and the West - how so?
NH: Austria, Vienna - we are neutral, and Vienna was very often a place where politicians from different countries met, talked and they were able to find a solution. Sometimes, not always, but sometimes. Maybe Donald Trump and President Putin would be able to meet in Vienna, Austria - it would be a big thing for my country.
SS: “Populists are using ‘fake news’ to unsettle politics in Europe - with the help of Russia”, and that’s according to the New York times. Angela Merkel has warned of internet bots and trolls and said Russian misinformation campaigns could ‘play a role’ in her own election. Why would Russia benefit from a chaotic political scene in Europe - as it is suggested? Does Moscow’s reach spread that far?
NH: Fake news… we will always have fake news on the Internet, it’s not a really a new phenomena. Fake news can be a problem for right parties, for left parties, for Russia, for Austria, for the U.S. - whatever. It’s always dangerous when politicians are working with fake news, and it happens sometimes, but we shouldn’t… Beside of that it’s the most important thing to talk. If I’m able to talk with President Putin, if President Putin is able to talk with Donald Trump, there would be no room for fake news, you know, because if you are able to talk with someone else, face-to-face, it’s the most important thing to build peace in the future and to have a strong economy and to work together.
SS: Mr. Hofer, thank you very much for this interview, we were talking to Norbert Hofe, the runner-up in Austria’s president election, president of the National Council of Austria, discussing the crisis of the traditional European politics and the rise of new voices across Europe. That’s it for this edition of SophieCo, I will see you next time.