Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Facing Austria

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 3rd July, 2018

Logo EU-Ratsvorsitz 2018At the weekend, Austria assumed the six-month rotating presidency of the European Union. That is quite a challenge at the best of times, but at present it is something of a poisoned chalice. The second half of 2018 is make-or-break time for the Brexit “negotiations”; even if diehard Remainers like myself now hope for “break”, so that the whole thing goes away, it is going to be a tetchy period. Not that Brexit is top of the agenda anywhere except in London (and possibly Dublin). As the Chargé d’Affaires of Austria to the Court of St James’s said in remarks at the opening of the Facing Austria exhibition at the 12 Star Gallery in Europe House in London Smith’s Square this evening, “security” is the number one issue for Vienna — and with a new centre-right-far-right Coalition in power there, that means addressing the concerns of good Austrians about “illegal migrants”/refugees. We can expect Austria to take a firm stand on this, hand-in-hand with other parts of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, aka the Visegrad Group: the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia. The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, is already feeling their uncomfortable breath down her neck. It is therefore somewhat ironic that one important element of the 20 photographers’ work in the Facing Austria exhibition is celebrating diversity (which is indeed official EU policy). Lovely shots of African men against snow-capped Alpine peaks and of dazed-looking Syrian refugees in Austrian cities, for example. Britain’s wretched Tory-(DUP) government has deliberately created a “hostile environment” for unwanted, undocumented incomers, but nobody does “hostile environment” quite as efficiently as Austria, when it is in the mood. Still, the six-month presidency has only just started, so let’s see if the often cheerful pictures in the exhibition are more reflective of the Austrians at the helm than some people might fear. It would be nice to think that the United Kingdom, as a self-professed bastion of liberal democracy, would be in there fighting hard to make sure that the EU doesn’t get pushed to the right over the coming months. But alas Mrs May is far too preoccupied trying to find the handle to the EU exit door, all the time worrying if it may come off in her hand.

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