The upcoming European elections require a change of gear from Europe’s politicians, who need to campaign aggressively, not with posters and advertisements, but face-to-face, with citizen, says Christoph Leitl.
Christoph Leitl won the presidential election of the Österreichischer Wirtschaftsbund, the economic branch of the centre-right Austrian People’s Party in 1999, before becoming president of the Austrian Federal Economic Chamber, a position to which he was re-elected in 2005 and 2010. Leitl is also the honorary president of the European Chambers of Commerce and Industry (Eurochambers).
He spoke to EurActiv’s Jeremy Fleming
How do you assess the current state of the economy in Europe?
There is far too little growth, we need more growth. More growth will bring more employment and especially youth employment, which is the biggest problem Europe is facing. That way we will also be able to reduce the welfare elements of national budgets. I know there are some who say we do not need growth, but I am not of that opinion. So long as one billion people are going hungry worldwide no one can doubt the need for global growth. In Europe we are concerned about climate change and innovation, and growth in these directions is what is needed.
But Austria is enjoying greater growth than other eurozone countries, is that your impression?
Set against a Eurozone average of around -0.4% growth, Austria is set for 0.4% growth at the moment, but no figures that have a zero-point something in front of them are anything to be proud of. The US has already cleared the crisis with around 2% growth and the Chinese talk of recession when they have growth of 7%.
If you could ask the Commission to do two things to promote growth, what would those be?
If the framework of the EU budget between 2014-2020 could be made more flexible by increasing guarantees for loans then that would have a huge advantage for business.
The second would increase the combination of academic and vocational training as quickly as possible. It can take time and be difficult in those countries where there is less of a tradition for this, but one can very quickly implement ‘training-on-the-job’ policies which give young people practical opportunities to be mixing their academic and vocational training.
Is this an issue which Austria can teach something go other European countries?
Can Austria teach other countries a lesson? No, but we can share our experiences in common with other countries such as Germany, Switzerland, northern Italy, Denmark and Luxembourg. These have implemented good systems with an average of 8% youth unemployment, where the average is much higher, and where in some countries youth unemployment has reached shocking levels.
What is your impression of banking union?
In general it is positive and the larger part of dangerous speculation affecting the eurozone has been stopped. But there is still a Sword of Damocles hanging over us: there remains too much international high frequency trading and derivative trading and at the same time national regimes seem powerless. So long as this situation continues things will remain difficult. When we see how the prices of commodity prices are fluctuating in comparison to former years – with very sharp highs and lows – that is a poison on the real economy, and can lead to worryingly high inflation on staple products.
What do you make of the current EU-Ukraine situation especially with regard to the damaging effect it seems to have had on EU-Russia relations?
We have a great relations with Russia as Austrians, we understand their souls well because the Slavic element in our own history. I would prefer to see this crisis as an opportunity. Why not take the opportunity to get Russia, the EU and the Ukraine together around the same table. I believe that if we think in our national interests rather than short-term interests, we have the opportunity to have an EU with a wider free-trade or economic area which both Ukraine and Russia could be invited to join. That would give Europe amazing clout in the global economy. It would tie European know-how with Russian resources and I would say: ‘Let’s do it’.
Next year is a big year with parliamentary elections, how do you see those going in Austria?
I do not know how it will work out but I think there needs to be more offensive campaigning, not with posters and flyers and adverts but with dialogue with the citizens. We have several offices in Austria where we open an umbrella with the European flag and two people sit under it answering questions, explaining what true and false. Once the emotional arguments have been displaced then we can motivated the 500,000 people of Europe. But when Europe remains distant that does not get the message across.
Do you think Austrian Johannes Hahn will or should continue as commissioner next year?
I have known Hahn for more than three decades and we have a good relationship and I believe he has done a very good job here and he should stay.
Do you have any other wishes of the next European administration?
I think when talking about the positions in the Parliament and Commission I would like to see Jean-Claude Juncker continue in a leading role. He is one of the best European leaders. In considering leadership candidates we should not think of compromise candidates, of whether someone comes from a small or large country, whether they have a right- or left-wing background, but of who is a person with the confidence to take Europe forward with optimism. That is my opinion.
I also would also like to see the next Commission appoint a permanent advisory committee representing the social partners. Social partners have a great expertise and this should be brought to bear in the policy-making process. I believe a standing committee of social partners ought to be created which means that when suggestions are made they are able to react quickly, which I believe would bring skills in innovation, trade and educational issues to bear on the policy-making process.