Addressing the European Parliament meeting for its plenary on Tuesday, Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen made a strong appeal for Europe at a time when the continent faces ongoing external and internal divisions.
“The European idea is great. It is unique. It is worth all the effort,” said the president in his first official foreign trip, arguing that the challenges facing the European Union (EU) could only be tackled together.
Van der Bellen’s speech came as the Union continued to struggle with the rise of populism and anti-European sentiment. The Brexit vote in June 2016 was a shock to European unity. With French far-right leader Marine Le Pen running for president of France in May on the promise of a “Frexit” platform, the European project has never seemed more at risk.
“In Europe it has unfortunately become a trend to say that we need to decide between love of our homeland and love of Europe, the need to help the people of our homeland and the need to help others,” Van der Bellen lamented. “I believe this leads us astray.”
“We are perfectly able to love our own homeland and also the European idea,” he insisted.
The Austrian president himself is no stranger to populist politics, having only narrowly beaten far-right candidate Norbert Hofer (Freedom Party of Austria) in May 2016, and being forced into a re-run the election in December after the first vote was annulled following challenges to results.
Van der Bellen noted that it was important that his first speech outside of Austria be addressed to the European Parliament in a show of his belief in the Union, and that he was glad the signal had been received.
Originally a member of the Greens, the Austrian president encouraged strong pro-European politics: “It is possible to win elections while being clearly in favor of the EU.”
He also warned against extremist politics: “No single problem will be solved by violating people’s dignity, rejecting everything that is different, restricting fundamental rights, constructing new walls and nationalism. We will only create new problems.”
The value of the European project is “European peace” that has followed the establishment of the European Union. “On the basis of this peace, we can accomplish a prosperity and growth that countries acting on their own are not capable of,” he said.
Alexander Van der Bellen was born in Vienna in 1944, the son of refugees who had fled the Soviet Union. Before entering national politics, he was a professor of economics at the University of Vienna. He served as a member of the Austrian parliament from 1994 to 2012, and was leader of the Greens from 1997 to 2008. Enditem