Interview with former Austrian chancellor Dr. Wolfgang Schüssel

LKYSPP welcomed Dr. Wolfgang Schüssel, former Chancellor of Austria, to the school as he talked about Asia-Europe relations and shared his experience in his political career to LKYSPP students. LKYSPPeak sat down with him to ask more about his thoughts on public affairs.

You mentioned your trip to Nepal as eye-opening towards Asian culture and a certain Asian way of thinking. How do you think Europe can learn from this?

What I found reinforced there is a strong belief in and support for family, group and society. While I would be careful with generalizing in terms of collectivist or individualist society, I admired the strong responsibility people felt towards their family and group.

In fact we need this idea of community, without it our very livelihood is endangered and we have seen the effects resulting in crisis and catastrophe – see the financial crisis.

Do you think it is possible to develop a country without losing this sense of community as appears to be happening in many industrialized countries?

I actually believe such a sense is absolutely necessary for any development to happen in the first place. While the freedom of the individual must be safeguarded, it has to be embedded in a “responsibility society,” where the individual feels responsible for his or her family or company. Anything else would be inhuman. In fact, it is the very foundation of our own model of the “social market economy” – I would wish for a renewed and stronger identification of citizens with that.

Some claim such individualization to be a trend in China these days….

First of all, there is no one China to talk about. From my own experience, however, I have visited the country more than twelve times – some Confucian values have persisted, even if Mao tried to eradicate them during the Cultural Revolution. In fact, I still feel a very strong focus on family unity within the society. Similarly on a party level – while I am certainly not a defender of communism – leaders have shown a unique fashion of holistic thinking. I believe that a lot of the country’s success since Deng’s times can be attributed to such a sense of societal responsibility.

Shifting to the political scene in Europe: With the Lisbon Treaty and a High Representative of Foreign Affairs, will the European Union come closer to speaking with a single voice on the international stage?

Of course the new continuity of a Foreign Minister that Lady Ashton will be contributing in her five-year term will improve the Union’s visibility. Another important change will be the European diplomatic service to be established in the years to come, which will employ up to 5,000 people all over the globe. They will play a new role of explaining the voice of the EU to the world, while at the same time absorbing information like a sponge. This two-way stream will certainly help to formulate a more and more unified European foreign policy approach. By the way, I do not see any significant changes in the voting patterns of the UN Security Council.

The European Union as a whole will not have its own seat any time soon; it is simply unrealistic that the UK or France will give up their seats. I am convinced, however, that the Eurozone, as such a significant economic player with a unified monetary policy, should be represented in the Council and other similar institutions.

Where do you see the future of European development cooperation?

At the moment, the EU member countries add the largest amount to the international development budget, around two thirds of donor financing in the world. Furthermore, a lot is invested in the frameworks of the European Neighborhood Policy and the Mediterranean Union.

I see a lot of potential for a stronger coordination between national budgets, for example in supporting Africa. Imagine the EU asks every member state to start only two new projects. That would translate into 54 new development projects – and a real difference for the continent.

During your time as a Chancellor, how did you “sell“ policy to the public, in particular how did you get them interested in Europe?

I think there is a need for proper communication skills in politics. During my time in office, I tried hard to set creative impulses more than anything else. For instance, we organized talks in all big European coffeehouses (something Austria is famous for) where local politicians and artists would discuss about European issues. I think there is a lot of room to make citizens curious, for example by using fashion or photography. One of the worst things about politics these days is it is using the ever same vocabulary. After much rhetoric, often nothing is delivered. Therefore, in order to get people on board, I strongly believe that a policy-maker should concentrate on a few important issues and communicate them in truly creative ways.

How do you inspire yourself?

I am a naturally curious person, in practically any issue. Throughout my career, I made sure you get a chance to balance political and private life. I love to play soccer and the cello. I love my family. And the rest of my drive comes from a fair amount of healthy ambition.

What is your advice to young Asian leaders?

Do not try and follow anyone’s footsteps. Instead, choose your own path and your own issues. Think big and invest in the right things. Most of all – and I mean this in particular for women – do not be shy, others are not. In fact 90% of leadership skills are learned or simple luck. In reality, no one is born a leader; that is why it is also important to have a good mentor – I would not have succeeded without my personal mentors.

Finally, the key characteristic of a leader that will make a difference in this world is honesty. It is the only long-term option and I believe our contemporary world is in dire need of such honest leaders.

Thank you, Dr. Schüssel, for this interview and your visit to the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

– by Olivia Gippner & Martin Stavenhagen (MPP 2008/2010)

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