The recently elected President of Austria, Alexander Van der Bellen, addressed the European Parliament last Tuesday during his first engagement outside of the country.
He has broken with tradition in doing so, as it is custom for Austrian Presidents to travel to Switzerland for their maiden foreign visit. In fact, all his predecessors have done so. The reason behind this anomaly is of high symbolic value to the development of the European Union, at a time when the rhetoric of exclusion, xenophobia, and nationalism is once again becoming popular and when neighbours on the eastern EU frontier or beyond the Atlantic aim to split the Union apart.
Following the Brexit referendum and other political developments in 2016, progressive-minded people could easily get the feeling that we are living in dark times. During his address, however, Van der Bellen drew an anecdote to the stars on the EU flag from a poem by Sarah Williams, which draws hope for a brighter future:
“Though my soul may set in darkness, it will rise in perfect light;I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.” With this, he gave a strong plea for a confident and united Europe – one that is rooted in common fundamental values, human rights, freedom, equality and solidarity. “The European idea is great. She is unique. She is worth all the effort” he said.
Van der Bellen won the Presidential election in Austria not least because of his clearly pro-European attitude, that was at the very heart of his campaign throughout. He showed us that it is in fact possible to love our home country AND the European idea, and that it doesn’t have to be an either / or scenario.
His victory was a clear rejection of burgeoning nationalism, of protectionism, of seductive, simplistic populism. We hope that this will give courage and confidence to all pro-European forces in a year that will prove to be decisive to the future of the European Union.