The Republic of Austria is an independent state (see the text on the Structure of the State). As such it is part of the international community of states. Numerous issues and problems can only be solved in a joint effort of (several) states. No state can exist on its own. Even everyday matters such as road, rail or air traffic can only be handled successfully if states cooperate. This also holds good for the major challenges we are facing in our time: the climate change, the responsible use of the earth’s limited resources, refugees and migration, wars and the threat of international terrorism. There is yet another reason, however, why the cooperation of states is important – and has become a subject of lively discussion -: the question, which was raised in the 1970s and has since been gaining momentum, whether global action should primarily be governed by economic interests. This concerns such matters as the influence of international business groups and the avoidance of taxes (and thus the unwillingness to contribute to the common good). Above all it concerns the question of whether the forces shaping the world should be economic or military power, or rather legal (but also ethical) norms.
The United Nations
In history, states have always formed alliances. They concluded peace treaties, agreements on trade and tariffs or on rendering mutual support in wars. The terrible wars that raged in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries were followed by a search for possible ways to permanently secure peace. In his book „On Eternal Peace“ the philosopher Immanuel Kant reflects about possible ways for states to join forces to achieve this goal. It was only after the First World War, however, that an organisation whose mission was to secure global peace was first established: the League of Nations. Yet several of the major powers at that time – including in particular the USA, the Soviet Union, and the German Reich – were not, or only temporarily, willing to become members. The League of Nations consequently remained without influence in the conflicts of the 1930s and, finally, at the outbreak of the Second World War.
After the end of the Second World War, the foundation of the United Nations marked a new beginning. From the first day, all important and influential states were members. Its objectives are the safeguarding of global peace and international security, the development of better and friendlier relations between nations, international cooperation, the solution of global problems and the promotion of human rights. Many of these objectives can only be achieved at a very slow pace, and progress has been curbed by multiple setbacks. Nevertheless it must be acknowledged that the United Nations has over a period of more than 60 years provided to representatives of all states of the world a forum to meet and discuss even in very difficult situations.
Austria joined the United Nations in 1955, after it had regained its independence (see the text on Freedom). Since the 1950s, several UN sub-organisations have their seat in Vienna. Since 1980, Vienna has been one of the four UN headquarters worldwide.
In 1948, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is a commitment to everyone sharing a set of basic fundamental rights. It is of major importance because it sets a global standard. In numerous conflicts, in the struggle against oppression and dictatorship it has become a standard and a model for millions of people and for many states. The crucial point is, however, that it is a declaration and not a law. The United Nations have no court of law to enforce the rights enumerated in this declaration.
The Council of Europe and the European Convention on Human Rights
The First and Second World Wars had started in Europe, and the entire continent was affected by their disastrous consequences. As early as 1945 it was evident that Europe would remain partitioned: One big group of states in Western, Northern and Central Europe (including Italy in the South) (re)installed democratic governments, while other states in Central Europe (such as Czechoslovakia), Eastern and Southeastern Europe (such as Romania and Bulgaria) came under Soviet influence. In Portugal and Spain, the dictatorships established in the 1930s were able to remain in power.
The democratic states were looking for new ways to go in politics – new ways that would guarantee democracy, freedom and human rights, avoid wars in the future and promote the economic and cultural recovery of Europe. It was with these objectives in mind that the Council of Europe, with ist headquarters in the French city of Strasbourg, was founded in 1949. Its mission is to promote cooperation between European states. Austria joined the Council of Europe in 1956. As of today, it has 47 member states.
Of paramount importance among its initiatives is the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). All states that have signed this treaty pledge themselves to implement, safeguard and protect the rights the Convention grants to each individual. These include the right to life, the prohibition of torture, the right to liberty and security, the right to a fair trial, the right to respect for one’s private and family life, the freedom of thought, conscience and religion, the freedom of expression, the right to marry and the prohibition of discrimination.
These rights – unlike those set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – can also be enforced. In Austria, the Convention on Human Rights was even made an integral part of the Federal Constitution.
The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg can hear appeals by individuals from all member states of the Council of Europe. It reviews a state’s legislation, jurisprudence or administration as to whether or not they have infringed the Human Rights Convention. The Court’s decisions have great influence throughout Europe.
The European Union
Establishing a Convention on Human Rights and having the protection of these rights guaranteed by a European court was a major step of progress which had seemed impossible only a few years earlier. However, as many were well aware, to secure peace and have cooperation prevail over competition, more was necessary, namely: democracy and the rule of law, social security and economic cooperation. And it was also evident to them that this “more” would require numerous small steps and much time.
In 1950 – only one year after the foundation of the Council of Europe – French foreign minister Robert Schuman had proposed to have the German and French coal and steel industries regulated by a common authority. Only a few years earlier he would have been laughed at, because: why should these two countries, which had been continually at war through several decades, put under a joint administration precisely those sectors of the economy which each of them needed as a basis for a powerful industry and for the production of arms? – After the Second World War, however, it had become obvious that peace in Europe could only be guaranteed by economic and political cooperation. Belgium, Italy, Luxemburg and the Netherlands joined this initiative. Together with Germany and France, they founded the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) in 1951.
The four freedoms
The new organization proved its worth. That’s why its members proceeded to found the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1957. Within its framework, four “freedoms” were to be established:
Free movement of goods was to permit trade without barriers between the member states.
Free movement of persons permits any citizen of a member state to work and settle in any other member state.
Free movement of services guarantees that business enterprises with headquarters in one member state may offer and provide their services in any other member state.
Free movement of capital and payments ensures that money and securities can also be traded and transferred freely between all member states.
The focus of the newly established community was therefore economic. This was to ensure that the economy and industry would cease to be a cause of war. Rather, they were to be a basis for peaceful cooperation, increasing prosperity and a higher standard of living for all people living in Europe.
The market cannot regulate everything
Under such form of cooperation, however, the market cannot be expected to regulate everything. The founders were well aware of that from the beginning. For this reason, numerous measures were put into place, for instance to improve the rights of employees. This includes in particular equal treatment in employment and economic life, first between citizens of different member states, but then in particular between men and women, persons of different origin or religion etc. (see the text on Equality of Rights).
This way on which the European Community had embarked met with great interest from other states. The number of its members grew from six in 1957 to 28 today. Austria joined in 1995, after a lengthy political discussion. Many states, such as Spain, Poland or Czechia, were admitted only few years after they had become democracies. This illustrates that membership is not limited to an economic dimension. It also was to be important for strengthening democracy and the rule of law in Europe. The European Community is, as it is often called, a “community of law”.
Over time, the member states decided not only to jointly regulate numerous other areas – e.g. concerning environmental protection, education and culture, road and rail traffic. They also intend to cooperate in foreign politics, in the areas of police and security and in judicial matters. They have transformed the European (Economic) Community into the European Union, which has been in existence since 1993.
Decisions are not made by “Brussels”, but by all members jointly
What makes the EU so special is that it not only issues common regulations but also has numerous common institutions. One of them is the European Commission, which – to put it in simple terms – is responsible for the administration and implementation of common concerns. Its duties also include the launching of new topics and the development of new programs. The Council is the organ in which representatives of the member states’ governments convene. This is where EU decisions are made – very often by unanimous vote. Yet the Council is not the only organ involved in decision making. In numerous matters it needs the consent of the European Parliament. Its members are elected in the individual member states. Austria elects 18 members. They may also participate in debates of the National Council and of the Federal Council when EU matters are discussed. Another EU institution is the Court of Justice of the European Union. It decides not only in conflicts between member states and EU institutions. Any individual living in the EU may approach the Court in matters of European law. When a court in a member state is uncertain about how to assess a question of European law, it may ask the Court of Justice of the EU for its opinion.
Much of the EU’s present-day structure is similar to that of a state. But the EU is not a state. Nor is it a power that dictates its members what to do. All EU decisions are taken by the member states’ representatives in the Council and in the European Parliament. There are strict and detailed rules that determine which matters may be settled jointly on the EU level and which matters are in the responsibility of each of the member states. As the number of matters to be regulated and the number of EU members increased, negotiations tended to become more complicated. Member states’ interests often diverge, and it may take a long time to reach a compromise.
Is success the only thing that counts?
The EU has from its beginning been shaped by the representatives of the member states. In the member states as such, there has been little debate about European matters. The approach that prevailed was: If what we do is to the benefit of all, nobody will complain. Governments could benefit from this situation in a twofold way: They could jointly implement projects – some of them of great importance – which they would never have been able to carry through on a national level. At the same time they could argue, whenever it turned out to be difficult to reach a common decision or when they were criticized in their home countries for a measure taken at EU level, that this “was the fault of Brussels” (i.e. of the EU), and had it been up to them, they would have acted quite differently.
Much of what has been achieved jointly in the EU has come to be seen as a matter of course by today’s population of Europe. This applies not only to several decades of unbroken peace but also to such circumstances of everyday life as for instance free travel, free trade, easy bank transfers throughout the EU, consumer protection, educational opportunities. Nobody would like to give up these benefits. Nevertheless there has been growing scepticism towards the EU in particular since the 1990s.
This is due to the fact that the EU was for a long time exclusively a matter of governments, and that only little effort was made to involve the citizens. It was obvious that people did appreciate the benefits created by the EU, but they were not given an active part in the process of European integration. Consequently, it was found already some time ago that democratic procedures in the EU are underdeveloped. This state of affairs has come to be called a „democratic deficit“ of the EU. In the meantime, this situation has changed in some respects, and the Commission and the European Parliament have launched several initiatives in order to explain their work to the people, inform them about their projects and give them opportunities to become directly involved. This also includes increased participation of the member states‘ national parliaments in European debates and decision-making. For large parts of the population, however, Europe remains far away from their everyday lives, complicated and cumbersome.
Tolerance and respect for others as a guarantor of peace
What makes the EU so special is that it is a union of states and peoples which have a long common history that was often characterized by conflicts. At the same time these states and peoples differ in many respects – with regard to their language, their culture, their education, their attitude towards religions. For such diversity to be handled successfully, tolerance and respect for others are necessary.
The development of the EU was for a long time characterized by increasing prosperity. This has changed during the past few years. What the EU is facing at present are the challenges of handling a poor development of the economy, high indebtedness of many states and the inflow of refugees. Many states adjoining the EU are at war, and the political situation is very uncertain. Many people wonder if it would not be better without the EU. In many European states there are political parties which demand that „their state“, „their nation“ should revert to making its own decisions in all matters, without having regard to others. Such attitude calls into question European integration and the European community of law. At the same time it leaves unanswered the question of how individual states on their own are to meet the challenges of our time.
For enduring peace in Europe to become possible, it was necessary that states cooperate and form a community of law. Today European states are interrelated to such a degree that they are dependent on each other for the solution of many problems. This also applies to states that are not EU members. They have in the meantime concluded numerous treaties with the EU and are participating in many of its programmes. Unlike EU members, however, they often remain excluded from decision-making processes. In most cases they have to accept what has already been decided within the EU.