Inside Vienna’s city hall – a neogothic jewel on the city’s famed Ringstrasse – high-ceilinged halls lead past salons and anterooms to the office that mayor Michael Häupl has occupied for the past 22 years.
The Vienna branch of Häupl’s party, the SPÖ (Social-Democratic party of Austria), has led the city since 1945 with a remarkable electoral and ideological consistency. Outside assessment of Vienna’s quality of life is just as consistent lately; it came second in monocle’s rankings in 2015. It might be one reason that Vienna’s population is rising, with new neighbourhoods under construction and public and private investment in infrastructure, business and culture holding strong.
For all the praise Häupl, 66, can’t rest on his laurels. In the city elections in October 2015 the right-wing populist party FPÖ came closer than ever to closing the gap between it and the SPÖ, gaining 30 per cent to the SPÖ's winning 39 per cent. Challenges include unemployment and immigration: Vienna remains a magnet for refugees staying in Austria, who need assistance and help with integration. Häupl explains Vienna’s approach to social issues and his city’s eternal allure.
Monocle: Why does Vienna do so well in quality-of-life rankings?
Michael Häupl: It’s not too big and not too small. Vienna has 1.8 million people; in less than 10 years we’ll likely have two million. You see everything here, from the Baroque period to modern culture. The cuisine is wonderful. We have excellent education and we’re a wealthy city. Many people are doing very well – not everyone but many. That makes for social stability.
M: Did the city intentionally reposition its image after the Iron Curtain fell?
MH: The Iron Curtain was 60km from here – it wasn’t exactly Europe’s comfort zone. But when it parted we used the situation well. Now we’re an open and unarrogant partner for our southern and eastern neighbours. We contributed much to the co-operation of cities in the EU and play a similar role in the Balkan states. And we maintain our contacts even if things aren’t going so good.
M: Hundreds of thousands of refugees have passed through Vienna; many staying. How has the city handled the influx so well?
MH: Vienna has a long tradition of helping the persecuted, starting in 1956 with the Hungarians, those fleeing the Czech Republic in 1968 and the Balkan wars. We’re the only Austrian state without national borders so we can’t regulate incoming refugees but we help anybody who’s physically threatened – Syrians, Iraqis, people from some African countries – under the guidelines of two credos: humanity and order.
M: What other challenges is the city facing?
MH: We plan to build more housing. In the past year we acquired 42,000 new Viennese: a third from Austria, a third from the EU and a third from other countries. Nurseries and schools have been expanded but we have more to do. The Viennese aren’t used to such high unemployment – there are about 150,000 unemployed now; we used to have about half that. It’s still one of the lowest levels among European capitals but it worries us. Growing the economy won’t work with austerity.
M: Are you worried about the FPÖ?
MH: Of course. The party reached 30 per cent with high voter turnout; the distance between SPÖ and FPÖ used to be more than 10 per cent. We held our position but it’s no reason to be comfortable. The Viennese gave us another chance and we have to use it. We need to win as many voters back as possible – the people who voted for the right not out of ideology but rather fear and worry.
M: How will you do that?
MH: By dealing directly with their fears. No one needs to be afraid of losing their pensions and we’ll build enough apartments. They don’t need to worry about their grandchildren’s education. But we need to have serious discussions.
M: Vienna’s social programmes have been strong for decades and remain so now in the age of privatisation. What are some of the areas in which these programmes are active?
MH: We’re working on rental regulations and our economic agency supports small businesses like craftspeople. Could you imagine Vienna without violin-makers? We also have 220,000 council apartments and almost as many co-operative apartments. So 62 per cent of Viennese live in subsidised apartments with stable rents. Unlike London, no one has to leave Vienna if they don’t have much money. We have no intention of privatising housing as long as I and my Social Democrats are here.
M: How do you see Vienna’s future?
MH: Whether in manufacturing or the service sector, the economy can only thrive if we replace smoking chimneys with smoking minds. Either we create change or it creates us. Our grandchildren will have different jobs to those our parents had. In cosy Vienna, this hasn’t quite settled into people’s heads.