The United States of Europe and Liberalism in the 21st Century: Interview with Beate Meinl-Reisinger, chairwoman of Austria’s NEOS party

The United States of Europe and Liberalism in the 21st Century: Interview with Beate Meinl-Reisinger, chairwoman of Austria’s NEOS party

. 8 min read

Beate Meinl-Reisinger has served as the chairwoman of Austria’s liberal party, The New Austria and Liberal Forum (NEOS), since 2018. Furthermore, she is the leader of the NEOS parliamentary group in the National Council.

What does it mean to be liberal in the 21st century?

Well, basically, we Neos were not originally founded as a liberal party, but as a centrist reform party that emerged from a very strongly pro-European citizens’ movement. Then, we discovered more and more that we are liberals, in an ordoliberal understanding of the word. Contrary to what some people believe, we are not neoliberal in the common sense, but we would describe ourselves as neoliberal as they were called around 1900, ordoliberal.

I do believe that liberalism is in a crisis of sorts. On the one hand, it was thought in the 20th century that liberalism [was] the end of history. Liberals thought it was quite clear [that] there is [just] one way toward liberal democracy. Perhaps Europe headed a little in the direction of a social market economy, which is different than in the U.S., but I think that's good. I think that this is totally important, especially in these multiple worldwide crises. Because if liberalism doesn't forget one thing, [it’s] that it's always about individualism, in the sense that it's about autonomy and self-determination, but combined with a humanistic view of the common good.

That's what I think liberalism can accomplish, that it doesn't forget that it's always about the individual, about and his and her chances for an autonomous self-determined life, also, by the way, about autonomy of states, if you look at Ukraine. One needs certain basic rights and liberties and guarantees for that, too, and an open society, because pluralism is a mark of identification. For when I say everyone should live autonomously as he wants, it means the society is the value. But I do believe that it is important—if you think of climate policy, certainly also of the gap between rich and poor, but also of the confusions after the pandemic—that it is necessary to combine a considerable sum of altruism with it. And actually, that's not far from what the original ordoliberals said, except that now we have to think more globally and not purely in terms of the state.

Does liberal thinking also include a sacrifice for the greater good, in the context of climate change?

Well, I think the question must be different in my opinion. The question is, can I endure climate change, the fight against climate change, without regulations [that] may also lead to a certain degree of prohibition? I don't believe that. I do believe that it is important to use the primary mechanisms of the market economy. That’s where the efforts are going in the direction of a carbon dioxide tax, and previously, the system of certificate trading. But of course [this] also [affects] the agreement in Europe, as far as border trade is concerned. So, you basically reintroduce tariffs, which were produced under climate-damaging conditions. Of course, this always has a protectionist background, because Europe says: excuse me, we'll stick to the rules, we'll see that our industry becomes environmentally friendly. But we can't let the cheap, polluting steel in. That is the most important thing in my opinion, because it leads to a change in behavior and because I also believe that the industry has already reacted. Many people in Europe have not yet understood this, when I look at the countless discussions about the combustion engine and the car [engine] summit. I mean, China is probably going to flood the European market in a big way with the new generation of e-cars. The Chinese recognized that potential.

For many Austrians, neutrality was considered a national treasure for decades. It has changed significantly because of EU membership, common security and foreign policy. Because of the war in Ukraine, it is once again the subject of much discussion. How should neutrality be redefined?

First of all, with honesty. Because, as you correctly said, neutrality has changed massively through membership of the European Union and full entry into the CFSP [Common Foreign and Security Policy]. This is different from what Denmark, for example, did. They have formulated reservations here. So we participate, we are in a practical peace agreement with NATO. Yes, there is the so-called Irish clause, which in essence leaves national security policy untouched. But many European lawyers argue that the duty of providing assistance far outweighs the Irish clause. That's in the realm of international law, where now, legally speaking, you can adjudicate that once, but there's always a bit of the normative force of the factual. These strange things come out, like: Austria pays money into the pot like everyone else and pretends that the Austrian money has a tag, and then the Austrian money is not used for arms deliveries to Ukraine, but only for humanitarian engagement.

So, I would like to see some honesty here to say: dear people, this has changed, and we can't talk about being neutral within Europe towards other member states of the European Union. I think that is completely wrong. Instead, what I would like to see here is a political commitment to stand by. If the Czech Republic is attacked, and with it the European Union, then that is our business. If Finland is attacked, et cetera. We can't talk our way out of this, probably not even in terms of actual politics, because of our neutrality. But what I have understood is that the Austrians consider neutrality as a guarantee for peace, as the one argument is always, we would not be attacked [as a neutral country]. That is wrong. There, I would also like to see honesty. We have just witnessed it [in Ukraine]. We know from the deployment plans of the Warsaw Pact that Austria would actually have been the first area of operation, even as a neutral state. So neutrality does not protect you, but only a strong alliance. An honest debate would be necessary for once.

But I think a second aspect is also relevant. And that is, to a certain extent, that Austrians do not want to be drawn into other conflicts in the world, for whatever reason, [that] Austrians feel have nothing to do with them. And I don't mean Ukraine because that has something to do with us. That is about our own security interests. But I think that, for example, the question of the Iraq War and how that went back then still resonates a little bit. And yes, I think one could also talk openly in Austria about whether Austria should join NATO, because it is also a defense alliance.

But I think that also, the situation in the U.S. with Trump again—we don't know how it's going to go. And he also had a true point when he came to Europe and said: please mind your own business. The focus of the U.S., and by that I don't just mean the Republicans, but certainly the Democrats as well, is China, and they are all aware that Europe is not minding its own business here, but actually Ukraine would be lost without American arms supplies. That means our focus would be to say: let's redefine neutrality, let's define it in a European way. And let's see that we make an active, proactive contribution to strengthening European security and defense policy in the direction of more sovereignty and autonomy, in the direction of a European army at some point, which realistically will not be an extra army, but at most realistically a pillar in NATO.

But the steps are going in the right direction with this strategic compass. It's about interoperability, joint procurement, joint training, and so on. Steps are already being taken in the right direction, and I believe that neutrality could be defined, for example, as cooperative and pro-European or European solidarity. In other words, we don't want to interfere anywhere in the world; we want to continue to function as a bridge builder, but within Europe we are a reliable partner. There is one aspect in here that I cannot answer, and that is: what happens if a U.S.-China conflict comes to a head, economically or even militarily? Is it then realistic that Europe will be able to remain neutral in this conflict as a whole? And I have to say frankly, I'm a bit skeptical about that, because I think that both the historical and, of course, the value-based and economic relationships with the U.S. are so strong—at least between some EU member states and the U.S.—that we won't be able to say well, we are going to stay completely neutral, and now the U.S. and China are supposed to work it out together. But we hope that none of this will happen.

Image courtesy of Beate Meinl-Reisinger.

You have repeatedly called for a United States of Europe. How would you explain this concept to an American?

I would say that the United States of America did not come into existence overnight, but actually only through an alliance of individual states. It took a long time for political fields to be integrated, and in many areas, it has not yet happened, such as taxes. As far as I know, there are indecent tax autonomies. I do believe that this United States of Europe is a powerful vision. We need geopolitical wisdom. We need unity and not a cacophony of 27 member states. We see that many things today can no longer be solved by nation-states, neither the fight against climate change nor the issue of migration nor the issue of Europe's innovative strength and certainly not foreign policy and security policy. So these are all areas where it is very wise that we work together more. And the United States of Europe is not a federal state, but really a vision.

However, I would like to add a bit of political realism to what is already partly a reality, and which [French president] Macron also mentions again and again. I believe that it makes sense to promote the further integration of Europe and also the enlargement of Europe. However, this will not be a one-size-fits-all approach, but rather one in which individual states will have to cooperate more closely at different speeds in some areas. Otherwise, I will have the same question as with Ukraine: do [we] accept them now or not? Let's say they continue to work [towards EU accession], and then the war is over, and they meet all the criteria. Can I simply accept them now with the existing rules? A country so big and so poor [compared to other EU states.] And I believe that it is wise here to find alternatives that mean securing strong cooperation.

Is there a consensus among the liberal parties on these United States of Europe?

Well, I don't think so. We're trying right now, we're in the program process with the other liberal parties. But of course, with the Renaissance, with Macron's former En Marche party, we already have a strong movement that [is] oriented toward more Europe; he also argued for a European army trying to get rid of the principle of unanimity in foreign policy. So there is already a consensus that a stronger Europe is needed. But of course, there are different traditions, and the FDP certainly sees things a bit differently. I think the biggest consensus of the liberals in Europe is the unwavering pro-European stance, so the liberals in Europe see themselves as the counterweight to the nationalists. I think they are right; the conservatives are not reliable. We see it again and again, not only in Austria, but also in Germany, [where] Manfred Weber also goes on a shopping spree and talks to the post-fascists, for example. Also, the Social Democrats are not always reliable, so I believe that the liberals really do form this counterweight, very much from the outflow of fundamental and human rights, the open society, and individual freedoms. I think that these are very important, but I don't know whether there really is a consensus, i.e., that everyone says we want a United States of Europe, but for example, [with] European citizenship, there is a relatively broad consensus. We are also working in this direction.

Molden spoke with Meinl-Reisinger on August 17, 2023. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.