In this regular interview series, we reach out to some of our liberal party leaders to hear their thoughts on liberalism, Europe and beyond. In this episode, we spoke with Beate Meinl-Reisinger, leader of ALDE member NEOS in Austria. She shared why new modes of communication in politics are a must, what potential the ongoing Conference on the Future of Europe holds, and where she likes to go for a refreshing hike.
Beate Meinl-Reisinger, why did you decide to enter politics and what, in your view, makes a good (political) leader?
I have always been a passionate European, and soon after finishing my law degree in Vienna, I wanted to truly experience Europe. For me, the best way to do this was by working in the European institutions. I did a traineeship in the European Commission and worked as an assistant to an Austrian MEP in the European Parliament. So, my political roots lie in Brussels and not in Vienna, I suppose.
During these experiences, I was quickly convinced that you can only succeed as a politician if you feel an authentic desire to improve the lives of people. This might sound like a simple truth but if you lack this drive, you will find it difficult to face the challenges that a life in politics brings with it.
You were recently re-elected the leader of NEOS. What are your objectives for this term, and what is your hope or ambition for NEOS in these coming years?
During my first term as the leader of NEOS, I oversaw the move from a political start-up to an established party, including all the organisational challenges that this process required. The next step in our journey is to become a part of the federal government in Austria, a goal which we hope to achieve after the next election. The ultimate aim is to bring change to Austrian politics.
At the last national election in 2019, we secured just over 8% of the votes. Now, we are consistently polling around 11%. While one should always take these polls with a grain of salt, it is still a clear sign that Austrians are rewarding our work of the past two years, which gives us a lot of motivation for years to come. Our goal is to grow large enough that neither the left nor the right can form a majority without NEOS. We are a centrist movement and as such, we strive to be the kingmaker of the future and, of course, advance to be part of the federal government.
And what is NEOS’s plan to overcome the obstacles caused by the current health crisis and the following economic crisis? Have other urgent issues or topics been overlooked in Austria during the crisis in your view?
What we saw in Austria during the past one and a half years was a dangerously worrying disregard by the government for the concerns and needs of young people. NEOS has always accepted the responsibility to speak and lobby also for younger generations and those to come. To ensure that this crisis can be overcome, and that its adverse effects will not haunt us in the coming years, we must give young people a stronger voice on the national stage and always consider their interests on all levels of policy making.
What did you find the most challenging for Austria and for Europe during the COVID-19 crisis?
This pandemic brought with it an array of challenges previously unknown to us. Speaking as a politician, perhaps the most difficult aspect of the past months was the fast paced and often unforeseen developments that the spread of new virus variants and corresponding infection-waves brought with them. The Austrian government failed to provide clear guidance through these months of uncertainty and still shows a dramatic lack of transparency when it comes to sharing data about the pandemic in Austria. Speaking as a mother, the closure of schools for many months was by far the most challenging part of this pandemic. In this regard as well, the Austrian government was unable to provide families with the support they would have needed.
Speaking of communicating with citizens and voters, NEOS is using digital technologies, like mobile apps, for this purpose. Why do you think these kinds of tools are important for politics and citizen engagement, and what would you say to those parties still considering embracing the latest trends?
There is no doubt that we are in a new technological era which comes with ways of communicating we have never seen before. This constitutes a great opportunity for any political party: to be able to communicate directly with its members and the public through their phones.
For us at NEOS, the COVID-19 pandemic pushed us to go fully digital as a party, and we enabled digital remote voting at our party conventions. And yet there is a lot more to be done. To make a credible promise to guide an entire country through the ongoing digital transformation one's own organisation must lead by example.
The Conference on the Future of Europe, launched earlier this year, is dedicated to hearing from citizens. With your experience in the EU institutions, what do you think is needed to bring Europe closer to the citizens?
Participation is the key here. The EU must give citizens the opportunity to be part of its institutions by actively engaging with them. The ongoing conference is a wonderful tool to achieve this.
And with populist MEPs recently joining forces and considering creating a new pan-European political party at the European Parliament, what can liberals do to fight back on the rising populist trend in Europe?
As liberals, contrary to many populist parties, we tend to hold a positive and strongly optimistic conviction that we can work towards a better future for everyone if only we set our minds to it.
Ultimately, positive images and messages pose a far more promising tool than the fear mongering which populists indulge in. We should stay true to this great asset of ours.
Climate issues form a big part of the better future. How do you see the EU could position itself to advance liberal efforts against climate change on a global scale?
The EU enjoys the advantageous position of being an enormous single market, which makes it an economic heavyweight on the global stage. This is our greatest strength which enables us to ensure that not only us but all countries do everything in their power to reduce their emissions. By putting a price on carbon not only within Europe but also levying a carbon tax on imports, we can use our comparative advantage in the best possible way and encourage a reduction in emissions via market mechanisms.
To finish off with a more personal note, you’ve mentioned that hiking is close to your heart. What have been some of your favourite hiking trips?
I tend to spend my weekends, whenever possible, in and around Altaussee in Styria, which offers a unique blend of lakes and mountains. In earlier years, I completed hiking tours all over Austria, South Tyrol as well as the Peruvian Andes.
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