Last week, a number of powerful world leaders flocked to Columbia’s campus to participate in the university’s annual World Leaders Forum. To continue our coverage of the Forum, we sent new staffer Megan Wylie to see the current president of Austria, Dr. Alexander Van der Bellen.
I went to His Excellency Dr. Alexander Van der Bellen’s speech for multiple reasons: I wanted to see PrezBo, to see something actually happen in Low, and to get free Columbia swag. I also went to hear the current President of the Republic of Austria discuss the current state of the European Union and the concept of togetherness in Europe today. According to a little Wikipedia research, President Bellen, a former member of the Green Party, made history when he defeated the far-right Freedom Party candidate, Norbert Hofer, by only 30,863 votes. While Hofer preached a message of European separatism, nativism and extreme nationalism, Bellen advocated for policies welcoming migrants and strengthening the bond between the European community.
In introducing President Van der Bellen, PrezBo made sure to highlight the importance of Van der Bellen as a figure of resistance against global nationalist trends, and that his win sparked the victories of centrist leaders across in France and the Netherlands. He also brought to light Van der Bellen’s background as a ‘child of refugees’ who were displaced twice to Estonia and Tyrol… He did not mention this was due to the Van der Bellen family’s nobility in Tsarist Russia.
During his talk, it was easy to see how Van der Bellen could overpower the pull of nationalism. His light demeanor was charming, and he frequently joked with the audience. His optimism on the fate of the EU—and that of the world in general—was contagious, in a time period where it is hard to be anything but pessimistic. When he began to discuss President Trump’s remarks at the United Nations General Assembly a few days ago, he simply stared at the audience and began to chuckle along with us. He proceeded to combat Trump’s notions of individualism, for his call to “prevent a fallback to sectionalism” that preceded the formation of the EU, and reinforced that, despite what others may say, we are always stronger together.
While not necessarily prolific, his discussion touched on many issues that I believe the world is still struggling to grapple with. He spent a significant amount of time discussing the fallout from the recent hurricanes and the need for the community to take further action on climate change, and then praised Arnold Schwarzenegger for being a ‘champion’ of the cause—despite further laughter. Despite the perceived humor, Van der Bellen strayed away from the almost inevitable cynical view in regards to the environment, and in general he focused on providing solutions instead of problems throughout his speech. He cited former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his work in the private sector as the future of climate change solutions, and reinforced the overall idea of the EU as a compass to determine political futures and shared values that guide us—despite it being ridden with what he referred to as recent “cracks.”
The Q & A was led by Political Science Professor Jack L. Snyder, with whom I am coincidentally taking a class with, (on Nationalism in the Contemporary world!) Prof. Snyder seemed smitten with the speech and noted the President’s admirable policies focused on welcoming refugees from North Africa and Syria. When I talked to Prof. Snyder following the speech, it was clear he thought the President was a true inspiration in a time where we all need some.
The first question, posed by a SIPA student from Austria, asked about combating nationalism and populism amongst citizens instead of just political leaders. Van der Bellen responded by citing how a few years ago, the nationalist movement in France seemed “unstoppable,” but that was proved wrong due to the strong sense of a European identity across the region. Interestingly, he cautioned us against using the term ‘populism’ as one interchangeable with nationalism, since it is rarely defined. His approach to answering the rest of the questions—which ranged from topics like the role of technology giants to Hungarian nationalism to minority party affiliations—was a breath of fresh air when we consider the lack of diplomatic delicacy in the current political era. Finishing off the event, Prof. Snyder commended this notion of cooperation by praising Van der Bellen as a hero for resisting the prevalent negative herd mentalities in favor of unity, which led the President to laugh and exclaim, “ I love hearing I’m a hero!”
Picture of the hero himself thanks to the Wall Street Journal