I was fortunate this week to enjoy a memorable lunch in the glowing warmth of a Gasthaus fitted with an enormous ceramic Kachelofen. My companion sits as a Deputy in the Austrian parliament for the ÖVP, a sort of Christian Tory party. Further up in the high valley, at 1,100m, was an empty hotel on the verge of bankruptcy now filled with 45 Fluchtlinge from the middle east. Italy, Slovenia and Austria are all within 20 minutes drive and the locals shamelessly exploit the tax and cost advantages of goods from three different jurisdictions.
The local council didn't get a say over the Fluchtlinge; the Burgomeister was unaware that a deal had been done until the coaches arrived. The desperate owner had contracted directly with the federal authorities to house and feed the migrants, and is now doing very well from the taxpayer. He feeds them rice and pasta and a local version of Essex cheese*; "no meat or spices to stimulate the libido" the MP explains, and 2€ a week pocket money each doesn't even cover the cost of a single ticket on the four-times daily postbus. With the cold and the snow, the poor buggers spend 24 hours a day inside, gazing out at the gorgeous winter landscape not in joyful anticipation of a Breugel frost-fair but trapped and scared, with nothing to look forward to except their next bowl of pasta. It's impossible not to feel some sympathy (mixed with a guilty sort of humorous satisfaction) seeing their faces at the windows.
My tame MP is an intelligent man, a Viennese ex-police inspector. Migrants are the biggest issue everywhere, and he is depressed and pessimistic about the outcomes. The danger, he says, is not from the existing far right but from the ordinary middle classes; each day it becomes acceptable to be a little more racist, a little more islamophobic, a little more xenophobic, and his entire voter cohort is nudging inch by inch away from his party. It's not, he explains, that the middle classes don't already hold these views, but until now it has not been socially acceptable to voice them. Once these things can be said, openly, then there will be a change at the ballot box.
On the reputation of politicians generally I explain the dichotomy in England; ask any English voter about their own MP, and most will term him a fine chap, honest and upright, doing fair by his constituency, working hard in parliament. Ask the same voter about MPs in general, and he will say they are all crooks, with their snouts in the trough. He becomes even more depressed; the system here means that voters vote for a party, not an individual, so an MP here cannot even buck a trend by being locally populist. And here, like everywhere in Europe, people have turned away from their old party allegiances.
At his next suggestion I could not help but snort loudly and openly; he said with all sincerity that the solution was for people to put their trust in the EU, and forget their existing national sovereignty. I thought he was joking. The pained expression on his face told me he was entirely serious. I told him frankly "In England, never." He nodded. "Then maybe this is the End" he said, meaning the end to consensus centrist Euro social democracy (but with very little democracy). Not wishing to wound him further I shrugged noncommittally, thinking quietly "Oh I do hope so!".
* I mean the rock hard nutritionally worthless sort carried by naval vessels in the 1800s to be eaten as a final desperate effort to forestall cannibalism