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POLITICS

Christian Kern: no more normal service

Christian Kern, set to be Austria's new chancellor, fixed the national rail company. Now he has to get the government and his party back on track -- and put the brakes on the far-right.

Christian Kern: no more normal service
Christian Kern, standing behind former chancellor Werner Faymann. Photo: Facebook/Vita Jugend

With his humble beginnings and business experience, snappy dresser Kern, who will be formally appointed on May 17, has on paper impeccable credentials for a chancellor from Austria's Social Democrats (SPÖ).

He grew up the son of an electrician and a secretary in the working-class Vienna district of Simmering.

Following a short stint in journalism after university, Kern joined the SPÖ and quickly moved up the ranks, working, still in his 20s, in the government of Franz Vranitzky.

In 1997, however, he moved out of politics to Austria's biggest electricity company Verbund where his rise was equally meteoric, joining the management board a decade later.

By then, his working class accent was gone, talking, according to the Austria Press Agency, “as if he had grown up in Schoenbrunn Palace” — the former imperial summer residence in west Vienna.

In 2010 came his appointment as head of Austrian Federal Railways (ÖBB), where he really shone, becoming popular with staff, customers and his bosses in government alike.

He put ÖBB's finances back in order, put a stop to mass early retirements, finished Vienna's smart new main train station on time — and within budget — and got on well with the unions.

“He was the first ÖBB boss to really stand by his workers,” Roman Hebenstreit of the ÖBB works council said Friday.

“I've had to wipe a few tears away and comfort employees with the thought that it's not the end of the world that the boss is becoming chancellor.”

No more normal service

Last year Kern successfully managed the transport of immense numbers of migrants transiting through Austria at the height of Europe's refugee crisis.

“This is not the time for normal service,” the father-of-four said.

At the time, Austria, like Germany, was welcoming the floods of refugees with open arms.

But the mood has since changed, boosting the populist Freedom Party (FPÖ) at the expense of the SPÖ and its coalition partners, the centre-right People's Party (ÖVP).

The bill came last month when the FPÖ's candidate won the first round of elections hands down — the runoff is May 22 — for the largely ceremonial post of Austrian president.

This was the final straw for Chancellor Werner Faymann, who quit on May 9. Eight days earlier, at traditional left-wing rallies on May Day, he was booed.


New chancellor Christian Kern (SPÖ). Photo: ÖBB/Sabine Hauswirth

Herculean task

But it remains to be seen whether Kern has what it takes to repair the deep rifts within the party, jumpstart the moribund ruling coalition and counter the rise of the far-right.

“The task before him is Herculean,” political analyst Thomas Hofer told AFP.

Helping him though is his youth — he posted on Facebook photos of a rock concert he attended the night Faymann resigned — and the fact that he is seen as coming from outside the political establishment.

Until now, Kern has kept quiet on his political beliefs, but sooner or later he will have to get off the fence, potentially alienating different SPÖ factions.

He will, Hofer believes, turn out to be something in the mould of former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder or Britain's Tony Blair, marrying pro-business policies with a social conscience.

Lurch to the left

“The lurch to the left demanded by the SPÖ youth wing, for example, he will not do,” Hofer said. “He will be a pragmatist”.

Kern's biggest headache will be to decide whether to ditch the SPÖ's 30-year-old taboo on cooperating with the FPÖ, dating back to when the late, controversial Jörg Haider became leader of the right-wing party.

There have been growing calls within the centre-left to tie up with the FPÖ, at least at the local level. Others though, including the SPÖ's youth wing, vigorously oppose this.

ÖVP head Reinhold Mitterlehner praised Kern's “management qualities” in an interview published Friday, but said this was “the much-quoted last chance” for the coalition.

FPÖ leader Heinz-Christian Strache said that Kern's performance at the railways company during the migrant crisis “showed that he actively supported Faymann's people-smuggling policy.”

“If Kern really wants to end the paralysis and the glaring deficits that this country is suffering from, then he should clear the way for new elections,” Strache said.

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ENERGY

Air-con, ties and lights: How Europe plans to save energy and get through winter without blackouts

In the face of possible energy shortages due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, countries around Europe are taking action to cut their energy use and ensure that the lights remain on this winter. Here's a look at some of the rules and recommendations that governments are introducing.

Air-con, ties and lights: How Europe plans to save energy and get through winter without blackouts

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and ensuing sanctions has seen energy prices soar, while the Russian leader is also threatening to cut off gas supplies to the west in retaliation for the sanctions.

All this means that countries around Europe face a difficult winter and the prospect of energy shortages – so many are already taking action to stockpile gas and cut energy usage.

Here’s a roundup of what actions are being taken. 

Germany

Heavily dependant on Russian gas, Germany is already feeling the effects of the energy squeeze, with many households and businesses turning down the thermostat or dimming the lights as gas storage facilities are being filled at a slower pace.

RulesEarly in July, Germany’s lower house of parliament or Bundestag passed a plan to turn off the hot water in its offices and keep the air temperature no higher than 20C in the winter. This limit is merely recommended for households.

However homeowners will not be allowed to heat private pools with gas “this winter”, according to government plans, while a regulation requiring minimum temperatures in rented homes is expected to be suspended “so that tenants who want to save energy and turn down the heating are allowed to do so”.

As well as national rules, many German cities have also adopted their own energy-savings plans.

The Bavarian city of Augsburg, for example, has turned off its fountains, dimmed the facades of public buildings at night and is debating switching off some under-used traffic lights – and a housing cooperative in Dresden made national headlines when it announced it would limit hot water to certain times of day.

With certain exceptions, public buildings in Berlin will not have heating from April to the end of September each year, with room temperatures limited to a maximum of 20C for the rest of the year. In areas such as warehouses, technical rooms, corridors, the maximum will range from 10 to 15C.

Private enterprise has been getting in on the act too – Vonovia, Germany’s largest property group, plans to limit the temperature in its 350,000 homes to a maximum of 17C at night.

The head of consumer chemicals group Henkel has said that work-from-home practices may be reintroduced, while chemicals giant BASF has raised the possibility of putting its employees on furlough.

Recommendations – Economy Minister Robert Habeck has made headlines for extolling the virtues of shorter, colder showers.

France

France has an ambitious plan to cut its energy usage by 10 percent within two years and a government plan for sobriété énergétique (energy sobriety) is expected by September.

In the meantime, some rules have already been put in place while there are also some official recommendations. The general principle is that changes will be obligatory for government buildings and businesses, but voluntary for private households. 

Rules – In 2013, a law obliging businesses to switch off outside lights by 1am came into force. That deadline may be brought forward and towns and villages may have to switch off streetlights earlier – some areas have already taken this decision.

Shops that have air conditioning may not leave their doors open, so that less energy is lost.

Limits have been suggested for heating and air conditioning – keep heating to a maximum of 19C and air con to a minimum of 26C at the height of summer. The Prime Minister says she ‘expects’ government buildings to show an example and adhere to these, but they are voluntary for households.

Meanwhile, the heads of large supermarket chains in France have made a voluntary agreement for all stores to employ energy-saving techniques, such as turning off electric signs at closing times, reducing light usage, and managing store temperatures, from October 15th this year. They will also cut lighting by half before opening time, and by 30 percent during “critical consumption periods”.

Additionally, they will “cut off air renewal at night” and “lower the temperature in outlets to 17C this autumn and winter, if requested by a regulatory authority”.

Recommendations – The government has urged individuals to adopt energy-saving practices – by switching off wifi routers when on holiday, turning off lights, unplugging electric appliances when not in use, and lowering the air-con.

France’s energy transition minister Agnes Pannier-Runacher has urged people to keep heating to a maximum of 19C and air con to a minimum of 26C at the height of summer.

Spain

Spain has introduced perhaps the most wide-ranging set of rules in its new energy-saving bill, which comes into force on August 10th.

Public buildings as well as shops, restaurants, cafés, supermarkets, transport hubs and cultural spaces must:

  • Set heating and cooling temperatures to limits of 19C and 27C respectively;
  • Install doors that automatically close by September 30th to prevent energy waste, as can happen with regular doors that are left open;
  • Lights in shop windows must be turned off by 10pm;
  • Posters must be put up to explain the energy saving measures in every building or establishment, and thermometers must be displayed to show the temperature and humidity of the room.

READ ALSO: Is it realistic for Spain to set the air con limit at 27C during summer?

Recommendations – the above rules do not apply to private homes, but it is recommended to follow the heating and cooling limits.

Meanwhile, working from home is recommended for large companies and public administration buildings to help “save on the displacement and thermal consumption of buildings”, Spain’s Minister for Ecological Transition Teresa Ribera said.

And have you thought about your outfit? Here’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez explaining why he’s ditching his tie to stay a little bit cooler.

Italy

Back in April the Italian government approved limits on the use of air conditioning in public offices and schools from May 1st, to save energy and wean itself off reliance on Russian gas imports.

At the time Ministers said that Italy would be able to end its reliance on Russian gas within 18 months, after previously giving a timeframe of at least two years.

Rules – In public buildings, energy use will be measured in individual rooms of each building – the temperature must not exceed 19C in winter and cannot be any lower than 27C in summer, with a margin of tolerance of two degrees – meaning the lowest allowed temperature is actually 25C.

Fines for non-compliance with the rules are said to range from €500 to €3,000. The measure does not currently apply to clinics, hospitals and nursing homes.

Italy has long had rules in place limiting the usage of heating in homes and public buildings during winter. Northern and mountainous areas are allowed to switch on the heat in October, while some parts of the south can’t turn up the dial until December.

Even then, there are limits on how long you’re allowed to keep the central heating on each day, ranging from six hours in the warmest parts of the country to 14 hours in chillier regions.

And there are rules on maximum temperatures – private homes, offices and schools should not be heated to more than 20C, with a 2C tolerance. Meanwhile factories and workshops should generally be kept at 18C.

Austria

The Austrian government has said it will work on measures to encourage energy saving among households and businesses while putting a cap on electricity prices.

The aim is to “support the Austrian population to ensure unaffordable energy supply for a certain basic need”, according to a government statement. 

The government didn’t give details on the price cap but said that conditions would be developed by the end of August.

Sweden

Sweden has announced no new measures in response to the energy crisis, but already has certain limits in place. 

Many Swedish apartment buildings and housing cooperatives have a strict maximum heating limit of 21C indoors and in some buildings radiators have a limiter on them so they cannot be turned too high.

In Denmark, too, the government has introduced no specific new measures.

Switzerland

In common with other countries, Switzerland is at risk of a gas shortage this winter and the government has warned that restrictions on consumption during the coldest months cannot be excluded.

Nearly half of its annual supply is of Russian origin. “We are not an island, so the war in Ukraine and the global energy crisis also affect Switzerland,” Energy Minister Simonetta Sommaruga said at the end of June. “In this context, there is no certainty about what awaits us.”

The possibility that Swiss households will have to turn down the thermostat this winter is very real. 

In the event of an actual shortage, “consumption restrictions may be ordered, for example restrictions on the heating of unoccupied buildings. The switching to biofuel could be imposed by ordinance”, Economy Minister Guy Parmelin has said.

If shortages persist, a quota system would be implemented – with households and essential services, such as hospitals, among the last to be affected.

But Parmelin insisted, “the role of the State is to guarantee a good supply of gas and electricity to the country. We want at all costs to avoid a disruption in supply, which would have a strong impact on businesses and  would then lead to an economic crisis”.

UK

Less reliant on Russian gas because of its own gas reserves, the UK is currently less worried about supply than price – soaring utility bills may force many households into poverty this winter, campaigners have warned.

Households in the UK will start receiving a discount worth a total £400 (€478) off their energy bills from October, the British government has said, with the support package rises to £1,200 (€1,430) for the poorest households.

A recent report by National Grid said there was little chance of the lights going out in the UK this winter – though experts have warned that a severe cold spell could prompt action, such as shutdowns of non-critical factory operations, to ensure homes can be heated.

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