Neat looking guy with glasses gets off a train at the Hainburg railway station. He apologises that he will be able to stay only for an hour and a half. He needed to catch the next train back to Southern Austria, to get to a family gathering. Therefore, we wasted no time and dived right into our differing questionnaire answers.
I met Niko through a project in a German daily paper Zeit-online, called “Europe Talks”. From March to April, various daily news outlets from fourteen different European countries had posted burning questions relating to the European Union on their websites. These included enquiries such as “Is the EU improving the quality of life of its citizens?”, “Should the countries of the EU have a stricter border control?” and “Are there too many migrants in Europe?” Those who wanted could have submitted their answers. The algorithm then found and connected two people who gave opposing answers. That is how I met with Niko.
A short exchange of information about our education and work was quickly replaced by Niko’s reaction to the information I had written in my personal profile. Niko: “When you wrote that you are scared of extremists, what did you mean by that?” Lukáš: “That a panic and fear is spreading among people and that populist politicians are riding a wave of very radical narratives that can lead to violence against those who did nothing wrong.”
Niko: “Well, yes but isn´t it just a backlash against the flood of refugees and migrants?” to a certain extent this backslash is natural AND people are too quick to label other people because of this concern.
Lukáš: “Yes, it is and I understand this backlash. I understand why people are scared. It is natural but I dislike the exaggerated responses that often come from disreputable sources and are clearly fake.”
Niko: “I also disapprove of circulation of unverified information among people. I work for an economic think-tank. As far as economics are concerned, I am a very liberal person. Based on different analyses that I have worked on, I can conclude that I am in favor of free market, free movement of labor, the exchange of goods and services and the unrestrained movement of citizens which is also connected to it. However, I am more conservative in regard to culture. In my opinion, we should preserve our cultural space the way we´ve built it up over the centuries. I fear that soon we will have more Nigerians and Turks than Austrians. And the bad thing is that some people call me a Nazi just because of this opinion.”
Lukáš: “Wow, I find that really over-exaggerated. From my point of view, it is a legitimate concern. I personally consider this labelling unfair. However, Vienna is made up of 40 % foreigners and despite that regularly wins the quality of life rankings. I feel like this diversity is not harmful.”
Niko: “Well, the citizens of Vienna would likely disagree with this quality of life but OK. When I was in Los Angeles, I thought to myself, how wonderful it is in Vienna. I even think that to some extend diversity is beneficial and needed. Yet I see a problem in that we have a district in Vienna where only 5 % of children speak German at home. The children of newcomers, especially Eritreans, Syrians and Afghans attend poor quality schools and the data shows that lower income background and poor quality education only create more poor people. This is neither good for us nor for them. In addition, these people bring their own culture which is different from ours.”
Lukáš: “I agree. We have similar problems with our Romani minority and we do not know how to solve it. Slovakia is unprepared for higher numbers of foreigners. It is happening too fast.”
Niko: “Exactly. We are unprepared.”
Lukáš: “Fine but what can we do about it? Now that they already live here and we are faced with these problems?”
Niko: “Well, I do not think we will find a solution in the next half hour.”
Lukáš: “No, definitely not but I am trying to say that creating stricter border and migration policies which are already quite strict as they are, ignores that we already do have and will have foreigners and it is our duty to give them the best possible living conditions in order to avoid the problems you mentioned. As you said, such problem is beneficial to no one. If we do not want them to rise up against us and cause violence, we need to talk about what connects us. I for one think that everyone, be that foreigners or not, want to live in a safe environment. I do not know a person who would want their family to live in a dangerous environment. Should we not all work on creating a safe space for everyone? We cannot simply just kick all foreigners out of the country. That is not an option. It does not matter if you are a liberal or a conservative, a rightist or a leftist. Finding a solution should not be exactly what that brings us together?
Niko seemed to like this idea. We continued in our conversation in a lightning speed. We exchanged our opinions on a variety of other topics and gradually realized that we have very similar views on the mentioned issue, albeit in a slightly different way. Thanks to our conversation, Niko has recognized that Slovakia as well as other V4 countries have politicians who are leaning toward rhetoric, he would also label as fascist. I have also claimed that the populism demonstrated by the current Austrian government that he voted for, could have a very negative and dangerous influence as it may help to anchor the more extremist opinions in the public consciousness and to gain wider appeal within the Austrian population. I don´t know what Niko thinks of that, but what I liked about the conversation was that we were able to discuss our differences with respect and the space that we have created for exchange of even uncomfortable opinions was safe and not judgmental.
I have learned a lot about Niko´s very nuanced opinions that are grounded in real concerns and based on data. I have realized that people like Niko internally accumulate negative emotions because all opinions that are slightly different are labelled as fascist and prohibit an open dialogue. This approach only further divides people and keeps them away from looking for real solutions as they are busy with defending their own identity and views instead of engaging in reasonable dialogue. This can certainly be described as wrongdoing and a mistake by liberal elites and media. We both agreed on the need for constructive and constant search for new possible models of society and this process requires a lot of communication and mutual listening. We have also agreed to meet again and continue in our conversations.