Lundi 22 Avril 2019  

N°124 - Quatrième trimestre 2018

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  S.E.M./H.E. Hubert Heiss

Standing at the Heart of the New Enlarged Europe

The Alpine Republic, which lies at the heart of the enlarged Europe, worked to foster a sense of European identity during the 2006 Austrian EU presidency. With the debate over Kosovo and Iran still raging and EU leaders finally agreeing on a compromise treaty, H.E. Hubert Heiss, the Ambassador of Austria to France, stresses the importance of building a social European perspective and ensuring that Europe speaks in one single voice.


The Diplomatic Letter: Mr. Ambassador, could you outline the key political objectives of the coalition government led by Federal Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer that took over in January 2007? What is the government doing to bolster Austrian social democracy? Would you describe the underlying goals of the reforms launched to strengthen democracy in Austria, which include a measure lowering the voting age to sixteen?

H.E. Hubert Heiss:
Austria has had a coalition government since January 2007 that unites the country’s two main political parties: the SPO (Social Democratic Party) and the OVP (People’s Party). Led by Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer, the current government has pushed forward with the broad program of structural reforms launched in the 1990s under prior governments. The problems facing our youth, including their training and successful entry into the labor market, are of great concern to the chancellor and his government. It is interesting to note that one of the first reforms lowered the voting age to sixteen, which shows that getting our young people involved in the country’s political life is very important to us. In fact, our young people are the first ones concerned by these reforms (retirement benefits, for instance) and by issues involving the environment and safeguarding our quality of life.

T.D.L.: The Alpine Republic has made good use of its system of social partnership (Sozialpartnerschaft), becoming one of the richest countries in the world. Austria’s government and union leaders struck a compromise that has given the labor market more flexibility. Are other measures being taken to help keep the Austrian economy strong?

H.E. Hubert Heiss:
The Austrian economy is, indeed, in a position envied by a great many countries. You mentioned the easing of labor market regulations, which has been key to our success. We refer to this as the “flexicurity” model. Thanks to a highly advanced social security system, we have been able to combine labor market flexibility – especially as concerns mobility and work hours – with maximum security for workers. All of our country’s social partners have given this model their support. What’s more, Austria has boldly set its sights on reforming its retirement system and radically revamping the public sector. Our country is currently focusing on spurring growth – a 2.5% growth rate is expected for 2008 – and achieving full employment by the year 2010. To reach those goals, we will have to invest even more heavily in training and research. Austria has no intention of simply resting on its laurels. It will have to begin enacting tax reforms that bring tax rates under 40%, while taking care to enforce budget discipline and ensure balanced budgets in the years to come, in order to meet EU requirements. The European Union, by the way, deserves a good deal of the credit for Austria’s economic boom (since we joined the Union in 1995).

T.D.L.: Given its own economic advances, what vision will Austria advocate within the informal group of governments promoting a Social Europe, which was created in February 2007 in Paris? Do you think the European Union will need to make major changes to successfully compete with emerging economic powers?

Austria is closely involved in the campaign to build a Social Europe. We are a fervent champion of this project, the broad lines of which are laid out in the Lisbon Strategy: promoting labor laws that make it easier to hire workers; laying greater emphasis on training and education, even for workers already in the labor market; facilitating career renewal in a labor market that is changing ever and ever faster; and, of course, bolstering all of this with a fair and modern social security system.
T.D.L.: At the European Council convened on 21-22 June of this year, EU leaders agreed upon the broad lines of the future “simplified” EU treaty. How do you feel about this new treaty, which was drafted by an intergovernmental conference and endorsed by the European Council in Lisbon on 19 October 2007? What do you make of the “hitches” that have arisen during this process?

Austria is very happy with the compromise reached at the Council this past June. Now, we would like to see the ongoing intergovernmental conference push forward to make concrete headway. Our goal is to come up with a treaty before year’s end, and have the necessary ratifications complete before the 2009 European elections. The “hitches” you mentioned are natural occurrences in a 27-party negotiation process. Reaching a compromise at the end of day is the most important thing, as was fortunately the case at the June EU Council.

T.D.L.: Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer broke with tradition for his first foreign visit, stopping in Berlin on 7 February 2007 before heading on to Bern. Was this a symbolic gesture, or was Austria sending Germany a “political signal”?

The tradition has simply changed. Now, the country holding the presidency of the European Union receives the first foreign visit. In 2007, this was Germany. As everyone is aware, we have excellent relations with both our German and Swiss neighbors.

T.D.L.: In 2006, Austria put the issue of European identity at the heart of its six-month EU Council presidency. Could you briefly describe this shared European identity, in light of the strides as well as the setbacks in the European construction process, which was launched exactly fifty years ago this year?

The European Union has changed immensely since it was first created, back in the days of the European Coal and Steel Community. We must accordingly redefine the “European identity” and even the “European dream” on a regular basis. Modern-day Europe is a haven of peace, democracy and prosperity, and is hence doing better than ever. And yet we are hearing about “euroscepticism” more and more. As our Minister for European and International Affairs, Ms. Ursula Plassnik, recalled during Austria’s 2006 presidency of the European Union, there is indeed a “European model of life”: Europe is here to defend its great values, such as tolerance, non discrimination and solidarity; Europe must remain in the service of all of its citizens; Europe must play a key role on the world stage; Europe must serve as a unifying force while maintaining its plurality (its cultural and linguistic plurality, in particular). To quote Minister Plassnik: “There can be no soloists in the European orchestra.” Harmony is the key to a concert’s success!

T.D.L.: On January 1st of this year the EU was enlarged towards central and eastern Europe, welcoming Romania and Bulgaria into the fold and putting Vienna back at the center of the European political scene. Would you qualify their integration thus far as a success? Are they helping move Europe in the right direction? Austria is eager to build a strong regional partnership with its central European neighbors. Have specific projects been launched to that end?

I would like to start by underscoring that Austria has always been an advocate for enlarging the Union into central and eastern Europe. This expansion was necessary, both as a geopolitical move and as an essential step in the great European project. It is true that Austria has benefited considerably from this enlargement, especially in the economic arena. Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia and Poland have been linked by a regional partnership since 2001, thus before our neighbors joined the EU. This partnership was created at Austria’s initiative, and has led to concrete advances in our cultural, consular and economic relations. It is founded on both geographic and historical ties, and functions at every level of state (with meetings between our heads of state, ministers, elected representatives, and government officials). Thanks to this partnership, we have been able to share viewpoints, set up numerous cooperation programs, and create a common interest group within the EU.

T.D.L.: Austria is a leading investor in central and southeastern Europe, backing projects like the « Wissenschaftsinitiative im Balkan » scientific cooperation initiative. Could you talk a bit about the economic complementarity your country is trying to foster in this region?

Austria has strong political, cultural and economic ties with these regions, and has long maintained exceptionally close contacts with them. It is true that Austrian companies were among the first to grasp the potential that lay hidden in central and southeastern Europe, and were the first to seize the opportunity to invest their capital and know-how in this region. This has benefited both parties, and we will no doubt continue along these same lines.

T.D.L.: Austria has worked hard to help stabilize the Balkan countries, with Federal Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer recently confirming his determination to bolster their “European perspective.” How can their ties to Europe be enhanced? The issue of the status of Kosovo is still under debate at the UN Security Council. Has that kept this region from moving forward?

Austria is, without a doubt, a dependable partner and friend to the Balkan region. We have actively campaigned for bringing the region into the Union for quite some time, and are very pleased with the progress that has been made to that end. Certain countries, such as Croatia, have obviously made more headway towards joining the EU than others. But the integration of the entire Balkan region remains the end goal. This region has been deeply scarred by bloody conflicts. Endowing it with a true European perspective is the only way to give it a real hope of achieving lasting stability. The bogging down of the Kosovo debate is obviously worrying, with time running short. We all hope that the Serb and Kosovar representatives will manage to reach an agreement before the December 10 deadline. In any case, it is vital for the EU to speak in a single voice on this issue. Its very credibility is at stake.

T.D.L.: The EU reopened accession negotiations with Turkey on June 26th of this year. Both Austria and France have expressed reservations about Turkey’s candidacy. In light of last July’s legislative elections, do you think Turkey still stands a good chance of joining the Union?

Austria has always called for strengthening ties with Turkey, a country of key importance on the geopolitical stage. Close joint cooperation is absolutely vital to both the European Union and Turkey. This country lies very close to us, and we are all following the events unfolding there with great attention and interest. As for Turkey’s prospects of joining the EU and how the negotiations are going, Europe has laid out very clear decisions and mandates. Austria, like France, has honored these mandates as well as the commitments that have been made. Obviously, no one can predict the final outcome in advance, as is true of any highly complex negotiation process.

T.D.L.: During its first EU presidency, in 1998, Austria worked hard to enhance cooperation between the two shores of the Mediterranean. What do you think of the idea of creating a Mediterranean Union, put forward by French President Nicolas Sarkozy? Can Austria play a role in helping strengthen the Euro-Mediterranean partnership?

All EU member states have more or less close ties with the countries in the Mediterranean basin, Austria included. It is thus no surprise that Austria has always supported programs promoting closer cooperation between countries bordering the Mediterranean. At this point in time, these ties could be further enhanced within the framework of the existing Euro-Med partnership, or within the European Neighborhood Policy. With regard to Mr. Sarkozy’s proposal, Austria will naturally study the goals and methods that would be implemented by this new project with keen interest.

T.D.L.: The Nabucco gas pipeline project, designed to help the EU diversify its energy supply by bringing gas from the Caspian, has run up against strong competition from Russia’s Blue Stream project. Both Vienna and Budapest play a highly strategic role in this area. Which project is more viable, in your eyes? What goals should steer the new EU energy strategy put forward by European Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner?

Austria is indeed heavily involved in the Nabucco project, which will begin bringing gas from the Caspian to Austria around the year 2012. Hungary, for its part, has shown a growing interest in the Blue Stream II project, which is backed by Russia’s Gazprom and will link Russia and Hungary. I wouldn’t want to prejudge the ongoing negotiations, but one thing is clear: ensuring a secure energy supply into the future is one of the EU’s biggest concerns, as underscored by the March 2007 European Council. There is a great deal at stake here: this concerns our people’s security, a well as Europe’s competitiveness and sustainable development. Here again, the EU must speak in a single voice so that it can meet the challenges of the future, as I am fully convinced it will do.

T.D.L.: As a country that does not belong to NATO, Austria has traditionally served as a mediator between Russia and the West. President Vladimir Putin made an official visit to Vienna on May 22nd of this year, just one month after the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty (CFE) ground to a standstill. How would you describe the current tension between Russia and Europe? What do you think of the dispute over U.S. plans to build an antimissile shield in eastern Europe? What can we do to improve the Europe-Russia dialogue?

Austria has indeed always been and will always be in favor of dialogue and mediation. When dealing with issues as sensitive as armaments, proliferation and defense in general, we must strive to open a strong dialogue at every possible level (bilateral, and within existing international institutions, such as the OSCE). As to the antimissile shield, all the countries concerned by this matter – either directly or indirectly – should be consulted. Russia obviously has a say in this matter, which should also be addressed in European Union forums. It is nevertheless a fact that Austria has come out in clear favor of nonproliferation and strict monitoring of arms exports. The multilateral instruments that have been set up to that end should be strengthened, not weakened.

T.D.L.: Last April, Austria’s OMV group signed three new deals with Teheran for the South Pars Gas Field, sparking apprehensions in the United States. If the UN moves ahead to impose new sanctions on Iran, could it have a negative impact on Austrian-Iranian economic ties? As home to the headquarters of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), what does Austria think about the problem of nuclear proliferation?

As I said earlier, Austria has spared no effort to help fight nuclear proliferation. Let me remind you that Austria is in an exceptional situation, in that it does not produce nuclear energy. With IAEA headquarters located in Vienna, we are following the current debate over Iran very closely. We can only laud the great efforts made by this organization and its director general to ward off the worst-case scenario. There is no other alternative: this problem must be resolved through diplomatic means. We must push forward with the course of action laid out by the United Nations, based primarily on resolutions 1337 and 1747. Continued pressure from a united international community no doubt offers the best chance of success.

T.D.L.: Vienna and Paris cooperate actively in a wide variety of areas, including the political dialogue fostered by the Franco-Austrian Center and their joint space activities within the CNES. They also have very close economic ties. Are the two new governments looking to strengthen their ties in any specific areas? Are there other sectors in which bilateral trade ties could be expanded?

Firstly, we have seen France and Austria advancing shared stances and strategies within the European Union, attesting to this strengthening of bila-teral ties. The myriad interests and sympathies shared by our two countries are going to take on even greater importance in a 27-member Union that is becoming increasingly diversified. Let me give you just one example: France and Austria are both wrestling with the problem of heavy trucks traveling along our mountain routes. It is only logical for us to join forces and work together to come up with solutions at the European level. Moreover, France’s State Secretary for Transport, Mr. Bussereau, was the first member of the new French government to visit Vienna, this past July. On a strictly bilateral level, trading between our two countries has been expanding in a highly satisfactory manner. Major French firms looking to invest abroad, such as EDF, are turning towards Austria more a
nd more frequently. That said, there is still a great deal of untapped bilateral trade potential. I believe, for instance, that we should try to attract more French tourists to Austria, which remains underappreciated as a tourist destination.

T.D.L.: Austria became an observer in the International Organization of the Francophonie in 2004. Can you tell us how belonging to the Francophone community benefits your country? Have the 2006 Year of Mozart and the upcoming UEFA Euro 2008 helped raise Austria’s profile on the global stage?

I think the fact that Austria has been an observor-member of the Francophonie for the past three years has been highly enriching. Our country wanted to testify to its long-held and keen interest in the French language and Francophone civilization, by asking to join the Francophone family. In fact, thousands of Austrian students are currently learning to speak French in our high schools and universities. This is also an acknowledgment of the IOF’s fundamental values and objectives: promoting peace, democracy, and human rights. Becoming a member of the Francophonie is a profession of faith in cultural diversity and intercultural dialogue. Multilingualism only naturally further bolsters this diversity. The Francophonie will be a precious ally for Austria in the years to come, and vice versa. As regards the Mozart Year and the 2008 Euro (jointly organized with our Swiss friends), while these two events are of completely different natures, they offer further proof that public celebrations – be they cultural or athletic – can magically bring together a crowd of Europeans and offer them a wonderful shared experience teeming with passion and emotion. At times like this, Austria, like every other European country, is thrilled to find itself at the heart of a Europe full of enthusiasm and the joys of life.

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