Interview with Austria’s Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz

The interview was originally published in Slovak daily Pravda, in Slovak language, on May 24. The interview was conducted via email.

Slovak FM Miroslav Lajcak once said that Slovakia would not have a problem with becoming a part of a “greater Germany” in terms of German economic philosophy. Would you say there is basically inevitable that our CEE space is a part of a greater Germany in terms of economy?

Given the size of German economy and Germany’s geographical location, close economic co-operation appears quite obvious to me. However, economic exchange, even with very strong and dominant partners, is never a one-way-street, in particular not in the framework of the EU. Most of the space you refer to is first and foremost a part of the EU Single Market today whose completion and further deepening we all work for. With respect to tackling macro-economic imbalances within the Single Market, there might be different approaches or “philosophies” – ultimately, however, we must aim at solutions which reflect a common European spirit of cooperation, discipline and solidarity.

Austria is investing heavily in Slovakia, but it seems that politically is almost invisible. Would you like to play a bigger role?

Austria and Slovakia enjoy excellent, harmonious bilateral relations; I guess that’s why we rarely figure in the headlines. In fact, our contacts and exchange at political level are frequent and very lively. Accordingly, Slovakia was among the first destinations I visited in my new capacity as Austrian Foreign Minister. I am committed to further deepen our relationship, in political as well as economic terms.

Ed Lucas of The Economist thinks that Austria should join the Visegrad Four? If V4 would be ready to welcome Austria would you consider it?

Austria has always been open to co-operate closely with the Visegrad 4, if they so wished. We are in close touch with Hungary from whom Austria took over the CEI Presidency this year, and joined a V-4 meeting with foreign ministers of the Western Balkans countries held back to back with a CEI ministers’ conference in Budapest last autumn. I also received a visit by the Czech foreign minister Zaorálek on 3rd April in Vienna with whom I discussed a whole variety of bilateral and foreign-policy issues. There might be even further opportunities for closer co-operation when Slovakia assumes the V4 Presidency in the second half of this year.

In general, what do you think about the deepening of the political and economic cooperation in our region? What are the most promising areas?

Since the 1990s the bilateral relations between Austria and the other Central European countries have strongly increased and intensified. Austria is very closely linked with its Central European neighbours by the flow of trade and services as well as by large investments. Our cultural and academic exchange is another major pillar of cooperation in Central Europe. In this respect I would like to mention the “Platform Culture-Central Europe” as well as the Central European Exchange Program for University Studies (CEEPUS). Moreover, the EU’s regional cooperation programmes provide major frameworks for cross-border cooperation in Central Europe. Regions have benefitted very significantly from these programs which also play an important role in fostering integration.

When we say Austria, many Slovaks` (maybe even first) association is these are guys who do not like our nuclear plants. Don’t you like our nuclear plants?

Austrian voters clearly rejected the use of nuclear power in a referendum in 1978. While respecting Slovakia’s decision concerning its energy mix, Austria highlights the importance of the highest possible safety standards as well as on full transparency regarding existing and planned Slovak nuclear plants as well as nuclear waste storages. And it is important that concerned individuals and civil society are granted the opportunity to be heard in the relevant procedures. I have conveyed this message to Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajčák during my first official visit in Bratislava.

 The EU summit in December 2013 was dedicated to CSDP. It might be inevitable that the EU will deepen its military and defense cooperation. Would you think that the Austrian neutrality can last?

The fact that the European Council in December 2013 was dedicated to CSDP issues was very positive in itself. Now, however, it is important to keep up the momentum and to work towards the implementation of the reform proposals. We particularly support an enhanced European Defence Market with an emphasis on small and medium-sized enterprises. According to Art. 23j of the Austrian constitution, Austria can fully participate in CSDP while retaining its military neutrality.

After Slovakia has joined the EU the labour market in Austria was not totally open for Slovaks for seven years. Would you say that it was the right decision or not, and why?

I think it is wise to have a certain period of time for a neat transition from one regime to an entirely new one. This holds especially true for the highly sensitive labour market. As a matter of fact, Austria had already been employing many Slovaks, Hungarians, Poles and others – especially with high-qualification or academic background – during the transition period. When the Austrian labour market finally became fully open for the new EU Member States, the ground was prepared in the best possible way for free movement of labour being successfully implemented and being carried by a wide support of the Austrian population.

What is your position towards current debate about immigration in the EU? Any reason to tighten the rules as e. g. British PM Davin Cameron suggests?

The European Union’s internal market seeks to guarantee the EU’s “four fundamental freedoms” within the EU’s member states. One of these key principles is free movement of persons. However, this does not mean that one can choose the social system which one likes most. The freedom of establishment should not open the way to abuse the social security system of one member state.

Some Austrian political scientists said that around 28-30% of Austrians are susceptible to righting populist messages. Would you consider it as a problem and what to do about it?

In times of economic crisis it is always a challenge to find the right responses to populism, in Austria like in many other European countries. We will therefore continue our efforts to explain to our citizens the benefits of EU memberships as well as to highlight our historic responsibility. This is also why one of my first visits led me to Israel.

What is the biggest threat the EU may face in the future?

Given the global challenges Europe is facing today, the European Union needs to be strengthened to ensure economic and social welfare for the future as well as to promote our interests and values in a globalized world.  The global financial crisis revealed major deficiencies in the architecture of the European Monetary Union (EMU). However, over the past few years, the European Union has taken decisive steps to improve economic governance. At the same time, Europe has to cope with a number of internal imbalances such as demographic aging, youth unemployment and an eroding productive basis. If we want the Union to prosper in the next decades, we will need more and not less integration in some key policy areas.  While implementing these steps will mean greater powers at the European level, it is crucial to engage Europe’s citizens in this debate and to ensure that further steps of integration are democratically legitimized. In view of the upcoming elections to the European Parliament it will therefore be of utmost importance to ensure that Europeans voters take more interest in the future of Europe.

What’s next for the EU? More integration? The United States of Europe?

While important steps have been taken to deepen European integration and to strengthen Europe’s role on the world stage, EU Member States retain individual authority in key areas such as economic, fiscal and social policy as well as security and defence. As already mentioned, I believe that we will need more and not less integration in these key policy areas. At the same time I would like to highlight the principle of “subsidiarity”—meaning that the EU has jurisdiction only in areas that can be handled more effectively at the EU level. National parliaments play a vital role in considering whether a measure proposed by the European Commission should be taken on European or rather on national level. For Austria with its federal system the principle of subsidiarity is essential. Apart from an enhanced integration further enlarging the EU particularly towards our neighbouring countries at the Balkans remains one of the EUs most crucial tasks

You are 27 year old FM. How many countries have you visited before you became Austrian FM?

I have already as Secretary of State for Integration and Chairman of my party’s youth wing visited many countries such as Serbia, Turkey, the United States, Canada or Singapore. Those countries are on the one hand important countries of origin of migrant communities in Austria as well as offering interesting best practice examples for a successful integration.

What kind of advantage and, on the other hand, disadvantage your age gives in the world of diplomacy which is usually the world full of older men? How do you feel among them?

Diplomats are used to diversity, they are generally used to dealing with different groups of persons, different cultures as well as different age groups. Therefore I’ve made many positive experiences from the very beginning on .

What is you first thought when I say Slovakia?

I am very impressed about the positive development of Slovakia during the past years. With the accession to the European Union, the Schengen accords and the Eurozone Slovakia has placed itself in the Centre of Europe. Today Slovakia belongs to the key actors of the European Union. I am glad that Austria and Slovakia are such strong partners in the European Union.

If you look at Russia invading Crimea would you say that the neutrality status of Austria is somehow an advantage?

As a sovereign state, Ukraine has to decide itself about its security political status without any pressure from the outside. Since we were asked to do so by Ukraine, we also sent two experts from my ministry to Ukraine to inform about our experience with the status of military neutrality,. For Austria I can at least personally say that neutrality has served us very well.

Could Austria play a special role in this crisis because of the neutrality status? Perhaps a role of the mediator?

Austria has traditionally close ties to Ukraine and has a long tradition of building bridges as a neutral country. We are also a host country of 37 international organisations, among them various UN organisations and the OSCE.. I have also as Chairman of the Council of Europe visited Ukraine twice during the last six months together with Secretary-General Jagland to offer the Council of Europe’s support in areas such as minority-rights, rule of law and an investigation into the acts of violence on Maidan Square. We have also participated in the OSCE missions in Ukraine so far and are ready to further assist Ukraine in its transformation-process.

What does Putin want in your opinion and how the West should react? 

Russia’s actions in Crimea are clearly a breach of international law by violating Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. The EU and several other countries have therefore imposed sanctions by freezing assets and introducing a visa-ban on certain individuals- Austria had already freezed assets and introduced travel bans at the request of the Ukrainian authorities on 28th February, so one week before the EU did so. At the same time we have to continue our dialogue with Russia and keep channels of communication open as we did during the Council of Europe’s Ministerial on 5th and 6th May in Vienna. Deescalation must be our main priority at the moment which is why we also fully support the OSCE’s efforts in this regard. In case of a further escalation and in case free and fair elections are impeded on May 25th we must discuss further consequences.

 

 

 

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