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Interview with H.E. the Ambassador of the Republic of Austria, Andrea Ikić-Böhm

 

“With Vienna being an internationally recognised hub for international dialogue, intercultural and interreligious dialogue, including ecumenical dialogue, are important goals of the Austrian Foreign Cultural Policy. In our point of view, religion is part of the solution and not part of the problem…

We firmly believe that the 2nd Athens ‘Conference on Religious and Cultural Pluralism & Peaceful Co-existence in the Middle East’ offered an excellent opportunity to strengthen the implementation of dialogue tools in the Middle East.”

 

  

GDL: Austria shaped its foreign policy on the basis of neutrality. Frequently, Austrian leaders emphasise the unique role the country plays both as an East-West hub and as a moderator between industrialised and developing countries. Can you elaborate more upon this?

AIB: On October 26th 1955, the first day without foreign troops in Austria since 1945, Parliament adopted the Constitutional Law on the Neutrality of Austria. Austria’s promise in April 1955 to become permanently neutral had paved the way for the Austrian State Treaty with the Soviet Union, the United States, the United Kingdom and France, signed on May 15th 1955 and for the withdrawal of the Allied Forces.

Since then, Austria’s permanent neutrality also provided numerous opportunities to act as a bridge builder and host of a great number of important international conferences and international organisations. The nuclear negotiations with Iran for instance were completed successfully in Vienna in July 2015 or, more recently, the OSCE Ministerial Council was held in Vienna’s Hofburg Palace earlier this month.

GDL: The Western Balkan Enlargement Process remains high on the EU agenda. However, there is admittedly no clear answer as to precisely when and how the goal of full membership will be achieved. What is Austria’s position on this issue?

AIB: For many reasons, not least its geographical proximity, the Western Balkans remains a focal point also of Austria’s foreign policy. Our vision is a democratic, stable and economically successful Western Balkan region, embedded and integrated in the European Unions. Experience has taught us that the perspective of EU membership is a crucial motor for transformation and stabilisation in the countries of the Western Balkans.

We fully agree with Commission President Juncker, who, in his September State of the Union address, emphasised the need to maintain a credible enlargement perspective for the entire region. The concrete timeframe will be determined by the progress of each of the Western Balkans countries. Therefore, Austria supports institution-building based upon European values such as democracy, rule of law, human and minority rights.

 

“Within the EU, Austria emphasises the importance of solidarity between the Member States in view of the enormous challenge posed by the migration and refugee crisis. Above all, an agreement on a sustainable and fair Common European Asylum System is needed in this context.

At the same time – also with regard to the functioning of the Schengen area – external border protection must be further strengthened. Austria makes important contributions to this, for example in the form of secondments to FRONTEX operations.”

 

GDL: Austria supported the preparation of the 2nd Athens International Conference on Religious and Cultural Pluralism. You personally represented Austria in the proceedings. How important do you feel such initiatives are in the search for understanding and peaceful coexistence?

AIB: It is certainly no coincidence that in 2015 and 2017 two ‘Conferences on Religious and Cultural Pluralism and Peaceful Co-existence in the Middle East’ took place in Athens, where in fact the ancient art of διάλογος – dialogue – was extensively developed: It is about exchanging points of view in order to better understand what at first glance may seem different to us.

With Vienna being an internationally recognised hub for international dialogue, intercultural and interreligious dialogue, including ecumenical dialogue, are important goals of the Austrian Foreign Cultural Policy. In our point of view, religion is part of the solution and not part of the problem.

Therefore, Austria was very honoured to support the preparation of the 2nd conference, together with the United Arab Emirates, upon the invitation of Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias. We firmly believe that the 2nd Athens Conference offered an excellent opportunity to strengthen the implementation of dialogue tools in the Middle East.

 

 “Vienna is one of the most important headquarters of international organisations, emerging as a hub for the promotion of peace, security, sustainable development, disarmament and non-proliferation of nuclear weapons. Further emphasis is given to the fight against crime, drug abuse and terrorism.”

 

GDL: The EU was overwhelmed by the magnitude of the refugee and migrant crisis, especially during the past two years. Several EU meetings, even among countries along the so-called migrant route, showed that a common EU approach to the problem is still non-existent. Does this concern the Austrian people?

AIB: Since 2015, Austria has been particularly affected by the large migration and refugee movements to Europe. In terms of population, Austria was the EU Member State in 2015 and 2016 with the third largest number of asylum seekers.

With more than 22,000 asylum applications so far this year, Austria has also registered an above-average number of asylum seekers, even though this number has fallen significantly compared to the highs of 2015 (nearly 90,000) and 2016 (over 40,000). This decline is due, not least, to the variety of measures taken both at national and EU level to prevent the often very dangerous irregular migration.

Within the EU, Austria emphasises the importance of solidarity between the Member States in view of the enormous challenge posed by the migration and refugee crisis. Above all, an agreement on a sustainable and fair Common European Asylum System is needed in this context. At the same time – also with regard to the functioning of the Schengen area – external border protection must be further strengthened. Austria makes important contributions to this, for example in the form of secondments to FRONTEX operations.

 

 “Austria’s population has been and is definitely pro-European… Austria will continue to contribute actively and positively to the debate on the future of Europe. In particular, this applies to the period of the Austrian EU Presidency in the second half of 2018.”

 

GDL: Vienna hosts the headquarters of several UN bodies, international organisations and agencies. Does this prominent status increase Austria’s responsibility to secure peace and combat misguided developments on the world stage and how does it affect the priorities of Austrian foreign policy?

AIB: Vienna is one of the most important headquarters of international organisations (IO), emerging as a hub for the promotion of peace, security, sustainable development, disarmament and non-proliferation of nuclear weapons. Further emphasis is given to the fight against crime, drug abuse and terrorism. Forty international organisations are based in Austria, among them 17 UN entities.

Already during the Cold War, Austria served as a platform for international dialogue due to its geopolitical position and its neutral status. This position could be strengthened by the opening of the Vienna International Centre (VIC), also called UNO City, in 1979. Since then, Vienna has been seat of the United Nations (UN) together with New York, Geneva and Nairobi. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEO,) being by far the largest Vienna based IO, celebrates its 60th Anniversary this year.

Vienna also hosts the Organisation of Security and Cooperation in Europe, of which Austria held the Chairmanship in 2017. Times of crises can only be overcome through dialogue and the development of trust. The OSCE is an excellent, broad forum to hold these debates.

Under the priorities “contributing to defusing conflicts, combating radicalisation and restoring trust” the mandate of the Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine was extended in March and the mission was strengthened. In June a headquarters agreement was signed to consolidate the legal framework of OSCE. And in July, an agreement was reached on filling the four leadership functions of the OSCE. On 7th-8th December the Presidency was concluded in Vienna with the annual OSCE Ministerial Council. At the end of the year Austria will hand over the OSCE Chairmanship for 2018 to Italy. As part of the OSCE Chairmanship Troika, Austria will chair the OSCE Contact Group with the Asian Partners in 2018. I would like to thank our Greek partners for their great support of the Austrian Chairmanship.

GDL: How do you assess the Austrian opinion of the EU and of engagement in international efforts?

AIB: Austria’s population has been and is definitely pro-European. In 1994 66% of the Austrian population voted in an overwhelming majority in favour of joining the EU. Since then the support for the EU even increased in Austria. According to a survey conducted by the Austrian Society for European Policy in May 2017, 75% of Austrians wish to remain in the EU.

Austria will continue to contribute actively and positively to the debate on the future of Europe. This applies in particular to the period of the Austrian EU Presidency in the second half of 2018.

Austrians also continue their traditional engagement in international efforts. By participating in peacekeeping operations, Austria provides an essential and visible contribution to the United Nations’ efforts to maintain peace and international security. Since 1960, more than 90,000 Austrian soldiers and civilian helpers served in over 50 international peace support and humanitarian missions. Several Austrians were appointed commanders of peacekeeping operations by the UN Secretary-General.

 

“Culture constitutes an essential pillar of the work of the Austrian Embassy. Our aim is not only to present Austria in Greece as a creative and innovative country, but also to promote European integration and to foster direct dialogue between Austrians and Greeks. Culture is the ideal means to build bridges and show what we have in common and how we complement each other…

The result often goes beyond the cultural project itself and promotes lasting ties and close friendship.”

 

GDL: With regard to bilateral trade between Austria and Greece, what is the current volume of commercial exchanges and, in your opinion, which areas should both sides be more focused upon?

AIB: The current exchange of goods, services and FDIs between our countries exceeds a total value of 1.6 bn euro. According to projections there is an additional short-term potential for a further increase of at least 10-11% until 2019.

With regard to the trade of goods, Austrian exports to Greece reached a total value of 427.2 m€ in 2016 (+13.2% vs 2015). The main product categories are machinery, electrical appliances, dairy products, paper and pharmaceuticals. It is worth mentioning that Greece is per capita the number 1 export market for Austrian dairy products.

On the other hand, the main product categories Austria imports from Greece are aluminium products, feta cheese and yoghurt, fresh fruits, preparations of fruit and vegetables and plastic products. The total value of Austrian imports from Greece reached a total value of 201.0 m€ (-1.5% vs 2015).

When it comes to  the trade of services the balance is reversed in favour of Greece, since Austria imports far more services from Greece (443.0 ,€. in 2016; +3.7% vs 2015) than it exports (156.0 m€ in 2016; +8.3% vs 2015). Tourism plays a key role here, with more than 360,000 Austrian tourists visiting Greece last year (+9.8% vs 2015). Greek tourists (61,145 in 2016; +6.8% vs 2015) prefer to visit Austria mainly during the winter season. Their favourite destinations are Vienna, the Tyrol and Salzburg.

Lastly, Austrian foreign direct investments in Greece reached a total value of 383.0 m€ by the end of 2016 (+24.6% vs 2015). Currently there are more than 45 subsidiaries of Austrian companies based in Greece, employing around 1,200 people.

The areas of common interest, where future investments and further cooperation could be focused upon with our partners are: tourism, large scale international infrastructure projects, transport and logistics, food and beverages, agricultural products, information and communication technologies, energy and natural resources.

GDL: The presence of Greece in Austria is of historical significance and dates back to the 18th Century. Can you tell us more about the current exchange of cultural relations and the interest of both communities in sharing stronger ties? Can you inform us about any upcoming events that we may look forward to?

AIB: Culture constitutes an essential pillar of the work of the Austrian Embassy. Our aim is not only to present Austria in Greece as a creative and innovative country, but also to promote European integration and to foster direct dialogue between Austrians and Greeks. Culture is the ideal means to build bridges and show what we have in common and how we complement each other, which is a true pleasure for the Embassy given the outstandingly friendly and interested Greek people and the huge interest of Austrians in this beautiful country. The result often goes beyond the cultural project itself and promotes lasting ties and close friendship.

A flagship programme of the Austrian Embassy is the Greek-Austrian Music Summer which was held this year for the second time. Between 9th May and 30th August 27 concerts were held in 20 different Greek venues with the involvement of more than 100 musicians from Greece and Austria. For 2018 we plan a third edition, the details of which we will reveal as soon as they are defined. I warmly invite all readers of Greek Diplomatic Life to visit our website (www.bmeia.gv.at/athen), to register for our monthly newsletter (by sending an e-mail to athen-ob@bmeia.gv.at), to follow us on Facebook (@AustriainGreece) as well as on Twitter (@AustriainGreece).

 

“Austria has something to offer for everybody and is famous for its hospitality just like Greece: “Come as a guest, and leave as a friend” holds true for both our countries!”

 

GDL: Have you had much opportunity to explore Greece, if so, which destinations appealed to you the most?

AIB: Since Greece is such a diverse country, its great beauty is so different in the various places I have visited so far. From magnificent Thessaloniki with its numerous ties with Austria, to the blossoming Ionic Islands that already attracted Empress Elisabeth, from breath-taking Central Greece where the spirit of Delphi can still be felt, to the beauty of the Sporades – popular destination of Austrians, of the enchanting Cycladic islands, the marvellous Dodecanese and outstanding Crete – a top destination by Austrian tourists, the Peloponnese with its magic places, wonderful Thrace and Macedonia, magnificent Thessaly and Epirus, the stunning Aegean and of course impressive Attica and Athens itself: I am a great fan of this capital city with its white houses reflecting the special light, its vibrant life and high culture, and most of all, the great openness and overwhelming friendliness of the Greeks.

GDL: With Christmas around the corner, Vienna is a much desired destination for Greeks at this time of year. What do you recommend for visitors to your country at this particular time?

AIB: The weeks leading up to Christmas, called ‘Advent’ can be enjoyed at various beautiful artisan Christmas markets (Christkindlmarkt) in cities and villages in all nine federal provinces of Austria. The most famous one is Vienna’s City Hall Square market (Rathausplatz). Some of the most unique ones are Tyrol’s Innsbruck Christmas market in the cobbled alleys surrounding the famous Golden Roof (Goldenes Dachl), Upper Austria’s ‘Empress Sissi town’ Bad Ischl market with the spectacular ‘Kaisereis’ ice skating rink and of course in Burgenland the Esterhazy Palace in the capital Eisenstadt takes you back to imperial times with exhibitions about the life and music of Joseph Haydn.

Our famous wine area Lower Austria boasts the biggest wine cellar in the world, the ‘Retzer Erlebniskeller’ that offers guided tours including wine tasting. Styria is always worth a visit of course in order to experience its capital ‘UNESCO City of Design’ Graz with the bubble shaped ‘Kunsthaus’ art museum. Carinthia amazes visitors of all ages with ‘Minimundus’, a 1:25 scale model exhibition of landmarks from all over the world.

Salzburg is of course a must on every visitor’s list with its magical medieval to baroque architecture, the Mozart birth house and the rich cultural programme.

Moreover, Austria offers a wide range of winter activities, like skiing, ice climbing, winter hiking, tobogganing, night skiing and many more. Some of the most spectacular winter sport areas you will find in its most western federal province Vorarlberg. Of course, you can dance the ‘Waltz’ into the New Year all over Austria and do not miss the ‘New Year’s Concert’ by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, which is broadcast live in many countries.

Austria has something to offer for everybody and is famous for its hospitality just like Greece: “Come as a guest, and leave as a friend” holds true for both our countries!

GDL: Will you be spending Christmas this year in Greece, and will you and members of the Embassy be embracing a few Greek Christmas and New Year traditions?

AIB: By all means! The beauty of being abroad lies in getting acquainted with other cultures and traditions, which we gladly adopt, while keeping our own traditions as well. This makes Christmas in Greece for us unique. While we have the traditional Austrian advent wreath bought at the ecumenical Christmas Bazar in Athens, I also like very much to send Christmas Greetings to my friends in Austria with the beautiful symbol of the ship.

In Austria, Christmas has a special place in the hearts of the families; it is the time, when everybody tries to be at home or with family, comparable to what Easter means for the Greeks. Of course we will enjoy Greek ‘Kourambiedes’ together with the cookies baked according to old recipes of my grandmother. Both Greeks and Austrians put up Christmas trees in their homes and as many in Greece, I will also go to Church on Christmas Eve.

My favourite Greek New Year’s tradition is the cutting of the ‘Vasilopita’, because this is a sign of friendship and togetherness, wishing each other good luck. A beautiful Greek tradition is also the throwing of a Holy Cross into the water at Theofania, which we have already attended.

So we embrace the wonderful traditions of both countries, making Christmas so special to us here in Greece. So let me wish Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to ‘Greek Diplomatic Life’ and to all its readers!

 

Interview by Nicolas Boutsicos
Editor, Greek Diplomatic Life

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