The Western Balkans remains a focal point of Austria’s foreign policy. Our vision is a democratic, stable and economically successful Western Balkans region, embedded and integrated within the European Union. 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…
Without that region, the great project of European unification is simply not complete…
GDL: What are the main aspects of the foreign policy of Austria?
HP: Austria has always and will continue to advocate for strengthening effective multilateral cooperation. The current situation is showing once more that we can only overcome global challenges such as a pandemic or climate change when we work together. Austria is particularly engaged in efforts for disarmament and non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. We are pleased that the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which Austria co-initiated, will enter into force early next year.
On the European level, we support the Western Balkan States on their way into the European Union. Austria contributes to strengthening the EU’s role as a global actor and to spreading our common values like democracy, the rule of law and human rights. As an export oriented country, we are also active in fostering economic relations and partnerships.
GDL: Austria’s permanent neutrality provides numerous opportunities to act as a bridge builder and host of a great number of important events. How does your country emphasise its unique role as an East-West hub?
HP: On October 26th 1955, the first day after the last foreign soldier left Austrian soil, 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.
“In my opinion, there is interest from both the Greeks and Austrians in the entire field of alternative energy, renewable energy and in all sectors that have to do with climate change. The Greek Government puts strong efforts in shutting down coal-fired power plants and switching to climate-friendly energy. This coincides with Austrian interests.”
GDL: The Western Balkan Enlargement Process remains high on the EU agenda. What is Austria’s policy on this issue?
HP: For many reasons, not least its geographical proximity, the Western Balkans remains a focal point of Austria’s foreign policy. Our vision is a democratic, stable and economically successful Western Balkans region, embedded and integrated in the European Union. 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.
Austria therefore fully supports the process of EU enlargement in the Western Balkans and we are happy to have Greece as a strong partner in this effort. Without that region, the great project of European unification is simply not complete. The Western Balkans must not remain a “blank spot” in the very midst of the Union.
Bringing all countries in the region into the EU is also about improving stability and security on our own doorstep. Within this context, it can hardly be appreciated enough what an extraordinary contribution Greece and North Macedonia have made to stability and progress in the region through the conclusion of the Prespa Agreement.
GDL: Austria has been particularly affected by the large migration and refugee movements to Europe. However, this year’s cynical and aggressive use of human misery as a political tool by certain countries at the external borders of the EU make the situation explosive. How should the EU address this issue collectively?
HP: Within the EU, Austria emphasises the importance of solidarity between Member States in view of the enormous challenges posed by the migration and refugee crisis. Above all, an agreement on a sustainable and fair Common European Asylum System is needed. 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.
“In the current pandemic, the EU has shown that it is able to act. Solidarity among Member States is crucial. We can only master these unprecedented challenges together.”
GDL: The European Union looks poised to find broad political agreement on a new EU migration pact. Does Austria feel that a political agreement can be reached under the current circumstances?
HP: The European Commission has made a promising new proposal for a New Pact on Asylum and Migration, which has given new impetus to the discussion. There is a realistic chance that a consensus can be reached that is acceptable to all.
GDL: Vienna hosts the headquarters of several UN bodies, international organisations and agencies. How does this prominent status increase Austria’s responsibilities and how does it affect its foreign policy?
HP: 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. Forty-two international organisations are based in Austria, among them 19 UN entities.
Already during the Cold War Austria served as platform for international dialogue due to its geopolitical position and its neutral status. This position was strengthened by the opening of the Vienna International Centre (VIC), also called UNO City, in 1979. Since then, Vienna has been the 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, established its headquarters here in 1957.
Vienna also hosts the world’s largest regional organisation, namely the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe with 57 participating States ranging from Vancouver to Vladivostok.
Our foreign policy is founded on a comprehensive concept of security – including politico-military, economic, environmental and human rights-related aspects. At the same time, we are convinced that a steady promotion of dialogue is as a prerequisite for building or restoring trust. This is what the OSCE is standing for – since 1975.
GDL: Central Europe had never been a target of a major terrorist attack. However, the Vienna shooting in November was the latest in a recent series of violent attacks in Europe. How are Austrians coping in the aftermath of this barbarism and what is their message to the world?
HP: Naturally, the shock of this brutal attack of 2nd November brought deep grief to many, but they also showed truly remarkable acts and signs of compassion and solidarity towards the victims, their families and across our society. In the aftermath of the attack, Austria received condolences and messages of solidarity from all over the world and in particular from many quarters of Government in Greece. This shows that we are not alone in the fight against terrorism.
The Austrian Federal Chancellor Sebastian Kurz stated it very clearly after the attack: Our free society will not be intimidated by terrorists. We will defend our basic values, our way of life and our democracy with all our might; with great determination and without any compromises.
He also made very clear, that our enemies are Islamist extremists, but never the members of an entire religion. This is not a conflict between Christians and Muslims or between Austrians and migrants. This is a fight between the many who believe in peace and the few who long for war.
GDL: In the midst of the pandemic, we are experiencing a deterioration in the Eastern Mediterranean region due to aggression, authoritarianism and revisionism by certain countries. Is the credibility of Europe at Stake? Should the EU defend international values and international order? Can the EU continue to exercise double standards? What is the position of Austria?
HP: Austria has taken a clear stance concerning the situation in the Eastern Mediterranean and declared her full solidarity with Greece and Cyprus. What is instrumental for a positive agenda for this region is that every actor shows true interest in de-escalation, not only verbally, but through positive action, not only temporarily, but consistently.
For the time being Austria cannot recognise this interest by a certain actor. In our opinion, the EU should act accordingly.
GDL: The EU’s recovery fund, in addition to the EU’s long-term budget for 2021-2027 anticipates leading the Union to the road of full recovery through this vision New Generation EU. What does this new proposal need to adopt in order to be sustainable, even and fair for all Member States? What is the position of your country?
HP: In the current pandemic, the EU has shown that it is able to act. Solidarity among Member States is crucial. We can only master these unprecedented challenges together. To support economic recovery in all Member States, in particular in those most affected by the pandemic, the extraordinary European Council in July decided to set up a Recovery Fund, the so-called Next Generation EU, which is limited in time.
This has been an important step toward overcoming the crisis, but also to strengthening the EU and its Member States in important future-oriented areas such as digitalisation. At the same time, the Covid-19 recovery will also be a ‘Green Recovery’.
“Austria is aware of the important role of Greece as one EU Member with an external EU-border and supports Greece in this regard, as well as in the Eastern Mediterranean…”
GDL: What is the level of bilateral trade between Austria and Greece? In your opinion, which are the favourite sectors that should be explored further?
HP: There is a relatively strong loyalty of Austrian companies to Greece. Despite the crisis until 2018, most of the Austrian companies remained in Greece and I think it is worth it for them. We observe a very positive trend in Austrian exports to Greece, but also in Greek exports to Austria. Austrian companies are also interested in investments, but of course there are always several steps from interest to implementation.
In my opinion, there is interest from both the Greeks and Austrians in the entire field of alternative energy, renewable energy and in all sectors that have to do with climate change. The Greek Government puts strong efforts in shutting down coal-fired power plants and switching to climate-friendly energy. This coincides with Austrian interests.
GDL: Austrian-Greek relations are considered excellent and go back in time for centuries. How should both peoples intensity their ties and what initiatives are both Governments taking?
HP: Austria is aware of the important role of Greece as one EU Member with an external EU-border and supports Greece in this regard, as well as in the Eastern Mediterranean.
An important initiative to bring people together is culture. 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 2021 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 email@example.com), to follow us on Facebook (@AustriainGreece), as well as on Twitter (@AustriainGreece).
“An important initiative to bring people together is culture.
Culture constitutes an essential pillar of the work of the Austrian Embassy… The result often goes beyond the cultural project itself and promotes lasting ties and close friendship.”
GDL: Vienna is a much-desired global destination for Christmas. Unfortunately this year cannot be the case. What is your seasonal message to your faithful visitors?
HP: The past year has certainly been a challenging one for all of us – physically, economically and emotionally – and unfortunately, the current epidemiological situation does not allow for a Christmas season as usual. Despite these limitations, I wish everyone a merry Christmas and a happy New Year. I hope that visitors from Greece will once again be able to enjoy the Austrian Christmas markets and ski slopes in 2021.
Interview by Nicolas Boutsicos
Editor, Greek Diplomatic Life