Harvard, 24. September 2012 Rede/Interview

Speech given by H.E. Michael Spindelegger on "Responding to European and international challenges: Austria's foreign policy"

JFK School of Government,  Harvard University, 24 September 2012

check against delivery

Mr. Executive Dean,
Dear students,
Ladies and gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure and honour for me to speak to you today, here at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. The name of President Kennedy will forever be linked to Austrian Foreign policy. It was the legendary summit in June 1961, when the newly elected John F. Kennedy met Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna. This summit reinstated Vienna as a platform for peace and dialogue, two goals Austria is pursuing ever since with diligence and passion.

In the country of opportunity, you know better than anybody else that opportunity is often borne out of challenge.

Already in the past Austrian foreign policy tried to live up to the challenges it was facing by turning them into opportunities.

After the end of the Second World War, Austria was - like Germany - occupied by foreign forces including the Soviet Union. The price for the withdrawal of the Red Army was our declaration of neutrality in 1955.

But we interpreted our neutrality not as neutralism. Directly neighbouring the former Eastern Bloc and facing the Iron Curtain we embedded ourselves into the Western world, without severing our relations with the East. Austria recognized that the challenging place history had assigned it also bore some opportunities.

Vienna became a meeting place during the Cold War culminating in becoming the third headquarter of the UN and numerous other international organizations.

Austria also – unlike Switzerland – interpreted its neutrality as an active one. We became a member of the United Nations right away in 1955, participated soon thereafter in UN peacekeeping missions and have ever since been continuously and actively involved in the organization’s work. Since 1960, more than 90,000 Austrians have served in UN peacekeeping missions all over the world. Currently, we are participating in six UN missions, our priority being the Middle East, The Golan heights and Lebanon. Austria learned to appreciate a strong and effective multilateral system which remains to date a pillar of our foreign policy.

The fall of the Berlin Wall changed the political environment in Europe again dramatically. The challenge was to adapt rapidly to the new realities. With joining the European Communities only a few years later in 1995 Austria firmly anchored itself in a zone of stability, security, freedom and growth, positioning itself well for the opportunities offered of a re-uniting Europe culminating in the European enlargement rounds of 2004 and 2007.

Austria returned – from a position of periphery during the Cold War - to the centre of the European continent. The continued enlargement of the European Union is in our very interest. Besides the transformative powers to the acceding societies and the economic benefits, we must not forget that the European Union was and is - above all - a peace project.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Challenges never cease. Today it is globalisation and the European financial crisis. What can a small country like Austria contribute to fundamental European and global issues?

Obviously, there are limits to what Austria can do. However, being small does not mean being without resources.

Austria is - in relative terms - one of the wealthiest countries in the EU and the world. It places 3rd in the EU and 8th in the world in GDP per capita. Austria has the lowest unemployment and the lowest youth unemployment rate in the EU. Austria disposes of excellent infrastructure, high-skilled workers, a well-developed R&D sector and a stable social and economic framework. 

Austria benefited enormously from its accession to the European Union. For the last ten years, Austria has significantly outperformed the EU average growth and this trend continues in 2012. Austria is one of the 11 net contributors to the EU budget. Austria has been able to establish itself as an important investor in the Central, Eastern and South-Eastern Europe, continuously looking to new frontiers:

  • Austria is the biggest foreign direct investor and played a pioneering role in Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Macedonia.
  • For the last 3 years, 2009 through 2011, Austria has been the single biggest direct investor in Turkey - whose population is about 10 times higher than the Austrian.

Thus, Austria may be small, but in economic terms, in terms of the resources the country and its population provide, it outperforms many a country of bigger size.


Ladies and Gentlemen,

Our experience within the UN and the EU confirm to us that small states can punch above their weight in the multilateral environment. They can be a player when they act as confidence builders, as mediators, as advocates of dialogue and as defenders of international law. Small states pursue less geostrategic goals and are more credible as impartial brokers.

Yet we are not acting in a void. Being a committed and active member of the European Union adds a specific angle to our foreign policy. During the last 15 years, the EU Member States have gradually stepped up their cooperation on international issues and have created a genuinely European Foreign and Security Policy Cooperation. Austria nowadays puts its foreign policy efforts to a large degree to the service of a European Foreign Policy. We send our experts and diplomats to join the new European External Action Service (EEAS). We co-shape European foreign policy decisions. These are taken by unanimity, our voice counting as much as Germany’s which has a population ten times larger than the Austrian.

Admittedly, it is sometimes difficult to find a consensus among the 27 Member States – soon 28 with the accession of Croatia next year. Non-EU-partners sometimes wonder about a European cacophony of voices when the EU fails to unite on a certain issue. However, when speaking with one voice, the European opinion is very powerful.

Being small you have to be smart, flexible and you have to specialize. Austria concentrates on regions and areas where we have special expertise and interests. These are in particular South-East and Eastern Europe as well as Northern Africa and the Middle East.

The EU-Strategy for the Danube Region was designed on the basis of an Austrian and Romanian initiative. The Strategy will provide us with better possibilities to fully benefit from the region’s growth potential. Austria is also working on closer ties with the countries of the Black Sea Region.

Equally, Austria is a proud champion of “soft issues”.

The experience of the Cold War has made Austria very sensitive to the threat vast nuclear arsenals constitute for the family of nations. Consequently, Austria has been a long-standing supporter of nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament. Austria is also in the vanguard in the conventional disarmament, be it in banning landmines or cluster ammunition and in fighting the illicit trade of small arms and light weapons.

Austria is also proud to be in the first line of defenders of Human Rights and the Rule of Law. For us these are the very basic prerequisites for democracy, stability and sustainable development. Austria is setting high standards to itself but also to others. With like-minded partners we are pursuing our goal vigorously, currently also on the UN Human Rights Council (2011-14) or in our upcoming chairmanship of the Council of Europe (2013).

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Let me now turn to some very recent and fundamental European and international challenges and illustrate the Austrian and European way of tackling them.

In our Southern Neighbourhood, some Arab countries may be in a long phase of instability; but they could also become part of an enlarged zone of democracy and growth encompassing both shores of the Mediterranean.

The road of transition these countries have chosen so courageously will be very difficult in each and every case and will be marked by setbacks.

Libya, for example, seemed to be on a good track, when suddenly disaster struck. Allow me to express at this occasion my sincere condolences for the murder of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three of his colleagues in Bengasi two weeks ago. On the day of the killings, I condemned this heinous crime – like so many of my colleagues around the world – and I added: the new Libya which received so much help from the international community during its quest for liberty, must take those responsible for this despicable act to account and prove through actions in the future what the new Libya truly stands for.

But it is our duty and in our self-interest to assist those countries to embrace democratic pluralism, the rule of law and individual freedoms. The EU has thus developed a comprehensive approach, encompassing economic, security and democracy support.

Challenges remain, of course, one of the biggest being the situation in Syria. After more than 25.000 victims and daily suffering for many more, including 2,5 million Syrians who depend on humanitarian assistance, the international community stands at a crossroad. The UN Security Council is unable to fulfil its responsibility, being blocked by certain powers.

Equally concerning is the situation in Iran. The longer Iran is unprepared to give credible assurances that its nuclear program is for peaceful use only, the more the risk of a military strike increases. This risks plunging the entire region neighbouring Europe into disarray. For Austria, there is thus no alternative to a peaceful solution. The sanctions we imposed serve the purpose of changing Iran’s attitude on the nuclear issue. Austria and the European Union stand ready to step up the pressure in this respect even more.


Ladies and Gentlemen,

Austria’s outstanding economic performance which I referred to before was and is challenged by the crisis in the Euro zone.

The Euro is embedded in theEconomic and Monetary Union which was designed about 25 years ago. Monetary integration subsequently evolved faster than economic integration. This gap is also one of the reasons for the current crisis. To counter the crisis, the EU has implemented a number of unprecedented policy measures during the last two years, measures of enhanced financial, fiscal and economic cooperation, discipline and solidarity.

The EU has also agreed to a series of significant Governance Reforms: in future, Government budgets, by constitutional provisions, will have to be balanced or in surplus. Eurozone members will coordinate more closely on their economic and budgetary policies. European institutions will oversee the budgets and implementation of fiscal policies of member states.

Economic growth will be the key driver to resolving the crisis. Hence, a European „Pact for Growth and Employment” was adopted at the European Council in June this year.

Structural changes in the Eurozone countries will take their time to be fully realized – currently, crisis countries are expected to see a decline in economic output both this and next year. On the other hand, we see that the massive structural reforms are bearing their first fruits.

Allow me to remark that despite all the negative financial news of these last weeks and months, the euro remained pretty strong, at around 1.29 US dollar / 1 euro. This proves the resilience of our currency.  

However, the crisis has revealed how insufficient the existing banking supervision is. We must end the vicious circle between sovereign debt and bank debt. There should be a single rule book for financial services. Therefore I believe that we need to create a Single European banking supervision, a Banking Union.

We need to complete and deepen the EU Single market. This should comprise better regulation, support for small and medium-sized enterprises, and in particular EU funds for job creation. Trade and double-taxation agreements with third countries, including the United States, are also of key importance for progress.

At the same time, national measures are necessary, such as structural reforms, fight against unemployment and modernisation of administration. This includes reforming social policies, in particular health and pension systems. Austria is taking steps in this direction.


Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am deeply convinced that the euro crisis is not putting the future of the European Union at risk. On the contrary, out of what may have been the biggest challenge the European Union had to face so far, an opportunity for an even better and stronger EU may arise. During the last 60 years the EU had to master already a number of serious challenges and mostly came out stronger in the end.

The EU is not an accomplished project but rather a continuing integration process. Europe-wide polls confirm the support of European citizens for further unification of Europe. Austria is therefore actively involved in an internal and external debate on how to create an ever closer Union.

One week ago, a group of 10 EU foreign ministers, including myself, tabled a plan for the future of Europe. Our absolute priority is, at this stage, to strengthen the Economic and Monetary Union. Nevertheless, once the immediate crisis has been overcome, we must also improve the overall functioning of the EU.

First, we see a need to improve our institutions so that the EU can act faster without losing its democratic integrity. The European Commission with its supranational powers should be strengthened so that it can improve its service as the engine of European integration. Within the Council of Ministers, we could extend the scope of decisions that are taken by qualified majority. The European Parliament should boost its democratic visibility by the nomination of a European top candidate by each political group for the next elections to the European Parliament in 2014. 

Then, we want Europe to become a stronger actor on the world stage. To that end, we propose to strengthen the European External Action Service. We want the EU to act more united in international organizations. And we want more effective relations with our strategic partners, first of all the United States.

I am confident that our proposals will give a new impetus to the European integration process.


Ladies and Gentlemen,

The US was and is the crucial strategic partner of the EU. The EU-US relationship is indeed a unique partnership. The US and the EU account for 60% of world’s GDP. Taking goods and services together, we account for 40% of world trade and we are still each other’s largest foreign investors. The vital nature of this partnership goes far beyond the economic dimension, however. It is a relationship based on a shared understanding of the values we wish to promote and secure. Our combined economic and political power places us at the centre of the international system and gives us a special responsibility. Today’s global challenges are challenges we face together – and I am sure we will together be able to find the opportunities therein.

It was here in Boston, and in a few other cities such as Philadelphia, where the Founding Fathers of the United States of America developed their concepts. Their ideas led to reshaping this part and many other parts of the world, including Europe. Without their vision and their wisdom the world would have taken a different direction. We need very similar qualities in our days.


Ladies and Gentlemen,

Allow me end by quoting Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Austria’s most popular artist and composer:

“To talk well and eloquently is a very great art, but an equally great one is to know the right moment to stop.”

I thus prefer to stop here and am looking forward to your questions.

Thank you very much.