"10 Years of EU Membership - Taking Stock and Looking Ahead"
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Statement by Dr. Ursula Plassnik
Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs
to the Austrian National Council
in the Debate on Topical Events
"10 Years of EU Membership - Taking Stock and Looking Ahead"
Vienna, 3 March 2005
Over the last ten years the European Union has experienced a remarkable thrust of growth and development: in less than a decade the number of Member States has more than doubled from 12 to 25. We have introduced a common currency, and now we even have a common European constitution for 455 million Europeans.
Austria has contributed to shaping these ten years:
We were neither onlookers nor outsiders, nor did we simply implement what others decided – we were stakeholders in this development, we participated in shaping it and we shared the responsibility for it.
Back in 1994 the Austrians decided to join the EU with a 2/3 majority – it was the right intention, the right decision and it was taken at the right point in time.
Today we have the privilege of contributing to the development of the European peace project. We have the privilege of living in a re-united Europe. Our generation has cut through the Iron Curtain and we are actively working to fully dismantle it once and for all – both in economic terms and in contacts between people.
Austria’s contribution is both called for and sought after in Europe. We contribute by sharing our skills and insights on the one hand – and the European experience strengthens our identity on the other. Good for Austria – good for Europe!
Today, "Austria as a business location" is among the most attractive.
• Exports have more than doubled.
• Foreign direct investments in Austria have more then tripled.
• Spending on research has almost doubled.
• New jobs have been created, purchasing power and wealth have increased.
Today Austria is the third-richest country in the European Union – behind Luxembourg and Ireland, and just ahead of Denmark and the Netherlands.
"Europe" means more choice, fewer obstacles and better opportunities.
• For consumers: the choice of goods on offer is clearly wider and better, not only for imported products but for domestic ones too (food products being an excellent case in point).
• For tourists: border controls, fussy customs restrictions and changing money are all things of the past.
• More opportunities for students.
Approximately 78 % of Austrians live in rural areas. The activities launched by the Union to promote rural development are thus especially important to them. And it is precisely here that we bring most of the subsidies home from Brussels: almost 10 %, the share in budget terms amounting to 2.6 %.
Some of our Austrian regions rank among the most dynamic in the whole of Europe: according to a recent study on the suitability of business locations for high-tech companies, 5 Austrian regions are among the top 20 performers in the EU:
• the Rhine - Lake Constance region
• Linz – Wels
• Steyr – Kirchdorf
• Salzburg and its surrounding area
Other regions were only relieved of the burden of their peripheral situation by EU subsidy programmes (for Objective Regions and border regions) and the accession of our neighbours – just think of Burgenland, for instance, or the Waldviertel and the Mühlviertel.
The EU ensures that everyone has a fair chance – Austria's farmers and regions are making the most of their opportunities in the European competition.
Common membership of the EU is now allowing us to develop new active forms of Neighbourhood Policy. Old neighbours are becoming new partners. A distinct Central European consciousness is taking on a new shape. A deeply rooted leitmotif of Austrian foreign policy is thus slowly coming to fruition, a guiding principle that was already enshrined in the first government declaration of the post-war period. Let me quote from this declaration of 27 April 1945:
"… Austria desires to live in unclouded friendship with the peoples of the Danube region and to work together in peace and friendship with all her neighbours in the best interests of all."
Europe is taking on responsibility in the world.
Whether in the immediate neighbourhood (in the Western Balkans, for instance), in the Mediterranean region, in the eastern part of our continent or in the Third World too; nobody has a broader palette of tools at their disposal than the European Union: trade agreements, development aid, humanitarian and disaster relief, for example, but also the provision of support in building democracy and modern state structures.
The "internal restructuring" process is making good progress:
The undisputed growth area of the last few years has been internal security. For it is here – alongside employment concerns – that the EU citizens' deepest fears are rooted, but it is in this area too that their expectations of the Union are highest:
• 85 % want to see uniform EU regulations for the admission of asylum-seekers,
• 71 % are of the opinion that joint action is the best way of combating crime EU-wide.
Austria is taking this issue seriously. We are resolutely working together with like-minded partners to improve border protection and the fight against terrorism and crime.
But the "internal restructuring" process also encompasses economic and employment issues:
• How can we safeguard our jobs in the face of global competition?
• How can we eliminate brakes on growth?
• What can we do to improve education and training, research and innovation?
Austria is among the leading countries in this reform process. European Commission President Barroso paid tribute to this fact only last weekend here in Vienna, as well as honouring Austria's contribution to enhancing environmental awareness in Europe.
Europe is by no means perfect. The citizens of Europe know exactly what they don't want: centralism, faceless uniformity, excessive regulation, rigid bureaucracy, mindless administration instead of responsible governance. Much of this drive for improvement stems from the knowledge of how things should be – from the feeling that has always existed of belonging to a common European home.
Because Europe was never just an abstract intellectual concept, it has always been a matter of the heart as well. Europe mobilises, motivates, drives us on – and fills us with confidence for the future.
Europe is full of opportunities for young people:
Take the example of "ERASMUS" – a programme that supports students by providing them with financial assistance during periods of study abroad. To date, 1.2 million young people all over Europe have seized this opportunity: in the winter semester 2003 alone, 2,600 European students studied in Austria under the programme while 2,800 young Austrians attended European universities with the help of ERASMUS grants. Furthermore, there is also a corresponding scheme for apprentices: "LEONARDO" is the sister programme of ERASMUS in the field of vocational training.
It is the youth of today who will be called upon to give concrete definition to the next stage in the realisation of the European dream: it is their experiences and their desires that will define the horizons of the great European project of peace and integration. I will therefore be inviting them to participate in a "European Congress of Youth" entitled "Tomorrow's Austria – Tomorrow's Europe".
After all, the offer Europe extends to all of us and our partners in the world at large remains valid and unchanged:
• securing peace
• working together on the European economic and social model
• respect for diversity and,
• last but by no means least, taking pleasure in the colourful mix that is Europe!
[Thanks to all those who have contributed their work to this project over the last 10 years.]