Statement by Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik to the National Council on the EU Reform Treaty
8 November 2007
We are on the threshold of a European quantum leap. Where an Iron Curtain still existed less than 20 years ago, border controls will be done away with altogether in six weeks’ time. Fences and barriers will soon be a thing of the past.
Shortly before Christmas the latest major step in overcoming the history of European division will be undertaken by us and the countries that in the decades of the Cold War were so near and yet such worlds apart.
The 1250 km border between Austria and the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Slovenia will soon by like our borders with Germany and Italy today.
Nothing illustrates the epochal changes better than this event. Europe - the new Europe - means overcoming divisions and separations peacefully, through the joint definition of targets and through cooperation.
Successful achievements often make us overlook history. We might recall that on 27 June 1989 Alois Mock and Gyula Horn cut through the barbed wire at Klingenbach, marking the beginning of the end of the Cold War "order". Austrian politics played an instrumental role in this achievement.
Now our EU partners in the north, east and south are taking over responsibility for safeguarding our common external borders.
The forthcoming Schengen enlargement shows that Europe is not taking the easy way out and that in particular far-reaching measures such as the abolition of border controls are contingent on responsible, persevering and very detailed preparatory work by all sides.
I am aware that for many Austrian the abolition of border controls is an emotionally explosive change. For many the risks overshadow the opportunities. No one likes to take the plunge into the unknown. The Federal Government takes these concerns seriously.
We have therefore made absolutely sure that all the conditions are precisely observed without exception. For this I have to thank above all my colleague and Minister of the Interior Günther Platter.
He has concluded bilateral agreements for the future with all of our new Schengen neighbours - the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Slovenia. These call, among other things, for the elaboration of common security concepts for the border regions and mixed patrols for systematic joint police work. If necessary Austria will also take part in joint actions at the new Schengen outer border.
We have helped the new Schengen states to considerably upgrade their security infrastructure in terms of personnel, in-depth training and new modern equipment.
In the past, for example, Slovakia had 240 police officers on its border with Ukraine; now there are 886. Slovakia has spent 100 million euros on its Schengen measures; over 50 million come from EU resources. In other words, we have made careful preparations for this step.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
We have reached a new stage in the process of European unification: we are working together towards an area of freedom and security encompassing almost 500 million people. But we are also working on new ground rules for a Union with 27 members. At stake is the weight and influence of Europe as a partner in the global village.
The founding treaties on which the European Union is based were tailored at heart to a community of six countries in the 1950s. Therefore they can no longer meet the challenges of the 21st century in all respects. We need to be better prepared.
That is the reason for the Treaty of Lisbon, which was agreed on 18 October and which we shall sign in five weeks’ time on 13 December.
That is also the reason for the years of negotiations that have culminated in this new legal basis. Here too the EU has not taken the easy way out, and nothing has been done precipitately - quite the contrary.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
We Austrians have made our contribution to the success of this first joint major project of the 27-member European Union. Through systematic work on the contents, targeted stimulus during our EU Presidency with a view to resurrecting discussion on the EU’s future, and through the initial positive steps towards the negotiation of the Reform Treaty at the meeting of foreign ministers in Klosterneuburg.
The result is a treaty text that reformulates the old legal basis where necessary and also introduces a series of forward-looking structural innovations: Europe is getting what it needs for it to function better.
What were the specifically Austrian concerns that have been implemented?
First of all there is the interface between the European and the national level: for the first time there will be a precise distribution of responsibilities between the European Union and the Member States - an old Austrian demand.
It is also clearly stated that the transfer of competences by the Member States to the EU is reversible. In other words, European integration is not a one-way street. It has learnt through the Reform Treaty to let go where it is sensible to do so. Naturally, the Member States will also remain "masters of the treaties".
An explicit example of this more pointed thinking is the area of communal services such as water supply or refuse collection. Here the responsibility of the Member States and their national, regional and local authorities is clearly fixed. The EU is not trying to regulate every aspect of economic life in Europe through the single market.
A further structural innovation that Austria has emphatically supported in the interests of giving a boost to the European democratisation process is the strengthening of the parliamentary component of the European Union.
For the first time it will also be possible to conduct European public initiatives, another Austrian demand that has been taken up. Moreover, the Austrian proposal for a European referendum remains on the table.
The Reform Treaty emphasises the subsidiarity principle and the strengthening of the rights of national parliaments in the EU legislative process.
You, Ladies and Gentlemen, the elected national representatives of the people, will in future be informed directly by the Commission about planned legislation. You will have the possibility of objecting if you believe that a proposal by the Commission regulates a matter that is the responsibility of the Member States. In footballing terms you can if necessary show the Commission a yellow card.
A further innovation with an unmistakable Austrian signature is the European Union’s involvement for the first time through the Reform Treaty in climate protection. This is a further step towards making the Union an agent of sustainability, since the EU is increasingly defining standards that are becoming global indicators: in environmental policy, basic rights and consumer protection.
There will also be a new legal basis for European energy policy. By means of a concerted approach Europe will be better organised internally and will also be able to prevail more effectively on global energy markets.
A further forward-looking area in which the Reform Treaty provides more effective tools is the question of internal security of citizens. Europe needs more and better transnational cooperation in the fight against terrorism, organised crime, smuggling and trafficking in human beings.
The Reform Treaty provides for more rapid procedures without the possibility of obstruction by individual states in the area of police and judicial cooperation in criminal matters.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
As Foreign Minister I should also like to make some comments on the progress made in the EU’s external policy.
The EU will have a face and a voice representing it to the outside world. There will in future be a de facto European foreign minister. Whatever the actual name on paper is, there will at last be a European telephone number.
The former functions of the High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy and the EU Commissioner for External Relations and European Neighbourhood Policy will be merged. The external affairs activities of the EU will be streamlined.
A uniform and plausible position by the EU in its external affairs is a public concern, as opinion polls have shown: a common front in this regard is one of the main public expectations. The tone is nevertheless optimistic: according to the most recent Eurobarometer, a solid majority of EU citizens are confident that the EU will become a leading diplomatic power and a true force for peace in the world.
There is a clear demand for a European external policy - both in Europe and in the world.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
The Austrian influence on European external policy will of course remain intact in the future.
As a member of the EU, we have expanded the impact of our foreign policy in both scope and intensity in a way that would have been unimaginable only a short while ago. Membership of the European Union enables us to help to define a joint European line and to implement it on a daily basis. It gives our work a European dimension.
To mention just a few examples, we offer in Vienna a platform for the Kosovo negotiations and provide development aid in a wide range of projects; we also gave a specific impetus early this week with the Kosovo women’s conference as a means of further developing the neighbourhood networks. "Reconciliation through integration" is the way that a Serbian participant described the successful recipe behind the European peace project in Vienna on Tuesday. We are pioneers in cooperation regarding visas thanks to our joint centres in Chisinau and Podgorica. We continue to work on ensuring that the EU perspective for the Balkans remains credible and tangible - particularly in the interests of the young people in these countries. We are indefatigable supporters of dialogue - particularly regarding the relationship with Islam and the Muslim world.
The EU Reform Treaty will not change this commitment, nor our Austrian security policy. The belief in a joint and united foreign policy within the framework of the European Union and neutrality are both parts of our federal constitution and will remain so.
Neutral and non-aligned Member States will have the right in the future to decide themselves on a case-by-case basis on their support - on the merits and also regarding the nature and extent. Decisions on military questions will also remain contingent on unanimous approval by the EU Council.
The Reform Treaty also contains a new solidarity clause that commits Member States to support each other in the event of a terrorist attack or a natural or man-made disaster.
We welcome the fact that Austria is not an also-ran in terms of solidarity.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
This High House has always attentively followed and actively participated in the EU Reform Treaty process: at the outset, in the Convention through the work of MPs Einem, Bösch, Lichtenberger and Mainoni; through the various Europe debates in the plenary session and in committees such as the Council for Questions of Austrian Integration and Foreign Policy; and above all through the major European solidarity conference in St. Pölten in 2006, "Europe starts at home", organised by the Austrian Parliament, the Austrian EU Presidency and the province of Lower Austria.
Among the European national parliaments, the Austrian Parliament thus plays a pioneering role in many respects. It has specific European expertise that is particularly valuable in the parliamentary approval of the EU Reform Treaty, since the Treaty will have to be approved in line with our Federal Constitution by you, the elected representatives of the people.
I am a firm believer in this shared representative democracy in which elected representatives of the people address the concerns of the Austrian people solicitously, judiciously and far-sightedly.
Many laws that you as the elected representatives of the people adopt have a more far-reaching effect on citizens than the Treaty of Lisbon: pension reform, tax laws or the introduction of postal voting, for example. Here, too, Ladies and Gentlemen - and through you the people - have the final word.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is a matter of concern for me that the citizens of Austria are informed comprehensively about the contents of the Treaty. This is a joint task for all of us - the Federal Government, the representatives of the people and the experts.
I myself have already begun: on the Open Day on 26 October, through a first easily accessible brochure and through the Foreign Ministry website. We will continue to work in this direction.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Europe is without doubt a fascinating project, but is it seen this way by everyone? Obviously not.
There is a large difference between what is actually happening and the prevailing mood. Our task will be to reconcile facts and feelings more effectively. This is often easier to achieve from the outside: the perception of us by our partners is frequently more positive than our own view of ourselves.
I seek a realistic self-awareness of Austria within the 27 Member States - without delusions of grandeur but also without a feeling of powerlessness; in other words, a medium-sized successful country with commitment and a sense of responsibility.
I am certain that we are capable of more than we sometimes believe - in Austria and in Europe!
The Reform Treaty is an opportunity for a more democratic and effective European Union. It will not make the EU perfect or turn it into a paradise. The new Treaty will be successful if it provides the basis for the right policy at all levels.
And it is precisely that, Ladies and Gentlemen, that we have in mind.