Speech of Vice-Chancellor and Federal Minister Dr. Michael Spindelegger at the Foreign Policy and United Nations Association of Austria (UNA-Austria)
Austria's International Policy Today – Challenges on a European and International Level
Dear Mr. President,
My dear predecessors,
Ladies and gentlemen,
A year ago almost to the day, I also gave a keynote speech on Austrian foreign and European policy here before Parliament following an invitation of UNA-Austria.
Last week, I presented the principles of our European policy.
Today, I would like to touch upon some of the current challenges we are faced with in our foreign policy.
1. The Arab Spring and the Middle East
3. Dialogue and human rights
4. Southeast Europe and the Black Sea region
Many of the issues and questions that we deliberated throughout the past year remain as topical as ever. In many cases, I am forced to consider this unfortunate.
On an international level, we are once again kept in suspense by the events in the Middle East. Every day we receive new images of terror – be it from Syria or Gaza or Israel.
These images remind us Europeans, who have enjoyed peace for decades, just how fragile stability and security can be. But they also show us very clearly that foreign policy is not some high-faluting concept reserved for experts only; not just a subject to be peripherally dealt with.
Just like 50 years ago, being able to live a life in peace, security and prosperity is still not to be taken for granted. This right must rather be worked for on a daily basis; at home, but also in a larger neighbourhood context, both close to home and further afield. Foreign policy thus stands for security policy in the widest sense of the word.
Our efforts in the multi-lateral field, e.g. in the sphere of human rights and disarmament, and our commitment in the Balkans and in the Middle East are an investment in our own security, our own prosperity. This commitment is just as essential as the work we are engaged in within the EU. For a small country with an export-oriented economy, such as Austria, it is particularly important to establish international networks and to get involved. We must never become insensible to what is happening in our immediate and wider neighbourhood.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Hardly two years ago, many people believed that the Arab World would not know how to handle peace and democracy. Starting in Tunisia at the turn of the years 2010/2011, a number of Arab countries set about to prove the opposite. There is no better symbol of this Arab awakening and the hopes linked to it as the term "Arab Spring". It is not yet clear if this Spring will be followed by a lasting Summer. Nobody can say with certainty if the high expectations will be fulfilled. Nobody can say if the last regional despots, as in Syria, will soon be nothing more than a chapter in the countries' history and if tolerant systems will become firmly rooted in theses countries.
A few days ago, I attended the 2nd Ministerial Meeting of the EU and the Arab League. In my encounters and meetings I was able to gain an impression of the huge challenges the new governments in the Arab Spring are being faced with. It is about setting the course in political, democratic and human rights issues, and not least also about progress in the economic conditions.
It would be fatal if we only watched and reduced our action to lecturing. We have to contribute proactively to this epochal upheaval in our intermediate neighbourhood. We must provide the support that is required to offer these people clear perspectives. This is the only way to deprive the radical alternatives of their attractiveness and breeding ground.
The upheavals in the Arab World make it very clear for us: Europe is not an island! Revolutions and instabilities in our wider neighbourhood also affect us directly. We therefore have to become involved and contribute to a stabilisation of the situation, bilaterally and as part of the European Unin.
Ladies and gentlemen,
We are witnessing tragedy in Syria. Civil war, more than 40,000 casualties, 400,000 refugees in the neighbouring countries and still no end of the fighting in sight. On the contrary: The fight is becoming more brutal. And it is once again the civil society that suffers the most.
The fate suffered by this people cannot leave us cold. Consequently, we have significantly increased our humanitarian aid, on bilateral and EU level. However, in the end this is a mere drop in the ocean. Our goal remains to see an end put to the fighting and the replacement of President Assad. Given the human tragedy currently happening in Syria, Russia's and China's continued blockage of the UN Security Council is incomprehensible. Russia and China should finally live up to their responsibility in the Security Council and make it possible for the international community to join ranks in applying itself to the establishment of peace in this country.
At the same time, we must start preparing for a time after Assad. The formation of a new, comprehensive opposition coalition is an encouraging goal. We hope that we will see the emergence of a truly comprehensive, credible and democratic alternative to the current regime that is able to offer the people of Syria a joint vision of the future for the day after Assad has been overthrown. One thing we must all be aware of: An opposition to Assad can only be successful if it reflects all societal forces within Syria. In concrete terms, this means that it must also represent Kurds, Christians and Alawites.
I also expect the Syrian opposition to place the respect for universal fundamental rights, rule of law and protection of minorities right at the top of their agenda in a way that is credible. Only then can they succeed in building a pluralist system that does not play off one minority against another.
Against this background, let me also clearly say that Austria will continue to work to bring to justice those who are making themselves guilty of war crimes or crimes against humanity in Syria and to make them answerable to the International Court of Justice, regardless of the side these forces are on!
Ladies and gentlemen,
these days, we have also been cruelly reminded of the still unresolved conflict between Israel and Palestine.
The missile attacks on Israel and the bombardment of Gaza are sad testimonials of the fact that we have made practically no progress in the 20 years since the Oslo Treaties were ratified. The stalemate in the Middle East Peace Process is taking a heavy toll. Many are already asking the question whether the two-state solution is still a possibility, faced with the continuation of Israel's settlement policy, and whether it would not be more honest to finally admit that the Middle East Peace Process has failed.
But we must not let that happen! I expect the re-elected US administration in conjunction with the EU to renew their efforts to overcome the standstill in the Middle East and to open up a new diplomatic perspectice.
In three days' time, the UN General Assembly will vote on whether Palestine should be assigned non-member state status.
I see this as an act of desperation of the Palestinian National Authority that has no perspective of the future to offer to its people any more.
Much has been said about this topic already. There is little doubt on the result of the vote. It remains to be seen whether the vote is taken as the final reason to call off the Israeli-Palestine Peace Process or as an incentive for a new start.
When President Abbas says that there would be no remaining prerequisites for starting negotiations after the resolution has been adopted – not even a settlement freeze – he should be taken at his word.
But Israel, too, will have to demonstrate its sincere willingness to initiate serious peace negotiations. Negotiations just for the sake of negotiating will not advance anyone's cause. All parties concerned know what the solution must be. Now is the time to show the political will to reach this goal.
The most recent horrific images from Gaza and Israel should be a wake-up call for everyone concerned.
The problems in the Middle East cannot be resolved by means of violence. Any attempt to fight fire with fire is doomed to failure. I personally wish that both sides will perceive the fundamental changes that are currently under way in the region as opportunities for exploring new paths to finally lay to rest a conflict that has been raging for such a long time. Both sides, Israelis and Palestinians alike, are responsible for ensuring a peaceful future for coming generations.
The international community cannot force peace upon the two warring parties. What it can do, however, is to exert pressure on both sides to make a new start based on sincerity and good will. I know that the EU is ready to do so and I hope that the US will also throw its entire political weight into the balance to reverse this spiral of negativity.
There is no question that Israel has the right to live in safety. This refers to the daily threat of missile attacks just as much as the risk posed by an Iranian nuclear weapons development programme. In this context, the EU represented by Catherine Ashton remains a driving force behind negotiation efforts within the E3+3. With the EU sanctions, we have provided her with a tool to exert political pressure that is already showing some effect. We must take care to uphold this pressure to force Iran to back down. If Iran really neither has a nuclear weapons development programme in place nor plans on implementing one, surely it cannot object to restrictions and control mechanisms for its civic programme. Iran must finally put its cards on the table. Following his re-election, US President Obama has a window of opportunity that he should utilise at all cost.
Ladies and gentlemen,
most politicians still seem to adhere to the erroneous idea that more weapons mean greater safety. For this reason, the efforts of the international community to keep a zone in the Near and Middle East free from nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction are not getting anywhere.
Courage and political vision are needed. I suggest taking a completely new, innovative path. Why not create a collective safety system, a type of OSCE specifically for the Middle East? Such a multilateral structure would ensure the most sustainable form of safety for Israel and the entire region. After all, what was possible between the two hostile blocks during the Cold War should also be possible in the Middle East. This system could be based on the Arab Peace Plan. In return for a peace agreement between Israel and Palestine, the Arab states would promise to fully normalise their relations with Israel.
As far as collective safety and disarmament are concerned, we in Europe should continue to set a good example by taking further steps to this end. After all, we also continue to live under the continuous threat posed by nuclear weapons. We tend to block this out, but the fact is that these weapons are in our immediate vicinity, for instance in our neighbouring country of Germany. Just because Austria is a neutral state it does not mean that we would not be affected by a nuclear aftermath.
Have we really come to terms with the existence of nuclear weapons and the threat that they pose? Are nuclear weapons a fate that we must resign ourselves to?
My answer to this question is a resounding no.
All states holding nuclear weapons have clearly stated that they aim for a world without nuclear weapons – at least in theory. I would like to take them at their word.
Let us start with the abolition of nuclear weapons in Europe. Such a step would constitute an immense trust-building measure on our continent. After all, the Cold War is well and truly over. It is high times for military doctrines to reflect this fact.
Whether we are talking about NATO, neutrality or the Collective Security Treaty – I have no doubt that people in Europe would support this idea if they were asked.
But they are not. Instead, we continue to adhere to the dogma of nuclear deterrence. The question is, who are we trying to deter?
Is a Europe or a world without nuclear weapons really just a utopian idea? I do not think so by any means. We just have to want it enough and take concrete steps to make this idea reality.
When Austria, together with several other states, pushed for the condemnation of inhumane weapons such as anti-personnel mines or, later on, of cluster munition, we were ridiculed at first.
And today? Today, more than 80% of countries worldwide have ratified the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention, and almost half of all countries worldwide have also joined the more recent Convention on Cluster Munition, which is much harder to implement due to the requirement of destroying existing stocks. The tendency, however, is positive.
Only recently, we have seen another successful development in this context: The adaptation of a resolution for the dynamisation of multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations by the UN General Assembly, initiated in conjunction with Mexico and Norway. Following this, we are expecting to initiate serious negotiation efforts to stimulate nuclear disarmament on a global level in 2013.
We are striving for a similarly dynamic development also in the abolition of nuclear devices.
Over the years, Austria has, through tenacity and credibility, built up a strong profile for itself in the fields of disarmament and non-proliferation of weapons. I promise that Austria will continue its tenacious, consistent efforts in these areas.
Ladies and gentlemen,
We are proud of the fact that Austria today is the seat of numerous international organisations, above all of course the UN.
Tonight, yet another organisation will be officially launched with a ceremony in the Hofburg in Vienna: the "King Abdullah International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue". This dialogue centre will serve as a platform for exchange and cooperation between religious representatives, civil society, universities, governmental and non-governmental institutions and experts. I am fully committed to this project and consider it to be of utmost importance. An institutionalised dialogue of world religions can make an important contribution to the sustainable resolution of conflicts. It is no coincidence that this centre is being set up here in Vienna, in Austria, and I for one believe that it is exactly in the right location.
The dialogue centre is the logical continuation of the many initiatives to foster an intercultural and interreligious dialogue in the tradition of Cardinal König and Alois Mock. All these initiatives aim at promoting mutual understanding and respect. They are the basis for any prosperous, peaceful coexistence on our planet. We will also continue this tradition with the hosting of the summit of the Alliance of Civilisations in Vienna in late February 2013.
Our worldwide efforts to promote human rights also follow the same line. Without protecting and implementing human rights, without respecting the dignity of every single human being, the democratic and thus ultimately the sustainable development of mankind is unthinkable.
We are also working towards these goals within the setting of the UN Human Rights Council, which has a much more central role than is often thought. This was also reflected in the cases of Libya and Syria. In both instances, the Council was swift to take a clear stance and to set up investigative committees to follow up human rights violations and to make concrete proposals for dealing with them.
We want to use our membership over the next two years, until the end of 2014, to make concrete progress in several key areas. These include the protection of religious freedom and religious minorities, the promotion of the freedom of the media and the protection of journalists and the promotion of the rights of children and their protection from violence and exploitation.
Especially the protection from religious intolerance and violence against religious minorities – Christians among them – is a concern very close to my heart and one that I continue to address during my trips abroad. I have also put religious freedom on the agenda for the EU and succeeded in the EU adopting an action plan for religious freedom as part of its Human Rights Package. Religious freedom has thus once and for all been anchored in EU human rights policy.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Austria has traditionally been a country that thinks and acts in a multilateral context. In this respect, we are not afraid to fight outside our weight class, so to speak, and to shape policies by occupying key positions within the UN system. After our membership in the UN Security Council, we are now part of the Human Rights Council until 2014 and of the UNESCO Executive Board until 2015. In addition, Austria will chair the Council of Europe from November 2013 until May 2014.
Austria's foreign policy today also includes co-determination and co-responsibility for European foreign policy.
The award of the Peace Nobel Prize to the European Union was primarily a recognition of its historic role of European unification for peace, freedom and prosperity in Europe. However, I also see it as a recognition of the key role that Europe has for the rest of mankind. The EU has developed into an exporter of stability and peace that works way beyond its borders.
This prize should be an incentive to look beyond our borders. By putting our heads in the sand or merely going along with the policies of others, we will not be able to ensure our own security in a globalised world.
Austria thus has a vested interest in participating actively in European crisis management and is also active in the Balkans and in the Middle East. I would like to express my thanks to the almost 1,500 Austrian soldiers, policemen and women as well as civil servants who work all over the world, often under extremely difficult conditions, to ensure that we can live in peace.
Despite the present necessity to cut budgets, we cannot afford to relent in our efforts in this context. Especially in our immediate neighbourhood, we must stay active for as long as necessary – in the Western Balkans, the Middle East, the Caucasus, and even in Africa. Austria will continue to pull its weight – for the benefit of all Austrian citizens.
Ladies and gentlemen,
our active involvement in the Western Balkans remains a core aspect of our foreign policy. Pre-accession to the EU has – as shown by the example of Croatia, but also of Montenegro – proven to be the most important tool of our stability-oriented policies. We are not just paying lip service to the EU membership of the entire region. We will continue in our role as the committed friend of and advocate for the region.
In Brussels, we have just started to discuss the progress reports of the European Commission. In the EU, we are faced with some difficult decisions. Austria will enter these talks with very clear positions and goals and press strongly for positive decisions.
This week, I will once again travel to Tirana to participate in the celebrations for the 100-year anniversary of the Albanian state. In recent years, Albania has made impressive progress; however, plenty remains to be done, in particular with regard to the fight against corruption and the reform of the justice system. It would be an important signal if this country that was segregated from Europe for such a long time were to receive the status of a candidate nation in recognition of its enormous reform efforts. We will press for candidate status to be conveyed to Albania and hope that, together with more sceptical EU partner states, we will find a solution that takes existing misgivings into account while also providing incentives for continuing reform efforts in Albania.
For the fourth time, the Commission has recommended to initiate accession negotiations with Macedonia. Every time, the decision was blocked due to the 20-year-old conflict over the name of the country. I cannot believe that Europe is not capable of finding a compromise in this question that would be acceptable to both sides! The EU integration process must not be hindered by bilateral or regional differences. For this reason, I fully second the Commission's recommendation to start negotiation proceedings under the provisional name of "FYROM" and to strive for a lasting resolution to the name issue at an early stage of the negotiations.
At the end of this week, I will also visit Serbia. Both Belgrade and Pristina must be made aware of the fact that EU rapprochement will not advance a single step without a credible normalisation of the relations between Kosovo and Serbia. I am confident that the dialogue led by Cathy Ashton is the right approach that could pave the way for Serbia's EU accession negotiations. This is another goal that we unambiguously support.
Let me also say a few open words on Bosnia and Herzegovina: During my last visit in May, I once again felt the desire and the willingness, especially on the part of the young people in the region, to be part of a joint Europe. Unfortunately, developments in recent months have been disappointing. My wish would be for the responsible politicians to commit themselves as fully to the European future of the country as they do to the fight for power and personal influence. Bosnia belongs in the EU. The road there may be stony, but it is not impassable. The people in Bosnia and Herzegovina understand this. We are now waiting for the political class to also understand it and to act accordingly.
Our initiatives in the region of the Danube and Black Sea constitute the logical continuation of our efforts in the Balkans. The EU Strategy on the Danube Area, which we initiated, is currently being implemented by 14 states, several non-EU countries among them. In Austria alone, no less than 275 projects are either in the pipeline or have already been approved or implemented. For us, the added value of the strategy is indisputable: the increased interlinking and integration of Austria within a growth region and the increased positioning of Austria as a player in South Eastern Europe.
For this reason, we were able to take a very clear stance at the Foreign Ministers Meeting in St. Pölten on 22 October: We want the Strategy on the Danube Area to be implemented as a constant policy for this region in all EU programmes to help the Danube region realise its true potential.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Austrian foreign policy has its traditional areas of emphasis and interest, several of which I addressed today. Many more, for instance our commitment to the Eastern Partnership, our increasingly strong relations with the Ukraine and Russia or our engagement in Sudan, were not mentioned today for time reasons.
Ladies and gentlemen,
international politics are confronted with new, complex challenges that we must cope with on a daily basis. We do not always have the right answer to these questions and challenges up our sleeve immediately. Like all other areas of politics, foreign policy is the art of what is possible, and what is possible often turns out to be much less than what is desirable. This can often be disappointing.
Austrian foreign and European policy invests a considerable share of its energy into pushing the boundaries of what is possible a little further every day, thus continuing to approach a world that may be more desirable than the reality we are faced with today. As Austrians, we are positive, active and committed players in the global community, and we will continue in this role.
Thank you for your attention.