Vienna, 6 July 2006 - At yesterday’s event organised by the Austrian Society for Foreign Policy and International Relations, the United Nations Association of Austria and the Austrian Association of Industrialists, Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik gave a speech in which she reviewed Austria’s EU Presidency.
In her introduction, the Foreign Minister referred to the difficult situation prevailing in Europe at the turn of 2006, after the negative results of the referenda on the European Constitution in France and the Netherlands and the laborious negotiations on the Financial Perspective. "In this situation of shocked powerlessness compounded by a disruption of public confidence, the best way to serve Europe was to try to provide the European project with more clarity, deeper trust and greater impetus," said Plassnik.
"During our Presidency, we felt from the very beginning that the subject of trust would be a recurring theme; launching finely-tuned efforts to improve the feeling of togetherness in Europe was an issue of special concern to me. This is no emotional platitude; without a stronger feeling of togetherness, without a new quality of trust among the Member States, we could not have succeeded in resuming the debate about the future," continued the Foreign Minister.
Plassnik recalled the motto "Europe is listening" of the Austrian information campaign organised in 2005. This commitment to listening to what Europeans have to say was deliberately used as a header for the conclusions drawn by the European Council in June. "Our second motto was realism. Some public evaluations of the Presidency, in particular, reveal unrealistic or exaggerated expectations. We, on the other hand, have not overestimated our possibilities, nor those of our partners, but have done our work with common sense without losing our sense of proportion," stated the Foreign Minister.
A Europe of Projects
Plassnik referred to the three "major projects underway" for which the Austrian Presidency has laid the foundations: the Financial Perspective 2007-2013, enlargement and the Future of the European Union debate. "Our citizens want to see a Europe that achieves specific results; they do not want hair-splitting over constitutional law. At the European Council we therefore presented a programme for the future, the Europe of Projects, which complements the Future of the European Union debate which of course must go on," said Plassnik, and cited examples of concrete projects implemented in recent months: the opening of the Council meetings to the public, when the Council works as a legislator together with the European Parliament, measures for better coordination within the EU in the event of crises and natural disasters, and improved consular assistance for EU citizens. "The citizens must feel assured that Europe is on their side, even in the most difficult situations. It was of special importance to me to achieve improvements in this respect," affirmed the Foreign Minister.
Commenting on the enlargement of the EU, the Foreign Minister made it clear that the question of whether absorption capacity had been explicitly set forth as an enlargement criterion in the conclusions of the most recent European Council or not was a moot question. "Absorption capacity is part of the so-called Copenhagen Criteria and is one of the explicit criteria and preconditions for EU membership in the negotiation mandate for Turkey. I have fought for this. Absorption capacity is on the negotiating table and will remain there. It is a prerequisite for re-establishing the trust of the EU citizens in the enlargement process," underlined Plassnik. In this context, the Foreign Minister emphasised that depending on the accession candidate, the question concerning absorption capacity would be put differently in each case.
With regard to foreign policy, Plassnik stressed the increasing demand for a united Europe that would speak with one voice at the international level: "A successful presidency is teamwork. The past months have shown that it is worthwhile to build up strong networks of friends and partners and to convincingly fulfil the task of being an honest agent during the EU Presidency". This, the Foreign Minister pointed out, had become obvious during the caricatures crisis and the difficult efforts to find a compromise on the assumption of accession negotiations with Turkey and Croatia. The numerous meetings with third countries during the Austrian EU Presidency, such as the 16 meetings of the EU Troika foreign ministers, the 11 meetings of foreign ministers within the framework of association and cooperation councils with neighbouring states and regions, and the two conferences on accession clearly illustrated the breadth of the EU’s external relations.
The EU’s relations with the Western Balkans had been a special focus of Austria’s Presidency, Plassnik said. "I am delighted that I have succeeded in bringing each single state in the Western Balkans closer to Europe by means of at least one concrete measure. The objective is clear: the European perspective must remain tangible and credible for the people in the Balkans," continued the Foreign Minister. Among other things, Plassnik referred to the signing of the Stabilisation and Association Agreement with Albania, the start of negotiations on a comparable agreement with Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the monitoring by the EU of "the peaceful birth" of the new state of Montenegro. Under the Austrian Presidency, special attention was paid to relations to Serbia. "I welcome the Serbian initiative of an action plan which outlines concrete steps for establishing full cooperation with the War Crimes Tribunal. We will continue to support Serbia on its way to Europe," affirmed Plassnik.
The Foreign Minister spoke of the new themes that had appeared on the scene during Austria’s Presidency. In addition to the questions of energy and migration, they included the issue of relations to the Islamic world. "The caricatures crisis unveiled the deep-seated unease that exists on both sides, making many an insecurity visible. We must and will deal with this with the necessary openness and urgency - on the basis of the solid and unalterable European values. But one thing is certain: silence does not contribute to a solution," said Plassnik. Here, in particular, Austria had been able to use its good relations to the Islamic world. It had been a positive and bold move by the Austrian Presidency to make this issue a theme in the informal exchange of ideas of the heads of state and government at the June summit.
"As the country holding the Presidency one must not be afraid of using a new language in the European debate. The "European life model" is our attempt to make a positive contribution to the European debate, to the ideas and expectations which we associate with our common European house. Ultimately it is not geography, but these ideas and values which make up Europe. They constitute the binding material which keeps us 25 together," said Plassnik, and added: "We have to retrieve this precious core of our togetherness from the 'treasure vault of the academic debate on values' and disseminate it in the streets and byways of everyday life, where these values are needed and lived. Naturally, we have to ask ourselves the question of what constitutes this binding material time and again. It cannot be easily clarified and there are no simple standardised answers. For the EU is a living project and not a petrified bureaucratic spectre."
In this connection the Foreign Minister was delighted that recent polls had shown that the atmosphere in Austria concerning the EU had considerably improved. "The majority of European citizens again clearly support the EU. The successful EU Presidency and the resulting intensified information about Europe seem to have helped to reverse the trend. There is certainly no reason for euphoria or self-complacency. But this shows, at the same time, that we can overcome difficulties on the European path with patience, openness and teamwork," declared Plassnik.
In conclusion, the Foreign Minister referred to yesterday’s adoption of the topography regulation by the Ministerial Council. "As Foreign Minister and Carinthian I should like to congratulate my compatriots. They have pursued the energy-consuming approach of seeking consensus with great perseverance. This solution is an expression of the will to live together in harmony and a clear sign that diversity has its place in Europe and is considered a right that is granted and defended," concluded Plassnik.
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