Vienna, 21 January 2010 Press release

Spindelegger: Austria and Europe: love at second sight?

The Foreign Minister’s keynote address on Austria’s policy towards the EU focused on the issue of town signs, the Western Balkans and the Danube and Black Sea regions

Vienna, 21 January 2010 - “Austria is in demand, in Europe and far beyond. We need not hide from anybody. Our contribution is appreciated,” stated Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger in his speech on the priorities of Austria’s EU policy, delivered at Vienna’s University of Economics and Business before more than 250 invited guests. In his address, he dealt with Austria’s foreign policy priorities in the coming year, such as the EU’s future challenges as a consequence of Lisbon Treaty ratification, the goal of integrating the Western Balkans into the EU by the end of the decade, the Danube River and Black Sea Initiative, the objective of reaching an agreement over the issue of dual-language signs in Carinthia before year’s end, and efforts being made for the long-term resolution of the problem of university access in Austria.

In his speech, the Foreign Minister emphasised the importance of the Treaty of Lisbon and the role of foreign ministers. “The Treaty is now in force, and we in Europe are facing a paradigm shift: we have new rules, new institutions, and new heads at the top of these institutions. But Europe’s realignment is not yet complete,” Spindelegger continued, adding that there were still some inconsistencies and frictional losses. In this context he raised a number of key questions: “The European Council now has a President - Herman Van Rompuy - who has been appointed for two and a half years. Is it therefore tolerable that its members, the heads of state, are now trying to meet only in the smallest of circles without any reference to their preparatory body, and without the foreign ministers? What will cooperation between institutions be like? Does the new foreign service have too much authority?” Many questions remained unresolved, maintained the Foreign Minister, and Austria was determined to make an important contribution to their resolution. “To a major extent involvement will be formulated in the Foreign Ministry,” maintained Spindelegger, adding that “Austria will continue to have a clear foreign policy and a clear policy towards the EU.”

Minister Spindelegger also emphasised the importance of the issue of university access. He referred to the significance of subsidiarity within Europe, as well as the necessity of a solid European solution that ensures that Austria shall itself continue to be able to determine access to its universities: “The discussion of the issue of university access more than clearly demonstrates that subsidiarity is not an academic issue. The principle of freedom of choice as to where students choose to study should not be called into question: however, the flood of students, from Germany in particular, in some disciplines is creating massive problems for our universities.” The Foreign Minister also addressed the question as to whether it was necessary for the European Union to coerce a member state with regard to restrictions on access, such as through the notion of numerus clausus. “The concept of the free movement of students must not be abused, nor must the principles of a national system of education be called into question,” affirmed Spindelegger. From a political perspective, it has been imperative to ensure a sense of proportion, while for EU institutions, in particular, it is necessary to show a readiness to accept differentiated solutions. “It is in the interests of the new Commission to develop a solution to this problem which respects the domain of individual member states. If such a solution cannot be found, we will have to think about drawing a clear line and safeguarding Austria’s freedom of choice through the integration of such clauses in EU treaties,” asserted the Foreign Minister.

The Minister emphasised the importance of the local level within the process of European integration, affirming that provinces and local communities were the bodies to which citizens first turn with their irritations and troubles, claiming that “Europe must not be the concern of the Minister for Europe alone. We shall not be successful in making the EU better understood in Austria if provinces and local communities systematically refrain from assuming their responsibilities.” It was for this reason that the Foreign Minister had suggested the institution of EU envoys within Austria’s local community councils. They would be available for questions at the local level, provide initial information as well as ensure that more complex concerns were appropriately forwarded and addressed by those responsible. “I am therefore delighted that this proposal has been welcomed in many towns and local communities,” Spindelegger continued.

“The Treaty of Lisbon also includes a clear commitment to a social market economy,” stated the Foreign Minister, citing specific European values - such as solidarity, sustainability, and protection of the environment – as examples. “As a small continent with scarce resources, Europe will only be able to hold its ground if it makes optimal use of its strengths – its human capital, good education and the creativity of its people.” Long-term growth may only be achieved through innovation, research, education, training and knowledge. “Those are the true themes of the future,” stated Spindelegger. In this context the Foreign Minister referred to the economic crisis and the political challenges deriving from it, maintaining that “we are currently in the midst of the worst recession since the Second World War.” There was indeed prosperity in Europe, but it did not disseminate. “The middle class is becoming smaller and we have to counteract this development,” continued Spindelegger. The crisis should be perceived as an opportunity, and the system had to be transformed into a more humane market economy. This was a chance to work pro-actively on a more compassionate system. In this context Spindelegger referred to discussions in Austria and possible ways forward, such as so-called life-long working time accounts as well as employee participation. “Any such scheme would be an innovative measure. The time accumulated through the working of extra hours could be used for child care, further education or longer holidays, while successful enterprises should provide bonuses to all their employees and not merely to managers. Profit sharing amongst employees is an indispensable consequence of justice in a performance-oriented society,” emphasised Spindelegger.

The opportunity to climb the performance ladder and to develop one’s abilities has long been a European trademark, stated the Foreign Minister. “This should remain unchanged. The possibility of working one’s way up through good education, commitment and creativity and thus becoming integrated into our performance-oriented society is, for me, a key component of Europe as a life model,” affirmed the Foreign Minister.

Relations with neighbouring states occupy a key position for the Foreign Minister. Although enormous opportunities have opened up, particularly in the wake of the fall of the Iron Curtain, Austria still has to do some homework. “As an export-oriented economy in the heart of Europe Austria depends on a stable and prosperous neighbourhood, with open borders, exchange and friendly relations with all our partners,” stated Spindelegger. The town sign issue was one such item of “homework that still had to be dealt with.” Austria could only be an important and credible actor in Europe, if it complied with its own international obligations: “These include respect for the protection of minorities without prejudice or reservation. Austria’s obligations under international law as regards upholding the rights of its Slovenian and Croatian minorities – which are laid down in Article 7 of the Austrian State Treaty - have been fully adhered to but for one issue, namely: the question of bilingual town signs in Carinthia.” The Constitutional Court has been dealing with complaints by individuals and applications from the ombudsman’s office for years, and the decisions handed down no longer come as a surprise. “The time has come for a resolution of the town sign issue through a constitutional law,” stressed the Foreign Minister. “In 2006, based on a proposal by the then Federal Chancellor, the solution was close.” The Minister felt that the proposal would be a good starting point for a new initiative: “It would be good for the Republic of Austria’s reputation if, on its National Holiday in 2010 - 55 years after ratification of the State Treaty - it could report to its European neighbours and the world that it had at last accomplished this assignment.” A prerequisite for this was a pertinent proposal iterated by the Federal Chancellor, who was competent in this matter, before the start of summer. “It won’t be enough to devolve responsibility for this upon Carinthia alone. But in Carinthia too, those responsible are called upon to take courage, and dare to take this step into the 21st century,” emphasised the Foreign Minister.

Subsequently, Minister Spindelegger dealt with the Balkans, emphasising Austria’s leading role as an “advocate of the region” and its interests in ensuring rapprochement between the countries of the Western Balkans with the EU. “The signs are good that 2010 will be the Western Balkan Year for the EU. With the Treaty of Lisbon’s entry into force and the resumption of negotiations with Croatia, the EU has its hands free and the region’s rapprochement can now return to the top of the EU agenda,” declared the Foreign Minister. At any rate, Austria will continue to provide consistent support to its Balkan partners on their path to Europe. In this context Spindelegger provided clear foresight of his ultimate goal: “My vision for Europe is that we shall have admitted all the Western Balkan states into the EU by 2020.”

Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger then gave a short outline of Austria’s future prospects with regard to two regions of importance to Europe: the Danube basin and the Black Sea region. The Minister stated that in June 2009 the European Council had given the Commission a mandate to delineate an EU strategy for the Danube region by the end of 2010. “Thus, the foundation was laid for a more efficient and better coordinated policy towards the Danube region. The process that has been launched will lead to a Commission proposal before the end of 2010,” stated Spindelegger. Calling upon the EU to deal with the Black Sea states, it was important to him that Austria also enhanced its own economic prospects in these countries. "Moreover, the region was playing an ever more important role in European energy supply. Gas crises in recent years have dramatically underlined the question of supply security,” warned the Foreign Minister, adding that commitment had to go beyond merely economic considerations, particularly as regards the sensitive Black Sea region, which was “of importance for the long-term stability of our entire continent.” It was therefore only logical that Austria further intensified its presence in the region. “I shall open a new Austrian embassy in Baku before year’s end,” declared Spindelegger.

“Let’s tackle Austria’s policy towards the EU and its foreign policy for the 21st century with self-confidence and courage. Our country has benefited from European integration economically, politically, culturally, and at the interpersonal level, unlike any other. However, a certain scepticism still remains. But perhaps Austria’s relations with the EU is love at second sight,” concluded the Foreign Minister.

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