AUSTRIA: Presiding over the EU in challenging times
Austria is in the middle of its six-month presidency of the European Union. In a wide-ranging interview, Vienna’s ambassador to Washington, Eva Nowotny, talked to DiplomaticTraffic.com about the challenges and opportunities offered by the presidency, about the upcoming EU-US summit and about some of the issues tossed in Austria’s lap, such as the Russia-Ukraine gas crisis, Iran’s growing nuclear threat and Muslim rage over Danish caricatures of their prophet.
She also explained how the war in Bosnia alerted Europe to its lack of military capabilities and spurred it to develop a credible military force to back up its international initiatives, increasing the clout of an organization that represents 450 million people. Below are highlights from the interview.
The EU presidency is not glamorous
It sounds very glamorous for a country to have the presidency of the European Union, but in reality it is a service job that you have for six months for the European Union and the other member states. Which means you put all your negotiating capacity, your administration, at the disposal of the others.
We have had the dilemma that for some partners it is very difficult to understand this principle of rotation, which came out originally as a principle of equality for the member states, that every six months a different member would have its turn. It is not easy for a partner that every six months the faces change around the table, the partner with whom you are negotiating changes. In order to give a bit more cohesion, a couple of years ago we started to work on the basis of rollover work programs, which are established for the great objectives and tasks of the European Union, for a three-year period. For those three years, or six presidencies, you always have two [countries] that have a special responsibility for working out individual programs. In our case, that was Austria and Finland, because we share 2006 with Finland.
The things you have to do
There are certain tasks that for these six months are assigned to you. If you are lucky, some of these tasks coincide with what you yourself want to do. If not, you just have to do them nevertheless. For example, one of the things we knew from the beginning that we would have to do is that we have a big Latin America summit in the middle of May in Vienna, which is a major undertaking because all of the Latin American, Caribbean and Central American countries are included, and will come at the level of heads of state and government to talk about relations with the European Union. This is the fourth such conference and we knew it would fall in our presidency since it is held every two years.
And the things you want to do
On the other side, we had tasks assigned to us which coincide very strongly with Austrian foreign policy objectives. For instance, the whole situation in southeast Europe and the Balkans: negotiations with Serbia and Montenegro; the Kosovo talks; the stabilization agreement with Bosnia; constitutional reform in Bosnia. These are issues that are extremely important to us, not only as a member of the EU, but also in our own national interest because it is our neighborhood and front yard. Political and economic stability and peace in this still troubled region is for us a very, very important thing. I mention this to exemplify how the presidency works.
The EU’s social and economic development
One of the things that we have, apart from southeast Europe, very high on our agenda, is the question of the economic and social development of the whole European Union. We held on March 23 the so-called Spring Council of the EU heads of state and government, which was almost exclusively devoted to the issue of economic growth and stability in the European Union. This is continuation of the so-called Lisbon Agenda, where we set out a work program for the EU to assure competitiveness and growth. That is a very important thing.
Programs for the neighbors
The third issue that I would like to mention is the outreach of the EU. We have this program called the Wider Europe Initiative where we want to develop and intensify our relations with those countries that are now on the border of the EU, such as Ukraine and Moldova, but also the countries of the Mediterranean. We already have programs with the countries of the northern rim of Africa, because they are also neighbors to the EU. There’s a lot of work to be done. So that is part of the given agenda.
Dealing with the unexpected…
And then you operate on yet a different level, because you are operating in an international environment. Things happen for which you have not planned, or which are not in your script. And although we were quite well prepared for the six months, we were not prepared to start out immediately, at the zero hour, with the Russian-Ukrainian gas crisis. We did not know that we would fall into the international controversy of the caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed, with all the things that it entailed: violence, demonstrations, etc. So these are things that happened. Bird flu was always a problem, but the way it is gaining momentum now it has become a big issue in our presidency. So these are things that are coming to you because of international developments, and you just have to cope.
…including the challenging and interesting
They do make it more interesting. The big challenge here is that all of a sudden you are plunged into issues and negotiations that in normal situations you wouldn’t be involved in. We have always had a big interest in the Middle East, but as an individual country we are usually not part of the Middle East Quartet. However, in the exercise of the EU presidency, we are now occasionally included in the Quartet negotiations. That makes it very challenging and interesting. It is easier if an issue comes up that is new, and doesn’t have such a long negotiating history behind it. But when you talk about the Middle East we have always been involved. There was always a lot of transparency about the way negotiations are going, decisions that are being taken, plans developed… so it’s not that difficult.
Rising concern over Iran
We have tried for a very long time to keep a negotiating process open with Iran, with the support of the United States, negotiating in very good faith an agreement that is satisfactory to both sides: an agreement that respects Iranian energy demands and their right to develop their own energy agenda, but at the same time responsive to security requirements. There is a very broad consensus in Europe, a consensus that we share with the United States, that nuclear arms for Iran have to be avoided, that this is a security risk that we do not want to enter. The discussions at the Security Council are about what the next best step should be: what are the implications, what are the effects and consequences of whatever we do. There are considerations that you have to analyze very, very carefully: What is to be gained by isolating Iran? Are you doing harm to the people you want to support? Are you strengthening the position of the government by isolating it? What are the consequences of economic sanctions? What are the energy consequences for Europe and other countries, because Iran is an oil-exporting country? So the consensus is there: we want to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons. The question is what are the next best steps. Also, where do you draw the line? At what point is the Iranian nuclear program clearly for military purposes?
Dialogue with Islam
As an individual country, and also as a member of the EU, we have had for many, many years been involved in dialog with Islam. Apart from the historical context, that we have always had close relations to this region, it started as a structured dialog in the 1970s on a very high theological basis. It involved Cardinal Koenig, the former cardinal of Vienna, who was commissioned by Rome to promote and foster this dialog, and was constantly talking to the Sheikh Al Azhar and other Islamic leaders at a very high theological level. We broadened the whole concept and have started a series of dialog conferences also about the issue of how you live as a Muslim in a Western society, what are the responsibilities, what are the privileges you have, and so on. We have also included Iran in the dialog, and we do not want to see it destroyed.
We have also been involved very quietly and discreetly in a program of immigration from Iran for threatened ethnic and religious minorities. We are afraid this would come to a stop if we get into a very controversial atmosphere here.
Europe’s new military posture
One of the major things that separates Europe from the United States is the way we approach the issue of power. You cannot uncouple this issue from Europe’s history. In the last century we have had the rapid decline of five major European empires: the Ottoman, the Austro-Hungarian, the French, the British and the Soviet. It went very, very quickly. Nevertheless we had an unexpected, bloody conflict on European soil at the end of the 20th Century. The whole relationship of Europeans to power has changed. I think that is very significant.
On the other side, we are increasingly coming to the point where we are saying we are economically powerful, we are 450 million people, we have relations to the whole world, we have global responsibilities, we must also have the military means to support and defend our own security and bolster initiatives we take internationally. That’s a relatively new development in the thinking about European security and defense issues.
A couple of years ago we were not involved in any international military missions, as the European Union. Today we are in eleven, and preparing to take on a big mission in the Congo. So there is a change here, and a re-thinking. Of course we do not aspire to match American military power. This is not what we want to do. What we want to do is have a credible military stance that allows us to do peacekeeping and stabilization operations and to give more credibility by military means to international initiatives which we are taking.
Bosnia triggered this new thinking
What happened in Bosnia, and the recognition of European helplessness when confronted with a major war on its own soil, where we had no possibility to intervene and had to wait for the American decision to be ready to get involved, this really started the rethinking process. In that respect it was a very significant moment in the way we saw ourselves and defined our role.
Responding to Muslim anger over Danish caricatures
In almost all European countries there is a discussion about this issue. I am not sure if there are conclusions yet. The discussions are about to what extent there are limits on freedom of expression, and on the other hand are there limits in terms of respect for your own individual culture that you may expect in a given society. Where do you find the appropriate balance, and how do you align that.
It started earlier because you had discussions in Europe about the headscarf, certain rituals, etc. The whole integration issue was already on the table. In Europe tolerance for ridicule is much higher than in America. If people are offended they shrug it off. Also, the reaction was incited. This is shown by the lengthy period over which it was developed.
We have a large number of Muslim immigrants to Austria. Islam is the second largest religious group in Vienna. Over four percent of Austrians are Muslims. We have permitted girls to wear the headscarf to school, because the position of the government is that it is more important that they are allowed to go to school than that an issue is made out of this. We have arranged for public sports centers to be available only to women during certain hours, to accommodate Muslim women. These are small things but important in developing understanding.
We underestimate the sensitivity and importance of certain religious issues. I have spoken to people with a Muslim background who were raised in a Western environment but still have enough of a religious feeling to be offended by the caricatures. The impact of making fun of a central figure of a religious belief was underestimated, especially in Islam.
Agenda for the US-EU Summit
The summit will be in mid-June and is awaiting confirmation from the White House for exact dates. The summit itself is the top of the iceberg. Underneath there is a lot of work going on. We are working on the transatlantic agenda, and will produce for this summit a document that will look at where we are and where do we go from here. But a 60-page document on the transatlantic situation is not going to enthuse anyone. What we want to have for the summit is a short, snappy, poignant declaration that is really appropriate for a meeting of heads of state. It will focus on three issues:
1. The spread of freedom and democracy.
2. Global responsibilities: the fight against terrorism, economic development and so forth.
3. Transatlantic cooperation in the field of energy. A strategic dialog between Europe and the United States. We want to address the energy question in a very comprehensive way, to include research, new developments, new and alternative sources, stockpiling, transport, etc.
Seminar in Washington
We are doing a very serious symposium on May 15 on the Hill about integration, immigration and identity, which should fit very nicely into our preoccupation with these issues in our presidency.
CV of Mrs. Eva Nowotny, Ph.D, Ambassador of Austria to the United States of America
Born: February 17, 1944 in Vienna, Austria
Married: Prof. Thomas Nowotny
1962 Degree: "Matura"
Primary and Secondary Education in Vienna
University of Vienna
Faculty of Philosophy
Ph.D in History and German (April 1968)
Dissertation: "Metternich and England"
University of Vienna
Entrance Exam, Austrian Foreign Service
Federal Ministry for Foreign Affairs
Dept. of Press and Information, Division of Legal Affairs
Austrian Embassy in Cairo, Egypt
First Secretary, Cultural Institute
Permanent Mission of Austria to the United Nations in N.Y.
Vice-President of the Special Political Committee of the 36th General Assembly
Austrian Federal Chancellery
Foreign Policy Adviser to the Federal Chancellor
Austrian Ambassador to France
Austrian Ambassador to the Court of St. James, United Kingdom
Ministry for Foreign Affairs
Director General of European Integration and Economic Affairs
Sept. 22, 2003
Appointed Ambassador of Austria to the United States of America
Member of Board of Directors, Institute for East-West Studies, New York
Fellow at the Aspen Institute of Humanistic Studies
Member of Board of Directors, Salzburg Seminar in American Studies
Member of Board of Directors, Vienna Institute for International Economic Research