16th Jan 2019


Austria's EU presidency: a bridge over troubled water?

  • Sebastian Kurz (l), the youngest leader in the EU, sees Austria's role at the Salzurg summit as a bridge-builder - particularly on migration and Brexit - despite his own government's partnership with the hard-right (Photo: European Commission)

Throughout history, bridges have helped to bring countries and people closer together. The stunning 190-high Europe Bridge in Austria is one such example of the modern era.

It spans across the Alps and connects Austria, South Tyrol, the Brenner pass, and Italy and became a symbol of a closer relationship between northern and southern Europe.

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  • Theresa May will leave the summit early, before the other EU-27 discuss Brexit (Photo: Number 10 - Flickr)

When the bridge was officially opened by then Austrian chancellor Alfons Gorbach in 1963, he said "may this bridge connect the peoples of Europe in peace and freedom".

Similarly, Sebastian Kurz invoked the symbolism of bridges in almost every speech during his time as Austria's foreign minister, and now again as chancellor.

"We want to be bridge builders and focus on topics where we can work together so that our European Union can move forward," he said when presenting Austria's EU priorities to the European Parliament in Strasbourg on 3 July.

Concretely, Austria is worried that Europe's north is moving further away from its south, east and west are working against each other, and eastern Europeans feel like second-class citizens.

All of this is made worse, in Vienna's view, by external, geopolitical challenges, including the unpredictability of the United States, wars in the Middle East, and the rise of China.

Austria thus wants to hold the course, even in troubled waters, and build bridges to maintain European unity and cohesion. "If we allow ourselves to be driven apart, from within or outside, our motto 'unity in diversity' will soon turn into 'separation in uniformity'," Kurz said to an international audience at the European Forum Alpbach on 27 August 2018.

But it was not Kurz who invented the bridge-building catchphrase.

In 2013, a previous Austrian government under social democratic Chancellor Werner Faymann adopted a "nation branding strategy" with the aim of positioning Austria as "bridge-builder for the world", thereby increasing Austria's visibility, sharpening its identity, and improving its competitiveness on the international stage.

The problem was that a clear vision on foreign and security policy was still missing at the time, as were leadership and financial resources at the Austrian foreign ministry.

Helmut Kramer, one of Austria's most acclaimed political scientists once summed up the problem in the following way: Austrian foreign policy is a tool for its domestic policy.

Supporters of the bridge-building concept nevertheless often cite Austria's traditional role as bridge builder between East and West. Indeed, Austria is not a member of NATO and is therefore perceived by some as a neutral broker.

This is a legacy of the country's immediate post World War II period, when the Soviet Union ended their 10-year occupation of Austria, on the condition that it would become a neutral country and not join any military alliance.

Viennese hub

In the decades that followed, Austria developed an active policy of neutrality under chancellor Bruno Kreisky. He hosted US president John F. Kennedy and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna in 1961, and made Vienna a hub for international organizations, such as several UN agencies and the OSCE.

When Sebastian Kurz became foreign minister in December 2013, he seemed eager to continue this tradition.

This makes sense because Vienna has actually been an important diplomatic capital since the Congress of Vienna in 1814-15 until today. It is seat of more than 100 international organisations and provides good offices to numerous international talks.

Some more recent examples include the three-way talks on the Macedonia name issue, which were held in Vienna and successfully concluded in June of this year.

The epic Iran nuclear talks were also held in Vienna and led to the landmark Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2015.

Recent attempts by Kurz to host US president Donald Trump and Russian president Vladimir Putin in Vienna did, however, not materialise.

And Putin's presence at the wedding of Austrian foreign minister Karin Kneissl led some EU partners to fear that Vienna's relations with Moscow could become too cosy.

But successfully offering good offices is one thing, and actively mediating and acting as bridge-builder another.

Brexit and migration

When Kurz will host European leaders in Salzburg on Thursday (20 September), he will want to actively work out future agreements on issues that divide EU member states: Brexit and migration.

To this end, Kurz concluded an impressive tour des capitals with visits to Cairo, Berlin, Paris and Rome in the last few days. The aim was to explore possible common ground and to build bridges between the different positions.

"Austria is a country at the heart of Europe. My most important goal as council president is that of filling in the chasms that have opened up," Kurz recently said in an interview with the German magazine der Spiegel.

Indeed, positions are still far apart.

The EU is nowhere close to reaching agreement on the distribution of migrants, as well as on finding a common position on the so-called disembarkation platforms in third countries.

Agreements are more likely on protecting external borders.

As suggested by Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker in his recent State of the Union Speech, the EU wants to increase the budget of Frontex to almost €11.3bn between 2021 and 2027.

The number of border guards should rise from 1,300 to 10,000 by 2020.

On Brexit, it seems that chances are narrowing for a deal to be reached by November. The main sticking points are the single market, where Brussels continues to insist that there cannot be any partial UK membership.

EU leaders are also not softening their stance on another key sticking point: the Irish border.

Brussels maintains that there cannot be a hard border between Norther Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. This issue will be discussed among EU leaders without the British prime minister Theresa May in Salzburg on Thursday.

Hence, the informal Salzburg summit will be an opportunity for Austria to breath some life into the bridge building catchphrase, and to act as honest broker to find common ground.

Stephanie Liechtenstein is a diplomatic correspondent and freelance journalist based in Vienna, Austria


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