The European Union should immediately terminate accession negotiations with Turkey, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz tells Kathimerini in an interview while expressing Vienna’s support for the name deal between Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM).
Kurz says that migration and external border protection are high on the agenda of the Austrian presidency of the Council of the EU, adding that Vienna will not accept decisions that will increase Austria’s burden.
According to the Austrian chancellor, the EU should withdraw from areas that are better handled on a national or regional level. Kurz is finally in favor of normalizing ties with Moscow, stressing that there can be no sustainable peace in Europe without Russia.
A few weeks ago Athens and Skopje signed a bilateral agreement aimed at ending their name dispute. Austria is a champion of EU enlargement in the Western Balkans. Do you believe the agreement helps in this direction?
We very much welcome the agreement between both parties. It shows that persistent negotiations and diplomacy pay off. For Austria, the Western Balkans region is a key priority of our foreign and European policy as well as of our EU Presidency. We support the line of Commissioner for Enlargement Johannes Hahn. It is in our political, security and economic interest that the countries of the Western Balkans are given an honest perspective and a credible path to EU membership.
Your negative stance vis-a-vis Turkey is well known. Nonetheless, can you describe what the ideal future relationship between the EU and Turkey would be?
I have been very vocal about promoting an honest relationship with Turkey for years. EU membership negotiations with Turkey should be stopped immediately, Turkey has consistently moved away from Europe and its values over the last few years. At the same time we should concentrate on exploring other forms of collaboration between the EU and Turkey as neighbors.
What is the current status of Austrian-Greek government relations? Austria and Greece stand on the edges of the Western Balkans. Do you think the two countries can find ways to cooperate in the region and build common interests?
Greece is a friend and an esteemed fellow member of the EU. Important progress has been achieved on a number of structural reforms and the upward trend of Greece’s economy is an indicator of the positive developments that have taken place so far. In addition to that, especially when it comes to the fight against illegal migration and protection of our external borders, Greece is, and will remain, a partner within the EU and for Austria.
Austria has taken a firm posture on refugee issue. Refugee and migrant flows continue, while the EU still stands divided as recent meetings between member-states have indicated. What would you qualify as a lasting and viable solution in tackling the refugee/migration issue?
The last summits on migration were characterized by an increasing consensus on the need for enhanced external border protection. We welcome that a growing number of member-states seem to agree on strengthening external border protection and Frontex in terms of mandate, personnel and finances, as well as nurturing a strong cooperation with third countries – for example by planning to set up disembarkation platforms.
Would Austria go as far as closing its borders with neighboring countries such as Italy (Brenner Pass), if the flows continue to be over the limits you can accept?
In the specific case of the German border, we have made it very clear that we will not accept measures to the detriment of Austria. The main focus should in any case remain on a European approach to strengthening external border protection, expanding Frontex and enhancing cooperation with third countries.
Do you think that migration could be a solution for the revitalization of the aging European population?
Demography is merely one of the many challenges that our union is confronted with. In a globalized world, characterized by the rapid development of technology, digitalization and automatization, it is vital that we work on long-term solutions to assure security, stability and prosperity in the EU. Hereby, it is clear that durable solutions can only be found in close cooperation with our fellow EU members and implemented by a strong European Union. Securing prosperity and strengthening our global competitiveness, particularly in relation to a single European digital market, is another focal area of our EU Presidency.
European conservatives seem to be experiencing an identity crisis, as has been portrayed in a series of elections around the continent. In some cases this is described as a retreat behind strictly national lines and national narratives. Does this tendency limit European dynamics in an ever-changing and competitive world?
I am convinced that our common vision of a European Union which stands for peace, freedom, security and prosperity remains the right course and in our own interest. Our government is firmly pro-European and I am a strong believer that there is more in this Union that unites us than that which could ever separate us. The EU is self-evident for us today, especially for my generation, but taking the Union for granted is a great mistake. We have made it a key priority during our EU Presidency to secure long-term security, stability and prosperity in the EU and we remain committed to the EU’s claim: united in diversity.
The multifaceted crises Europe is facing have definitely enhanced dividing lines between North and South, East and West. Is Europe in need of a new raw model, in your opinion?
We believe in the principle of subsidiarity. The EU needs to be strong and engaged in important areas like foreign, security and defense policy, which includes securing our external borders together and strengthening our competitiveness as an economic region in a globalized world. At the same time, the EU needs to withdraw much more from those areas which can be better handled on a national or regional level. This way we can ensure a strong and effective European Union.
What are the Austrian priorities for its Presidency of the EU?
Under the motto “A Europe that protects,” Austria will continue to focus on a closer collaboration in areas such as security and the fight against illegal migration, strengthening economic competitiveness by digitalization and stability in our neighborhood. At the same time we want to further promote the principle of subsidiarity, which means that the EU should focus on the big issues and let smaller issues be handled by member-states and regions.
Do you agree with further, progressive deepening of the EU? If so, in which sectors, besides the existing common currency zone, could be a part of a more substantial and unified common action?
As mentioned earlier, I believe that we need make more use of the subsidiarity principle. At the same time, we have to bring the EU closer to the people again. It is very crucial to meet each other with respect and on eye level. There must be no first- and second-class membership nor an exchange of arguments where some feel morally superior to others. In our Presidency we welcome any proposal which brings us closer together and which strengthens our Union, way beyond the currency zone.
What is your opinion on EU-Russia relations?
Regarding our stand on EU sanctions which were put in place in reaction to violations of international law, we are clearly in line with our European partners. We nevertheless hope that there will be progress on fulfilling the Minsk agreements, which would be the very basis to start discussions on a step-by-step reduction of the sanctions. At the same time we should continue our dialogue with Russia. I have repeatedly stated that there cannot be sustainable peace in Europe without Russia.