Alexander Schallenberg has been Federal Minister for European and International Affairs in the second Sebastian Kurz government since January 2020. He previously served as a diplomat at the Austrian EU Representation in Brussels and later was the press spokesman for Foreign Ministers Ursula Plassnik and Michael Spindelegger. He spoke with New Europe about his priorities in the EU, as well as relations with Russia, China, Turkey and the Middle East; the defense of fundamental values.
NE: Negotiations are underway in Vienna to save the Iran nuclear agreement. How do you assess the chances?
AS: For us, it is a sign of confidence that Vienna has again been chosen as the venue for dialogue. Basically, it is very good that one has returned from the megaphone to the negotiating table, so to speak. The last four years have proven that it is better to have an imperfect agreement than none at all. According to experts, the break-out time, i.e. the time Iran would need to produce a functional nuclear weapon, has potentially been further reduced to a few months. What must be prevented, in any case, is a nuclear arms race in a region that is already very volatile. That would have dramatic consequences for us in Europe as well. Europe can play a central role in the negotiations in Vienna. At the moment, I see honest efforts on all sides to come to a common denominator. As usual, Austria will make its contribution to making the talks a success.
NE: Let’s stay in the Middle East. There has been some astonishment in Muslim countries that Austria has regularly backed Israel on several occasions, for example in the UN declaration on human rights. Can Austria still play the role of a neutral mediator?
AS: Yes, absolutely. For us, good and trustworthy relations with both the Arab world and Israel are very important. This is not an either/or. Our goal is unchanged – we want the two peoples to coexist in peace and security. This is the basic line from Austria and also of the European Union.
NE: What do you think about the latest escalation of violence in Israel?
AS: The situation in the Middle East is a cause for great concern. There is no justification for the more than a thousand rockets fired at Israel from Gaza by Hamas and other terrorist groups. I am also deeply shocked by reports of attacks on Jewish and Arab citizens in Israel. Such outbreaks of violence must be stopped immediately. There is no justification for those attacks. We have raised the Israeli flag at the foreign ministry as a sign of our solidarity with Israel. We unwaveringly stand behind Israel’s security.
NE: Perhaps Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s frequent trips to Israel have also triggered this criticism on the Arab side?
AS: It is not a zero-sum game. Austria is aware of its special historical responsibility towards Israel, and we have made correspondingly a clear policy change in our relations with Israel. In the meantime, a number of Arab states, such as the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco, have normalised their relations with Israel. So we see that a lot is in motion in the region.
NE: One of the few successes of US President Donald Trump’s term in office.
AS: Absolutely. There has been a paradigm shift. Austria has consciously realigned its policy here. This is also stated in the government programme. And it is not the case that our relations with the Arab or Muslim world have suffered as a result. I have good and confidential contacts with the foreign ministers of the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Oman and also with Saudi Arabia.
NE: Is the leadership in Saudi Arabia upset about the KAICIID Centre for Religious Dialogue has to move away from Vienna?
AS: No, I am also very grateful to my Saudi Arabian counterpart that we have pulled together here. The dialogue between the religions and churches also remains a major concern for us.
NE: Are you worried that after the withdrawal of KAICIID, other international organizations might also leave Vienna, such as OPEC or its international development fund OFID?
AS: No. We are in constant contact with the international organizations, including OPEC and OFID. Austria continues to enjoy an excellent reputation as an official seat of international organizations.
NE: On Austria’s position in the EU, Federal Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has caused irritation among some of his government colleagues when it comes to procuring COVID vaccine – Have we become an uncertain cantonist in the EU?
AS: The straight answer is ‘no’. There has been no change here at all. As far as our size, geographical location and economic orientation are concerned, there is no alternative to European integration and a strong, successful European Union. Not every discourse at the European level equals a crisis. Austria enters into different coalitions with different countries – depending on the topic – in order to represent our interests in the best possible way at the European level. In the budget negotiations, we have always been on the side of the net contributors, ever since Agenda 2000, which I was still allowed to help negotiate. Now they call it the “Frugal Four” – Austria, Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden. In my eyes, they could also be called “friends of the taxpayers”. Different positions in the EU are therefore quite normal.
NE: Why then did Austria not support the EU candidate from Sweden, Cecilia Malmstrom, but the Australian Mathias Cormann in the election of the new chairman of OECD?
AS: There was not “one” EU candidate. Of the 10 candidates, six came from EU countries. We also supported the Czech or Swiss candidate for a long time. Australia’s Mathias Cormann, who eventually became Secretary-General of the OECD, was a frontrunner from the beginning. If there really had been a common EU candidate, the discussion might have been different.
NE: Regarding our relationship with the Visegrad countries (Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary): Some of them have more and more problems with basic European values, including the rule of law and freedom of the media. What can Austria do about this?
AS: It has always been our intention to have good and sustainable relations with all partners in the EU. Austria has no desire to join the Visegrad states. I myself founded the C5 – Central Five – initiative last year with my counterparts from the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Slovenia. Especially during the pandemic, it became clear how important this neighborhood is for nursing staff, infrastructure, harvest workers, or when tens of thousands of people commute to Austria every day to work. Austrian companies are also dependent on neighboring countries. These good relations allow us to clearly address difficult issues and topics where we clearly hold different positions. For us, however, the priority is to speak with and not about other EU members. Above all, we must not give the impression that the new members are worthless and that there are first and second class members of the European Union.
NE: And the violations of European fundamental values?
AS: There must be no concessions on the fundamental values of the EU. We have to keep bringing up fundamental rights and freedoms. Every generation has to fight for them anew. The EU must be a platform and a lever. As far as the rule of law is concerned, there is now a conditionality with the multi-annual financial framework. We have the EU Commission’s monitoring of the rule of law. For us Austrians, it must be clear: We also want to have our Eastern European partners in the EU. For me, the overcoming of the division of Europe will only be complete when all the former Yugoslav nations are also part of it.
NE: How do you see the relationship with Russia? Austria has long positioned itself as a bridge-builder between the East and West, especially in the Ukraine conflict.
AS: Russia is part of Europe and part of European history. But if there is to be a bridge, then it must be firmly anchored on both sides of the river. That is what is currently in question on Russia’s part. In Austria, we have always pursued a two-track policy. We want robust channels of dialogue with Moscow, but we must also not shy away from taking a firm stance where necessary. e.g. the illegal annexation of Crimea or the Russian actions in the Donbass. Austria cannot recognize a military shifting of borders after 1945.
NE: And the case of Alexey Navalny?
AS: Assassination attempts, arrests, convictions, these also casts a deep shadow on our relations. We strongly condemn it and sanctions were imposed for it. But Russia remains our biggest neighbor with whom we must also cooperate on climate protection, for example. If red lines are crossed, we draw the consequences. And we are clearly not on the same side of the shore when it comes to values. In the long term, however, the EU needs robust cooperation with Russia. But if you take the visit of the European foreign policy chief Josep Borrell to Moscow or the recent reports about Russian intelligence activities in Europe, the interest on the Russian side seems to be very limited at the moment.
NE: Should Russia’s Nord Stream II gas pipeline be completed?
AS: We must not compare apples and oranges here, this is an economic project. It represents a diversification of the channels. What I perceive as positive is the fact that the new US administration is now focusing more on dialogue than on sanctions. Of course, Austria, like the rest of the EU, has an interest in ensuring that Ukraine is not bypassed by this new gas pipeline.
NE: You noted at a seminar that only a minority of states worldwide now share the Western model and you called China a European rival.
AS: China has several roles. It is a partner we need to solve global problems such as the climate crisis. When it comes to the economy, however, China is also a competitor. We, as Europe, must ensure fair competition for our companies. In matters of values, China is our systemic rival. For me, a key objective in my work as the foreign minister can be summed up in one sentence: I want to help ensure that my children and grandchildren also grow up in a free open society – with freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion and all the fundamental rights we have achieved since 1848 or perhaps since the French Revolution. Among the 193 UN member states, only about a quarter still represent this Western, open and democratic model of life. It is precisely this model of life that we must defend together.
NE: How do you assess Austria’s and the EU’s relations with Turkey?
AS: Regrettable. There are many areas where we could deepen our cooperation – in culture, the economy or science. And then there are the foreign and security policy issues, where Turkey is moving further away from the EU – in Syria, Libya, northern Iraq, for example. There is this cold-warm policy. If there are positive tones of détente in the Mediterranean and talks with Greece, they start proceedings against the largest opposition party and withdraw from the Council of Europe’s Istanbul Convention on the Prevention of Violence against Women. This is a slap in the face to all those who stand up for women’s rights. The footage of EU leaders visiting Ankara also speaks volumes. I wish that we could get back to a situation where we can work together as equal partners.
NE: Diplomatic relations between Austria and China were started back in 1971. What is planned for the celebrations of the 50th anniversary in the autumn?
AS: I had a telephone conversation with China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi on this very topic. There will be a number of activities to mark the 50th anniversary, for example, a special exhibition at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. To summarise once again, we do not look away from topics such as (the situation in) Xinjiang (regarding the persecution of the Uyghurs) or Hong Kong. But, we continue to seek cooperation with China and will celebrate the 50th anniversary especially in the cultural sector. There is great mutual respect between Austria and China.