On Sunday, the UK, a close US ally, will hand over the European Union’s six-month presidency to Austria, a small, neutral country. Vienna can advance the union’s interests and strengthen transatlantic links if it is able to forge progress in three areas where it can claim to speak with varying degrees of authority: economic reform, the Balkans and relations with the Islamic world.
First of all, Austria’s presidency will be an opportunity to overcome the ill will generated when the country put up stumbling blocks to Turkish membership of the EU. The Austrian government’s goal was mainly to extract a commitment from the other EU members to begin negotiations with Croatia, where it is the largest foreign investor, but its diplomacy was short-sighted.
While Austria’s external image on Islam-related issues was dented by its position on Turkey, the domestic reality is more positive. Austria’s 200,000- strong Turkish community is well integrated, with few of the resentments that led to the riots in Paris, for instance. Austria is the only EU country in which Islam is an officially recognised religion, a status that dates back to the 1912 annexation of Bosnia-
The Austrian government recently hosted an international conference, Islam in a Pluralistic World, that attracted the participation of the presidents of Iraq and Afghanistan, US and European officials and Muslim, Catholic, Orthodox and Jewish religious
leaders. Austria should build on this foundation to promote further efforts by the EU to deepen its political and economic relationship with the Muslim world.
The 10th anniversary summit of the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership, or the Barcelona process, which groups 35 EU, North African and Middle Eastern states, was held at the end of November. The Austrian presidency should make the summit’s recommendations on terrorism a priority and move forward on its commitment to a free trade area by 2010, including further opening of EU markets to Mediterranean farm exports. The Forum for the Future, established at the Group of Eight summit in Sea Island, Georgia, last year, brings together the leading industrial nations with countries from the broader Middle East. The forum recently launched a foundation to
support democracy and human rights and a fund to give impetus to economic development in the Middle East. Although not a G8 member Austria could, like the Netherlands and Turkey, elect to have “partner” status in the forum. This would be consonant with a commitment to improving the west’s relations with the Islamic world and would send a signal to the rest of the EU.
The Balkans, where Austria has strong commercial and cultural ties, are undergoing a period of intensive diplomatic activity, much of it EU-led. The United Nations special envoy for Kosovo, former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari, and Albert Rohan, his Austrian deputy, have launched the so-called “final status” talks for the Muslim-majority province of Serbia. In addition to launching membership talks with Croatia, the EU has initiated a stabilisation and association agreement – the precursor to membership negotiations – with Serbia and Bosnia and at its December summit declared that Macedonia was qualified to begin membership talks.
While the US expended significant military and diplomatic muscle in the Balkans in the 1990s, it is now prospective EU membership that is the strongest factor for stability in the region.
Whether the EU’s crucial “membership diplomacy” remains on track will depend on the results of a summit meeting planned during the Austrian presidency to decide the next steps in the EU’s institutional future, which remains on hold after the French and Dutch No votes on the EU constitution in the spring. With its current governance structure, expanding the EU to up to 35 members is a recipe for deadlock. It is in the Austrian and broader transatlantic interest that Vienna push hard for streamlined decision-making procedures – and realistic membership criteria – that will permit the Balkan countries one day to join the EU.
Although it is Sweden, Denmark and Finland that regularly capture headlines about economic reform in the EU, Austria has also made its economy more dynamic and its welfare state more sustainable.
Because it combines low unemployment, labour market flexibility and respectable economic growth with social equality – but nonetheless is in the geographic core of the EU – Austria is well placed to build on the UK presidency’s efforts to revive the stalled
Lisbon strategy of reform. A confident Europe backed by a growing economy is the foundation stone for successful transatlantic co-operation on any common external agenda.
The Austrian EU presidency will face risks, the foremost of which are at home. Parliamentary elections will be held in 2006, either in the spring (during Austria’s presidency period) or in the early autumn. Surveys show Austrians to be the most sceptical among current EU members about further enlargement. The temptation will certainly exist to run a presidency that plays to the public’s eurosceptic sensibilities.
No better time, then, to let the enlightened, cosmopolitan spirit of Mozart, whose 250th birthday will be celebrated next year in Vienna, guide the country’s turn at the EU helm.
Donald Bandler is senior director and Peter Rashish is European affairs adviser at Kissinger McLarty Associates, the international strategic advisory firm