All our efforts are aimed at bringing all countries of the Western Balkans into the EU…
European Western Balkans have its first exclusive interview with key people form European politics, which are highly involved in integration process of Western Balkan into European Union. It was our honor to speak with H.E. Sebastian Kurz, Austrian Federal Minister for Europe, Integration and Foreign Affairs. In 2003, Sebastian Kurz (1986) started to become engaged within the Young Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP). One year later Sebastian Kurz started studying law at the University of Vienna. After several years of commitment on district level, he was elected to Provincial Chairman of Young ÖVP Vienna in 2007 and one year later he was elected as Federal Chairman of Young ÖVP. Until his appointment as State Secretary for Integration in April 2011, he was active as a Member of the Vienna Provincial Diet and Vienna City Council. On December 16th 2013 he was sworn in as Austrian Federal Minister for Integration Issues, European and International Affairs. At the time of his swearing-in Kurz was Austria’s youngest government minister since the foundation of the republic and the youngest foreign minister in the European Union.
European Western Balkans, Nemanja Todorović Štiplija: Y.E, for the start, I want to ask you one personal question… We are almost the same age and because of that I am curious, why you take this “risk” to become the youngest Foreign Minister ever? How you feel among older “wolfs” of world diplomacy?
Federal Minister Sebastian Kurz: Diplomats serve their countries in the international arena. Hence, they are used to diversity. They are generally used to dealing with different groups of persons, different cultures as well as different age groups. Therefore, I’ve made only positive experiences in all the meetings I’ve had with colleagues so far.
EWB: What is you first thought when I say Balkans?
SK: My first thought is that the region of the Balkans is an integral part of Europe, whereas the Western Balkan countries are still not yet members of the European Union.
EWB: Where are we now, 100 years later? Serbian officials will ignore local event in Sarajevo, can Austria and Serbia mark the celebration of the 100th anniversary of World War I together?
SK: While not forgetting the past, we should look into the future. All our efforts are aimed at bringing all countries of the Western Balkans into the EU. The EU is the biggest and most successful European peace project in which we should invest all our energy.
The common commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War One should clearly demonstrate that former divisions have now been overcome. In this context, the Austrian cultural forum in Belgrade is for example supporting various exchange programs for students, which enable them to travel to Austria and around Europe in order to increase their understanding of the European Union.
EWB: Can you shortly evaluate your work with Western Balkan countries? What are your future plans in relations with your colleagues in Western Balkans?
On my first day in office as Austrian Foreign Minister I defined the EU-accession of the Western Balkan countries as one of my priorities. In the meantime I have met all my colleagues from the Western Balkans and have already visited Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Serbia. At the beginning of June Austria hosted a Foreign Minister´s Western Balkans Conference where I invited not only the colleagues from the Western Balkans but a number of EU partners which have an interest in the region. The focus was to keep the EU enlargement with respect to the Western Balkans on the EU’s agenda
EWB: What is your personal opinion about the European Union and about importance of integration of the region of Western Balkans in the EU?
SK: The EU is above all a tremendously successful peace project. It has helped to consolidate democracy and prosperity. We consider enlargement the most reliable way to expand peace, stability, and prosperity to the Western Balkans. Without EU membership of all countries of the Western Balkans the European Union will remain incomplete.
EWB: Austria always plays a special role in the Balkans, and now is investing heavily in Western Balkans, how Austria can help Western Balkans countries in integration?
SK: Our efforts for the Western Balkans are based on four pillars: First, we support enlargement politically. Second, we are the first foreign investor in the region as a whole. Third, the Western Balkans is a priority region of the Austrian Development Cooperation. Fourth, we provide technical assistance especially within the framework of twinning and TAIEX.
EWB: What do you think about the deepening of the political and economic cooperation between Austria and Western Balkans? What are the most promising areas?
SK:Geographic proximity, common history as well as strong human and economic bonds make us – politically and economically – a main beneficiary of EU enlargement in the Western Balkans. We are convinced, however, that enlargement creates a win-win situation for all of us.
EWB: Although some countries as Macedonia or Bosnia and Herzegovina have no official progress in integration process, how is the adoption of European standards, regardless of the integration of Western Balkans into the EU, important for the citizens of Western Balkans?
SK: The Council of the EU has put “rule of law” at the heart of the enlargement process in general. Reforms in this field are, regardless of the enlargement process, a prerequisite for stability, economic growth and prosperity.
EWB: According to you, what are remaining issues in the Balkans? (Non-functioning of the institutions of Bosnia, Serbia-Kosovo relations, Macedonia-Greece issue, social picture of the region, poverty etc.)
SK: I think you just mentioned the most important pending issues and problems of the region. We are of the opinion that the rapprochement to the EU will help in a decisive way to overcome institutional problems as well as unsolved policy questions and the difficult economic situation. We all know that the path towards membership will be a long and difficult one and that all partners – in the region but as well within the EU – have to act in concert. Membership in the EU is not a goal for itself but the means to help solve problems.
EWB: Balkans states considered NATO membership as latent conditions for membership to EU. National Assembly of Serbia declared neutrality in 2007, Austria is neutral from 1955, do you have any advice for Serbian colleagues? How Austria deal with UN missions, CDSP and EU missions?
SK: Austria will, as the National Security Strategy of 2013 says, “craft its security policy predominantly within the UN, the EU, the OSCE, in its partnerships with NATO and within the Council of Europe.” Austria, as a partner to NATO for many years, has actively been participating in NATO-led crisis management operations since joining the Partnership for Peace. Austria is for example deploying the third-largest KFOR-contingent in Kosovo. We consider ourselves a reliable partner of NATO, but we have no intention to join the alliance.
When it comes to CSDP missions, Austria is fully participating in CSDP, by virtue of Art. 23. of our constitution. This paragraph stipulates that our participation in CSDP doesn’t affect Austria’s neutrality. The participation in peacekeeping operations and crisis management missions represents one of Austria’s most essential contributions to the international community’s efforts to maintain peace and security.
EWB: What is your position towards current debate about immigration?
SK:The migration balance was positive in the case of citizens of Western Balkan countries during the last years. But this did not cause a “current debate about immigration” – esp. from this particular region. It can be partly attributed to the relatively positive economic situation in Austria and the associated rise in demand for labour as well as a higher number of students at Austrian universities. According to current forecasts, immigration will represent the predominant factor when it comes to future population development trends in Austria. If immigration and birth rates remain at the level they are today, the population of Austria would reach 9 million citizens by 2030. This would mean that the population would increase by 10.7% to approx. 9.3 million by 2050 (main forecast scenario). However, if there is no migration surplus, prediction are that the population would fall by 1.5% to 8.3 million by 2030 and continue to fall to 7.6 million by 2050.
In short: Austria needs immigration, because immigration from abroad is helping to offset “demographic ageing” in Austria, i.e. the fall in the proportion of children and young people and the simultaneous increase in the number of elderly people in the population.
EWB: Where will be EU in 5 to 10 years, and where will be Austria? What is the biggest threat for EU in the future?
SK:During the last few years we succeeded in tackling the crisis and in stabilizing the Economic and Monetary Union. The financial and economic crisis revealed how interdependent we all are and that in some areas more Europe is needed not less. Given the challenges we are facing today, preserving the competitiveness of the European economy and industry as well as promoting growth and jobs will be key priorities for the next years. As an export-oriented country, Austria has greatly benefitted from the economic advantages of the internal market, 70 percent of our exports going to other EU nations. Since Austria’s accession in 1995, exports have tripled and 13,000 additional jobs have been created every year.
It is therefore in all our interest to ensure that with only 7% of the world’s population the EU can continue to account for 25% of world economic output in the global competition with China, India and the USA.
And finally it will be important to promote participation by the civil society at a European level to ensure that further steps towards European integration receive public support. Since the EU is often perceived as a complex structure distant from the citizen, we will have to increase our efforts to inform our citizens about current European developments and raise awareness of the EU’s added value for its citizens.
EWB: Thank you Y.E. for time. European Western Balkans wishes you very best in your future activities in the Federal Ministry for Europe, Integration and Foreign Affairs.
Author: Nemanja Todorović Štiplija