Europe statement in the National Council by Federal Chancellor Sebastian Kurz
Priorities for the Austrian Presidency of the Council of the European Union
Mr President, members of parliament, esteemed government colleagues,
On 1 July, Austria will assume the Presidency of the Council of the European Union for the third time – and will do so during a very challenging phase. It will be the last complete Council Presidency before the European Parliament elections. It will be the presidency in which 300 pending trilogues are due to be dealt with and it is the presidency in which there will probably be major challenges to overcome with regard to Brexit and the negotiations on the Multiannual Financial Framework.
A Council Presidency is something that does not just cause work during the six months in which the presidency is held; there is also a huge amount of preparatory work to be done. And so at this point I would like to say a big thank you to all those who have contributed here and who continue to do so. Allow me to begin with the members of the Federal Government, first and foremost Chancellery Minister Gernot Blümel and also Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl. I would also like to thank all the civil servants who have for months been working very hard here in Austria, and also at the Permanent Representation of Austria to the European Union in Brussels, to ensure that the Austrian Presidency will be a success.
The Austrian Presidency is taking place at a time of radical change. You are all seeing, together with us, that international agreements are currently being concluded when we look towards North Korea. International agreements are being terminated, when we look towards Iran. We are experiencing a more unpredictable situation in the USA, continuing tensions with Russia, and in the European Union too, Brexit has ushered in a period of radical change. Since the refugee crisis, we have experienced increasing tensions in the European Union, with the north complaining about the south, the west complaining about the east, and some Member States having the feeling that there are now first and second class Member States. In this respect, a key objective of our Council Presidency will be to use our even geographically favourable position at the heart of Europe to ease tensions in the European Union and to ensure that the European Union appears more united once again in future. I believe it is important to live up to our motto ‘United in Diversity’ and not to pursue the opposite objective, i.e. ‘divided in equality’. This means not just allowing discourse and different opinions, but always endeavouring to ensure that we discuss as equals the different approaches found in the European Union and that we treat each other with respect. This is the only way in which this project of the European Union has a future. If the impression is created that there are better or worse Europeans, first class and second class members – those who are superior and those who still need to be educated – if we let this impression be created, our European Union is endangered.
I have just come back from Israel, a state in which it is evident – more so than in almost any other country in the world – that security cannot be taken for granted. Sadly, however, the last few years have shown us in the European Union that security cannot be taken for granted in Europe either and it is not a given that we will always live together in stability and security. In this respect, a key objective of our Council Presidency is to help ensure that we can continue to take stability, security and prosperity for granted in the European Union in future. We as the Federal Government have decided on the motto ‘A Europe that protects’ and therefore plan to focus on the issue of security, but also on the issue of prosperity – protecting our way of life – our prosperity in Europe. This firstly means a clear focus on the protection of external borders, because it is not just when military security is guaranteed that security in the European Union can exist; when it comes to internal security, we also need to know who can immigrate here and who cannot; we need to ensure that governments decide who comes to Europe and that it is not the traffickers who make these decisions. In close collaboration between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of the Interior and the Federal Chancellery, we will therefore be focusing on the issue of protecting external borders. At the summit of heads of state and government in Salzburg on 20 September, we will be concentrating on the issue of securing the protection of external borders and the fight against illegal migration, and one of our key objectives there is to achieve the strengthening of Frontex – with regard to content, staff and funding. This means to increase staffing levels to 10,000 not just by 2027, as currently proposed, but significantly faster, and that means, above all, extending Frontex’s mandate. Only when the civil servants working for Frontex are allowed to actively combat traffickers; only when they can cooperate with third countries; only when they have the possibility of preventing boats from departing in the first place – only when these possibilities exist, can the Frontex civil servants effectively achieve the goals that we are pursuing: saving lives, protecting our external borders and regaining control in the European Union.
When we speak of security and a Europe that protects, this does not just mean security in the physical sense; it also means protecting the prosperity we enjoy in Europe. As Foreign Minister, I was able to experience many regions that are making up ground, and had to experience some regions that are catching us up or even overtaking us. And it is therefore crucial that we as the European Union do everything we can to remain competitive. The Infrastructure Minister will go into more detail, but it is, of course, necessary that we as the European Union move forward with digital infrastructure, that we complete the digital single market, that we eliminate unfair taxation by taxing Internet giants on our continent and it is necessary that we invest in science and research in order to remain the place in the world where innovations happen.
Thirdly, in addition to traditional security and securing prosperity, we are of course focusing – how could it be otherwise – on our neighbourhood. Only when we enjoy stability and security in our neighbourhood will there also be stability and security in the European Union. There will therefore be a clear focus on our neighbourhood. The Foreign Minister will concentrate on the region of South-East Europe with the clear objective of not just bringing the Western Balkan countries closer to the European Union but also providing them with support in terms of the European perspective. We experienced significant progress only yesterday, thank goodness, with a solution in the name dispute between Greece and Macedonia. We are experiencing major progress with regard to reforms in Serbia and other countries in this region. And it is our mission as Austria to support this region, to which we are so closely linked in terms of history, business, culture and people, as best as we can in its efforts to move closer to the European Union. That, ladies and gentlemen, is a brief outline of the areas on which we will be focusing during our Presidency of the Council of the European Union. Moreover, there is of course a great deal of work ahead of us for all ministers in every field of responsibility. I can only assure you that we are looking forward to the work, we are looking forward to the opportunity of being able to play an even greater part in shaping the European Union than we are able to do as a Member State. And we are also aware that, in addition to the areas on which we have chosen to focus, this presidency will of course also be characterised and shaped by major issues such as the finalisation of the Brexit negotiations or the negotiations on the Multiannual Financial Framework and often also by issues that we cannot yet foresee.
I would like to ask you all for your full support during the Austrian Presidency. I believe it is important that we work together across party lines during these six months. For the benefit of Austria, but above all for the benefit of the European Union.