Priorities of the Austrian Presidency

19 December 2005

HE Dr Gregor Woschnagg, the Austrian Permanent Representative to the European Union, addressed a European Policy Centre Breakfast Policy Briefing on “Priorities of the Austrian Presidency”. A question and answer session followed. The meeting was chaired by Senior Advisor to the EPC Pavel Telicka. This is not an official record of the proceedings, and specific remarks are not necessarily attributable.

Gregor Woschnagg set out four aims for his country's presidency of the EU:

  • to restore public confidence in the European project;
  • to develop a European “life model”, embracing the notion of the social model. The aim would be to achieve high quality of life for all, with good social standards, budget deficits no higher than 3% and exemplary environmental standards: “You can't give the next generation fewer children and more debt”;
  • to pursue the Lisbon Agenda of jobs and growth;
  • to increase the EU's role in the world.

The Ambassador said it was thanks to the British Presidency that Austria would not be inheriting the future financing negotiation: the deal in the early hours of last Saturday proved that Europe was able and willing to take responsibility.

However, it was now up to Austria to steer the accord through the European Parliament, and that would be “one hell of a job”, given MEPs' much higher ambitions for EU spending.

Mr. Woschnagg said that task would start on Wednesday (21 December) with the first three-way talks between European Commission, Council and Parliament. Austria's hope was for parliamentary approval of the budget in March, giving Member States time to prepare submissions for structural fund spending programmes and get them passed by the Commission in the autumn so that the money could flow from 2007.

This was key not just for the “new” Member States (Mr. Woschnagg said the word “new” should be dropped from next year in this context to show EU-25 solidarity), but for the “old” 15 as well.

The Ambassador said there were many more issues on the Austrian to-do list:

Enlargement: The question of whether Romania and Bulgaria would join the EU at the start of 2007 or have to wait a year longer would be tackled with the next Commission report on their progress due in May. The longer-term aspirations of the Western Balkans and Macedonia would also be addressed at an informal foreign ministers' meeting in Salzburg on 10-11 March then, as well as progress in Turkey and Croatia.

The “Future of Europe” dossier: Following the “period of reflection” after the Dutch and French votes against the Constitutional Treaty, the question remained what to do next. Mr. Woschnagg said Austria's role would be to act as honest broker and that the Member States he estimated would have approved the constitution by some time next year. A Commission report would be presented to the June summit of EU leaders. “We must see what the alternatives are for the constitution. This is a very delicate, diplomatic issue and the presidency must try to bring the two sides together and not break them up.” More generally on the debate on Europe's future, the presidency wanted to engage young Europeans by using the Internet. The Commission's Plan D strategy - Democracy, Dialogue, Discussion - would be pursued, possibly in conjunction with a new Plan C - for Concrete results. Finally, a conference on European values was scheduled in Salzburg on the same day, coincidentally, as the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth.

Subsidiarity: A conference involving the social partners was planned for April, looking at better regulation and how to foster more positive feelings about Europe, in the context of the Lisbon Strategy.

Environment: Climate change, more investment in security of sustainable energy supplies and better emissions controls - not least to help the European car sector enter the booming Chinese market - were on the agenda. An environment ministers' meeting in March would be key.

EU-Africa strategy: The Austrian Presidency would be promoting the link between human rights and governance.

Migration: There would be new EU measures to tackle the continuing problem of illegal immigration.

Mr. Woschnagg said the Austrian Presidency's watchword - SERVUS - was already being put up in the Council of Ministers' Justus Lipsius building, to reflect the fact that the presidency was “the servant of the European Union”.

It was a heavy challenge, with some extremely difficult dossiers, but Austria would now try to “relaunch” the EU. In the words of Winston Churchill, the presidency would be nothing but blood sweat and tears.

And, to emphasise how seriously the Austrians are taking their six-month role, the Ambassador said he had cancelled all leave at the Austrian representation for the duration of the presidency – including his own.

One thing Ambassador Woschnagg was tight-lipped about was his country's precise aims and expectations from the effort to resolve the constitution problem. “If I tell you all my secrets, I won't be invited back for another magnificent breakfast in June” he joked.