The Austrian Presidency is based on the so-called Trio Programme, a strategic framework approved at the General Affairs Council in June 2017. Within the scope of this program, Austria will manage a wide range of different issues during its presidency. Major challenges include the multi-annual financial framework post-2020, further Brexit negotiations with the United Kingdom, and the implementation of the European Security and Migration Agenda.
Preparations Slowly Proceeding
Although the Austrian Chancellor and Ministers are aware of the great deal of work ahead, the preparations for the presidency are slowly proceeding. One reason for the delay was Austria’s snap election on October 15, 2017, and the following formation of government.
The People’s party (ÖVP, rebranded: the “new” people’s party) came out first in the election, making its 31-year-old leader, Sebastian Kurz, the world’s youngest head of government. His hard stance on immigration often overlaps with the far right Freedom party’s (FPÖ) junior government coalition partner of the ÖVP. Both aim to ensure greater security in Austria through initiatives dealing with illegal immigration. The new Chancellor Kurz regularly stresses that his government will be pro-European (and pro-Israel) despite the FPÖ’s Eurosceptical record.
For the first time the agenda is shared by the Minister for EU affairs, Gernot Blümel, and the Foreign Ministry, Karin Kneissl. According to Blümel, there will be 13 informal councils in Austria, an EU summit in Salzburg (September 20), and nearly 300 events, about 130 of them in Vienna. The National Priority Program will be decided in May and presented in the European Parliament in June. The budget of the Austrian EU-Presidency will be around €43 million.
Security and Migration: Austria’s Key Topics Under Presidency
The Austrian Presidency is driven by its official slogan “A Europe that protects.” According to the Austrian Government, Europe should be protected against illegal migration, loss of wealth, and instability in the neighborhood (Western Balkans Strategy). Subsidiarity also plays a key role here – current overregulation would simply provide no added value.
Federal Chancellor Kurz wants to make security and the fight against illegal immigration a priority during the EU Presidency. The informal meeting of the European Heads of State or Government on September 20 in Salzburg is therefore centered on this issue. Kurz announced a strong focus on guarding external borders rather than establishing a quota system for the distribution of refugees within the EU. Furthermore, a possible extension of the Frontex mandate will be discussed.
Minister Blümel, government coordinator and close confidant of Chancellor Kurz, stresses the EU Budget and Brexit as the major issues of the Austrian Presidency. His optimistic hope is to negotiate an Austrian Rebate on the basis of the UK Rebate.
Further priorities are the development of a digital single market (including the foundation of a digital permanent establishment) in order to secure prosperity and a level playing field. The objective is to tax large digital companies’ revenues based on where their users are located. Additional issues of importance are accession negotiations with the Western Balkans and the security situation in neighboring countries. Austria wants to prevent a split in the EU and to act as a bridge builder. A Western Balkans conference will take place in Sofia on May 17th.
Austria’s Position in Forthcoming Negotiations
The European Commission intends to present its proposals on the budget by the end of May; a new EU budget will be negotiated by the end of 2019. According to Austria’s minister in charge, the EU should become more economically efficient and focus on core tasks in accordance with subsidiarity, a catchword of perennial importance during Austria’s Presidency.
On Brexit, Austria fully supports the planned two-year transitional arrangement. However, the Brexit negotiations have to be concluded by autumn 2018 in order to allow approval by the European Parliament and the United Kingdom before the end of the two-year deadline for withdrawal.
Regarding EU enlargement, Austria intends to continue the efforts of Bulgaria under its presidency. The Commission intends to promote the accession process for the Western Balkans: Montenegro, Serbia, Macedonia, Albania, Bosnia, and Herzegovina and Kosovo. The EU summit in Sofia in mid-May will focus mainly on the prospect of accession to the Western Balkans. According to Minister Blümel, progress can be expected in the accession process of the Western Balkans and the conclusion of further negotiation chapters with Serbia and Montenegro.
Institutional issues such as the allocation of seats in the European Parliament for its next legislative period are to be clarified within the Union in the next few months. Austria supports saving the seats left behind after Brexit thus reducing the Parliament’s size. Nevertheless, Austria will probably receive one additional seat. The distribution by transnational lists is rejected by Austria.
The Commission’s plan also includes cybersecurity issues with the scheduled adoption of the so-called “Cybersecurity Act.” The aim is to improve the ability to react to cyber attacks within the Union, and the transformation of the European Union Agency for Network and Information Security into an EU cybersecurity agency.
Moreover the EU energy package, which is an important milestone in the implementation of the climate goals, will also be finalized during Austria’s Presidency.
Difficult Times Lie Ahead
Austria intends to seize the opportunity of the presidency as a time to increase the visibility of Austria in Europe and the world. The Austrian EU-Presidency is embedded in a highly intense political period as the election to the European Parliament takes place in 2019 with over 190 dossiers to be finalized before spring 2019. Therefore, hard times lie ahead, a severe test for the new Austrian Federal Government.