Regarding external relations and enlargement, the main focus of the Austrian Presidency will clearly be the Western Balkans region. Vienna will strive to offer a “clear European perspective” to the countries of south-east Europe in line with the Union’s so-called Thessaloniki agenda.
On 10 and 11 March 2006, the Austrian city of Salzburg will play host to an informal Gymnich meeting of the foreign ministers of the EU-25 and the Western Balkans states. The high-level gathering will look at ways to enhance political and economic co-operation and development between the EU and the Western Balkans, and issues such as visa facilitation will also be on the agenda.
The Commission is scheduled to present monitoring reports on Bulgaria and Romania’s accession progress in April or May 2006, ie during the Austrian Presidency. Based on these reports, it will fall on Austria to either propose to the Council to work toward the accession of these two candidates on 1 January 2007 or to preside over the postponement of their accession by one year if preparations are found to be incomplete in certain key areas.
The so-called screening process is bound to continue for Croatia and Turkey throughout 2006, and the Austrian Presidency will oversee progress.
“Romania and Bulgaria should be able to join the [EU] by 2007, or 2008 at the latest, while membership for Croatia and Macedonia should follow soon after,” said Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel.
On the broader international stage, the Austrian Presidency will work towards strengthening and consolidating the Union’s role. During the first six months of 2006, Austria will host or arrange the next:
- EU-Latin America and Caribbean summit in May
- EU-Russia summit in May
- EU-US summit in June
- EU-Canada summit (to be confirmed)
- EU-Ukraine Co-operation Council meeting (date to be confirmed)
- EU-ASEM (Asia-Europe Meeting) summit preparatory meetings
- EU-Japan presidential meeting
- EU-China Human Rights Dialogue meeting in May
As for Turkey’s EU membership bid, the Austrian Presidency will have to work against a relatively high rate of rejection among the country’s population of EU enlargement in general and Ankara’s candidacy in particular. Vienna was also the most vociferous opponent of opening EU entry talks with Ankara, pushing for an explicit alternative to full membership in the form of a privileged partnership status.
Turkey expects accession talks on a few chapters to start during the Austrian Presidency’s term, specifically in March 2006, but Vienna has already suggested that the opening of the negotiations could be delayed to the second half of 2006. “It is too early for me to judge whether it will be possible to start one or the other chapters in the first half of the year,” commented Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik.
According to recent Eurobarometer figures, the Austrians are the most against the idea of the Union’s further enlargement (followed by France, Germany and Luxembourg). Public support is especially weak in the country for Turkey’s prospective accession, with only 10% of the Austrians standing by the Turkish bid. Austria has also seen the strongest relative decline (by 17%) in public support for Turkey since 2002.
According to Eurobarometer, some 41% of the respondents EU-wide believe that Turkey’s eventual membership would bring European and Muslim values closer. The respective figure in Austria is 24%. Similarly, while 38% of all Europeans look at the Turkish bid as a potential boost for regional security, in Austria this opinion is shared by just 20% of the public. Some 73% of Austrians think that the cultural differences between Europe and Turkey are too significant to allow for Turkey’s EU membership (the respective EU-wide average figure is 54%).
Meanwhile, fresh research shows that the Turks’ support for the EU is also on the decline – down from 70% to 55%.