Austria and Germany call on EU to close ranks

Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern (L) and Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz (R) met with German minister Sigmar Gabriel. [Austrian Chancellery/ BKA]

A meeting between the Austrian and German foreign ministers in Vienna yesterday (27 February) revealed where the two countries are aligned and where they aren’t on the same page. EURACTIV Germany reports.

When Frank-Walter Steinmeier (SPD) was Germany’s foreign minister, Berlin and Vienna seemed to be on the same wavelength. The now president of Germany made no secret of his sympathies for his Austrian counterpart, Sebastian Kurz.

But an election year is upon us and priorities have changed. Steinmeier’s successor as Germany’s chief diplomat, Sigmar Gabriel, was in Vienna yesterday to meet with Kurz and the country’s chancellor, Christian Kern.

At a joint conference, Kern said, in an indirect reference to Russia, that “It would be a mistake for European countries to seek individual answers to current challenges, rather than EU-wide solutions. U.S President Donald Trump openly tried to weaken the EU, while there were similar efforts in our eastern neighbourhood.”

The chancellor insisted that the EU should enter a “phase of closing ranks” and both he and Gabriel said that the EU should focus more on the most vulnerable members of society. Both agreed that the EU needs common foreign, defence and security policies.

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Libyan and Tunisian concerns

Kurz and Gabriel also discussed refugee and migration policy but there was a lack of consensus on the issue. The Austrian minister is in favour of an approach where people are dealt with before they cross the EU external border.

But Gabriel is sceptical about the idea of setting up reception centres in Libya and Tunisia. An agreement in the same vein as the EU-Turkey refugee deal seems to be unlikely given the fragility of the country and the fact that the government is not in full control. Tunisia is also struggling with stability issues.

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No campaigning for Erdoğan

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is “not welcome” to hold campaign events in Austria ahead of April’s referendum on strengthening his powers, Kurz said.

The foreign minister said that Erdoğan campaigning over the controversial referendum would “increase friction” in Austria and “hinder the integration” of the country’s 360,000-strong Turkish origin minority, which includes 117,000 Turkish citizens.

“Campaign events are not welcome. Of course the Turkish president, like other senior politicians, can make bilateral visits to Europe and Austria for talks with top officials,” said Kurz.

“But we clearly reject bringing the Turkish campaign and polarisation to Austria,” Kurz was quoted as saying in a foreign ministry statement.

The ministry said Erdoğan’s previous visits to Austria and also Germany had created “tensions” between his supporters and Turks of Kurdish origin, which have increased since July’s attempted coup.

It quoted Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım, who himself held a rally in the German city of Oberhausen on 18 February, as saying that Erdoğan planned to campaign in European Union countries.

The 16 April vote will see Turks decide whether to change the current parliamentary system into an executive presidency.

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