Gregor Woschnagg is likely to be one of the busiest men in the European Union at present. A diplomat and a senior civil servant in various ministries in Austria, he took over the post of Permanent Representative in September 1999, only weeks before the Austrian National Council elections that led to a major crisis between Austria and the EU. In an exclusive interview with EURACTIV, Ambassador Woschnagg comments on the Austrian Presidency’s priorities.
Right at the beginning of the Austrian Council Presidency your chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel made the headlines with headlines, with comments that were not unequivocally considered positive. Among other things, Mr. Schüssel attacked the European Court of Justice, which he accused of “annulling national law through the backdoor“.
What the Federal Chancellor has said in relation to this question has widely been misunderstood. Fundamentally, it was about the question when judgements of the European Court of Justice must be transposed. In Austria and in most other member countries, there is in practice a period during which Supreme Court decision must be transposed. The same is not true for the jurisdiction of the European Union. EU Court of Justice decisions are often applicable retroactively, and fines are imposed on a day-to-day basis. The substantial sums of money involved should be reason enough to think about possible reforms to that system – just think of the fine imposed on France last summer for offences against European Union fishery quotas, which, if I remember correctly, was about a third of the annual budget of the French fishery Ministry.
Mr. Schüssel also asked for a limit to the competences of the European Union. How does this fit in with the goal of a deepened Union?
Again, the Federal Chancellor was misunderstood. Like all European Union member states, Austria is in favour of the principle of subsidiarity. This principle means that whatever is better done at national or regional level is to be done there, but also that what is better done on European level is to be done by the European Union. This principle is dear to us, which is why the Austrian Presidency will be organising, on 18 and 19 April, a conference in Sankt Poelten, where we want to discuss how to give a higher profile to the subsidiarity principle.
Chancellor Schüssel’s eurosceptic comments were widely understood to mirror feelings of the Austrian population which, as the most recent Eurobarometer confirmed, is among the most negative about European integration of all EU countries. Do these tendencies put Austria in a good position to get the debate about the Constitutional Treaty back on track after the end of the reflection phase?
I do think so, yes. What is needed in this discussion is neither pessimism nor euphoria, but realism. Let me remind you, concerning this, that the Austrian national council has adopted the constitutional treaty with only one dissenting vote. You should differentiate – our approach is realistic, and certainly not eurosceptic. We will discuss the question of the constitutional treaty in more depth at the June European Council.
At the December European Council, the British Presidency managed to take most of the load of the financial perspective off your shoulders. But there remains a lot of work on the detail to be done for your Presidency.
That is true. There remains a lot of work to be done. Altogether, we have to end negotiations on 40 financial regulations and submit those to the European Council. We have to get this work done because otherwise the Commission won’t be able to spend money for research and development, for Transeuropean Networks, for structural aid, for fishery and agriculture. We have to take more than 500 pages of legal texts into consideration, and, last but not least, we have to find a consensus on the outcome of the negotiations, between member states as well as between EU institutions.
Another big lump of work the Austrian presidency will be concerned with is the question of further enlargement. Austria’s attitude towards Turkey has been criticised quite a lot. How do we carry on with enlargement, and what are your plans in particular for the countries of the Western Balkans?
The decision was taken, on 3 October 2005, to grant Turkey candidate status. In December this status was also granted to the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Presently, there are no other binding agreements on the Western Balkans. We will carry on this process under our Presidency, and we will carry it on in a proper manner. That also means that we will have to come to a decision whether we can stand with the planned accession date for Romania and Bulgaria on 1 January 2007 or whether the accession of one or both of those countries must be delayed by one year. These decisions will be made on the basis of the commission report due to be released in May, which will examine the two countries’ progress in particular concerning third pillar issues, but also for instance concerning competition policy. And of course we will have to ask ourselves whether the Union can economically deal with the accession of as large a country as Turkey.
You stress the economic dimension of enlargement, but looking at the Austrian discussion leaves an impression that cultural reservations play at least an equally important role. I am thinking for instance of vocabulary used, such as the “absorption capacity” of the Union.
Surely we are asking from Turkey not only important economic, but also political reforms, and clearly it is not automatic that those political reforms will be also successful. This is also demonstrated by the slowing down of the reform process and by the obviously decreasing political will to reform, which we observed lately. It is in line with the negotiating mandate that we say Turkey must be brought closer to the European Union and made part of EU structures even if the reforms fail. We are only at the very beginning of long, laborious negotiations.
A further concern for EU citizens during these cold winter days is about the security of the energy supply and in particular the supply of natural gas, after the conflict on supply contracts and gas prices that involved Russia and the Ukraine. What can the European Union do here, what should it do, and what is the competence of the member states?
That is a classical example of mixed competence. On 4 January 2006 the Commission called the first meeting of the Gas Coordination Group where these problems were discussed. Martin Bartenstein, the Austrian economics minister in charge of energy questions, also participated in this meeting. The situation was indeed extremely difficult, and it took extremely careful diplomatic negotiating.
Isn’t this also about the whole wider foreign policy context? Didn’t Russia punish the Ukraine for that country’s closer alignment with the West by cutting gas deliveries?
I do not think that is the case. Of course the Ukraine is reforming its economic system, bringing in more free market elements. But the same applies also to Russia. I would not be able to tell you where there is a conflict there.