Austria kicks off EU Presidency with ‘a Europe that protects’

Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov hands over a European pennant to Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz as they pose for the media during the Inaugural event due to the Austrian presidency of the European Union in Schladming, Austria, 30 June 2018. [EPA-EFE/MICHAEL GRUBER]

The first day of Austria’s stint at the helm of the rotating EU Presidency already made clear that the next six months will be a diplomatic challenge for the country. EURACTIV Germany reports from Vienna.

Whether the agenda of the Austrian Presidency can actually unfold as planned will depend crucially on a stable government in Germany, according to the prevailing opinion in the Federal Chancellery in Vienna.

Events also depend on whether the European bloc can look forward positively towards the parliamentary elections next spring.

Therefore, the clashes between the CDU and CSU in Germany are causing concern in Vienna.

In contrast to his Bavarian party friends, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz can live with the result of the European Council meeting last week. He sees in it a “change in thinking” and an end to the sugarcoating of the situation.

Merkel settles migration row with Bavarian ally

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives settled a row over migration that threatened to topple her fragile governing coalition late on Monday evening after talks with her rebellious interior minister led him to drop his threat to resign.

“The now initiated shift towards the Australian model in European migration policy is enormously important to fight illegal migration and smash the business model of the smugglers!” Kurz said.

The young chancellor sees his role above all in not overwhelming the EU with his own proposals but serving as a “bridge-builder” between the different positions.

Trade dispute overshadows the takeover of the presidency 

Domestic opposition, especially the SPÖ, tries to use the fact that Chancellor Kurz will have to devote himself mainly to European politics in the second half of the year. And that is what it needs, according to pollster Wolfgang Bachmayer.

Compared to the National Council elections, both the ruling ÖVP and Kurz have been able to gain further ground in the latest polls. Together with the FPÖ, they have a stable 60% majority.

If Kurz succeeds in further consolidating his profile with the EU Presidency, the SPÖ will be out of favour for a long time, political scientists agree.

Austria takes control of the EU, focusing on immigration

The Austrian government (a mix of Christian-democrats and far-right eurosceptics) has taken over the rotating presidency of the Council with a programme focused on tackling immigration. EURACTIV’s partner Euroefe reports.

The sore point in the government is the FPÖ, which in some cases still has a hard time transitioning from its former role in  opposition to being in government.

While Kurz and Co. celebrated the handover of the presidency from Bulgaria to Austria during a mountain picnic and a European concert, the Austrian trade unionists marshalled around 100,000 protesters to demonstrate against a new law on 12-hour days, which the Austrian Parliament will vote on this Thursday.

The head of the postal union, Helmut Köstinger, has already called for the overthrow of the “anti-social government”.

A little forward-looking motto

In a TV debate about the start of the EU pPresidency, MEP Othmar Karas took the unions’ stand as a reason to remind them that it is time for a close alliance of responsible political forces.

Europe is now looking particularly to Austria, while crucial EU direction is pending, he said. Karas recalled that this had already been the case in 1998 and 2006, when the Alpine Republic presided over the EU Council.

Government circles were astonished that former Austrian President Heinz Fischer (SPÖ) criticised the government’s Presidency motto “A Europe that protects”.

“To be honest, I would have hoped for a more dynamic, forward-looking motto that expresses openness, optimism and a commitment to the European idea,” the former head of state revealed.

Incumbent President Alexander van der Bellen, sees things completely differently: “For our homeland, this is an important, a responsible task, for which I wish all those involved much success.”

Austria unveils energy, environment work plan at EU helm

The Austrian Presidency of the EU will aim to reach agreement on two flagship pieces of legislation during its six-month stint at the EU helm – including new CO2 emissions standards for cars and vans for 2030 and a controversial reform of the electricity market.

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