Austria Preps for Challenging EU Presidency
Six years after EU members in Feb. 2000 imposed sanctions on Austria for welcoming an far right-wing party into the government, Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel said the revival of Europe will be his country's main priority during the six-month presidency.
The differences between European member states, which became painfully visible after France and the Netherlands rejected the European constitution in the spring of 2005, are likely to present a major challenge to the Austrian presidency.
The 25 EU members will have to decide whether to complete the ratification of the constitution and whether to implement some of its measures. Austria is one of the 13 member states that have already ratified the constitution: It did so in May 2005 following an almost unanimous vote in the parliament.
"To renew ties with a visionary Europe, one must picture a choreography for 25 to address with energy and confidence the pause for thought," agreed upon by the European Council in June 2005, Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik said.
This "pause for thought," which was formulated after the defeat of the constitution in France and the Netherlands, should allow detailed debates on the EU's future before the European Council addresses the revival of the institutions in June 2006.
"As far as the constitution is concerned, I don't think that we can succeed with cosmetic changes only. That would not do justice to the great importance of this topic," said Plassnik.
European model of life
Apart from institutional tools, one needs to define the "European model of life," which guarantees jobs and growth -- both of which will be on the Council's agenda in March -- as well as environmental protection and Europe's place in the world, Plassnik said.
In addition to backing the so-called "Bolkestein" directive on liberalizing services and the European directive on work hours, Austria will emphasize EU enlargement as one of its top priorities.
As a bridge between east and west, Austria will be looking to stabilize the Balkans in the name of the "European peace project," said Plassnik, who is personally involved in EU accession talks with Croatia. Austria will also be steering the entry of Bulgaria and Romania into the EU, set for 2007.
In early October, Austria, whose population is largely opposed to Turkey's entry into the EU, tried to block an agreement by the 25 members on the framework of accession talks with Turkey, but finally gave in under pressure from its partners.
Plassnik added "there is no reason to have any suspicions" about Austria's disposition towards Turkey.
The Austrian presidency will also have to strike a compromise with the Commission and the Parliament on the EU's 2007-2013 budget after the European Council reached a last-minute agreement on Dec. 17.
Schüssel, who favours a European tax to fund the EU budget, called for "radical changes" in the ways the union is financed and will propose that members raise their contribution to research funds to 3.0 percent of gross domestic product.
EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso is hoping that the budgetary disagreements will become a thing of the past:
"I think we can enter 2006 with more optimism. We can now concentrate on things which are more important for our citizens: namely, growth and more jobs," Barroso told Deutsche Welle.
Lastly, Austria will suggest the creation of a European Human Rights agency in Vienna.Austria, which entered the EU in 1995, had previously held the presidency, in the second half of 1998. It will hand it over to Finland for the second half of 2006.