Ex-Austrian chancellor: Intl. law too vague on issues of secession, like in Crimea or Catalonia

It seems that the financial and migrant crises have found their echo in the political life of Europe. The Union is slowly shifting right – at least on the surface, with right-wing parties getting more votes, and even more publicity. Is the political realignment here to stay? And what will it mean for the European Union? We ask the former Chancellor of Austria, Wolfgang Schuessel.

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Sophie Shevarnadze: Wolfgang Schuessel, it's really great to have you on our program today. Welcome.

Wolfgang Schuessel: Thank you.

SS: So we're going to talk about what's going on in Europe right now.  Do you think Europe is at risk of being split into a core centre and a periphery - because I hear French president saying the EU needs different speeds for those who want to move forward fast and those who want to stay behind?

WS: I would've been much more concerned maybe two years ago, but now all of the European countries are growing: Spain, Portugal, Ireland, Cyprus are out of the monitoring mechanism of the ESM, the European stability mechanism. Only Greece is still working in this context, but I'm sure in springtime Greece will also come out of these problems and greek economy is also... the situation, economically, is now much better. What we see today is more of a kind of political challenge. The decision of the British electorate one year ago to vote with the slight majority in favor of exit, of leaving the EU, this is something which concerns us and this is, of course, something which will be an enormous problem for the Brits themselves but also for Europe.

SS: Do you support the idea of two-speed Europe, do you support what Macron is proposing right now, that those who want to move faster, should move faster, and have different type of economic zone and then those who want to stay where they are, then stay in a different economic zone.

WS: This is the present situation of the treaties. You can opt for more cooperation or you can be a normal member and I'm sure that in some areas there will be much more engagement. For instance, in energy policy or in digital cooperation, there could be much more. Either we do it altogether or some moving faster than the rest. But I think if some are really trying to go ahead, I'm sure most of the countries will follow. So the idea of Macron is not so much to divide and to split Europe, but to give a wakeup call to those who are a little bit more reluctant and in the end, most of the member-states will come along.

SS: I want to hear your opinion, on what the Polish President Andrzej Duda said recently, he actually said that EU is turning into a class society with some countries becoming second-class members. Do you think this is a process that have started?

WS: I take this critique very seriously because I think it's a little bit unfair, but also something which we should really consider, it should not be that way. To be very serious, my ambition, when I was a foreign minister, we started with enlargement of Poland, Hungary and Czech Republic and Slovak Republic, and when I was a PM we finished and concluded all these negotiations with the ten new member-states, and I was always very pushy for enlargement of the EU, to get these Eastern European and Central and South European countries full perspective to be a full-fledged member of the Union. If they have the impression they are not treated in a respectful and on an equal footing, then it makes little bit concerned. It should not be the way. They should think, maybe they have different failings and they are not engaged enough. On the other hand, we should really think about our position. So maybe we should be much more open-minded.

SS: Actually, we're going to talk about how their views differ from the core, Central Europe, but before, I'm just going to give you a little example: you know there's been this spat between East and the West in Europe, it broke out recently, it was a food scandal. Supposedly West food exports or imports to the Eastern Europe, were made from worse stuff that what was sold in the West. Why is there such an approach that whatever goes to the East could be quality lesser than whatever is brought to the West?

WS: Unacceptable, to be very frank on that. Unacceptable. I think the same quality at the same price, of course, if it's cheaper then it's a different case, but at the same price same quality must be distributed everywhere, and in my opinion, the Commission is the institution who is responsible to monitor the functioning of the single market, and this is a part of the single market - they must guarantee, they should look at the quality of these products.

SS: Who's to blame for this division?

WS: The Commission is now really working on that and they are fully aware that this is not acceptable and I will never defend Western companies offering something of a second quality at a higher price to the Eastern countries, this is impossible.

SS: So let's talk more about the outlook of the Eastern European countries as opposed to the core block. For instance, the Visegrad group which is Poland-Hungary-Slovakia-Czechia, they have a very different outlook on questions of core value questions, mostly on the refugee policy and that really differs from their fellows in the West. Should they be brought in line with the rest of Europe forcefully - or should their outlook balance the Western outlook?

WS: First of all, the Visegrad countries are not so harmonious as they sometimes seem from outside. They have different opinions, for instance, the Czech Republic has a completely different opinion than Poland, Slovakia is a little bit in between, Hungary is very much on the side of Poland. So, in my opinion, some decisions of the European Council or the Council of the European Ministers were not wise enough. For instance, the European Council, the Prime Ministers, decided on a voluntary basis to take in refugees from Syria. Three weeks later, the Ministers for Interior.. it were foreign ministers or the ministers of the interior, I think so, decided on an obligatory basis, a quota for each country. And this was by majority, and this was not accepted by those countries who voted against, because they felt there's no basis for such a decision in the treaties, and the was a big dispute going up to the European Court of Justice and de-facto decided in favor of the original decision. But this is something which was not very wise - in my opinion. Of course, I'm no longer in politics, this is just my personal opinion. You can do this, but only on the voluntary basis. You cannot force somebody in such a sensitive issue, because it's really a part of who has the control to take in someone. By the way, Viktor Orban - I know him quite well - took in voluntarily a lot of thousands of Syrian refugees, but not according to the quota, but by Hungarian decision: some Christians who were threatened by the ISIS, islamic fundamentalists, were taken in and it was in contact with the Bishop in Syria. So I think it was a good decision. This is the way it should work.

SS: This is a way it should work, but it's not exactly the way it's working right now, because right now Brussels is , threatening fines and penalties if Eastern European countries, the Visegrad countries, don’t take in their share of refugee arrivals -  How far is the EU can push the Eastern European states on this?

WS: No. There's no fines in the moment, there are discussions...

SS: They are threatening.

WS: These are just discussions and it would require huge majority to get it. In my opinion, it's also not the real way. We are in the family, we have to talk to each other. We have to negotiate, sometimes there are very difficult discussions during night-time, until morning time, but there's a need to discuss and negotiate and not to force somebody or to punish somebody. It will not work.

SS: European Commission President Jean Claude Juncker, he is saying the eurozone must be expanded - in essence suggesting making the Euro compulsory for all members is a good thing. He actually believes that this would unite the Union instead of dividing it. What do you think?

WS: This is the treaty. To be fair, Jean Claude Juncker just mentioned what is the treaty of the EU. De-facto, everybody with the exception of those who have opted out, like the Brits and the Danes, would be obliged as soon as they fulfill all the criteria - and they are quite tough - they should join the euro. On the other hand, I think time is now a little bit changing. We have our own experiences with enlargement of the eurozone in the past and I think there's much more reluctance. It will be much more in line with conventional wisdom, with negotiations, et cetera. It's the treaty, so Juncker was right about it, but in practical terms it will take time and nobody will be forced against his or her will into the eurozone.

SS: So, yeah, because the very precise example nowadays is, of course, Poland that has fulfilled all the criterias and can actually adopt euro, but it's kind of reluctant because eurozone has had its troubles.

WS: Same with Czech economy...

SS: So, in your opinion, can they actually wait as much as they want?

WS: I think this is not a treaty, but I think the EU is famous for flexibility and the freedom to interpret some rules, and I think they will do it.

SS: I want to talk to you a bit about the reshuffle of the political scene all over Europe in general. So in France you have Marine Le Pen who's a super-traditionalist politician to say the least. She had made it to the second round in presidential election, beating in the begging, traditional parties. You also have the AfD party that came 3rd in Germany's parliamentary election, Italy's anti-establishment Five-Star movement, the Northern League, they all are gaining ground. How do you explain this political reshuffle, this tendency? What's going on?

WS: Yeah, but these are protest votes, this is a kind of a wake-up call. People are protesting against or in favor of something and if you look to the real results, for instance, in the French election, what really counts is the national election for the Parliament, and Le Pen, de facto, gained only few seats, nothing more, de-facto disappeared in the Parliament. UKIP the same in Great Britain. There's not a single member of UKIP today in the British Parliament. The AfD made 12.5% - means 87.5% did not vote for these personalities. If you look at League, they are not leading the polls, the Freedom Party in Austria had 26, came in as the third party. I mean, this is legitimate, these are voices of concern, and hopefully a wake up call for the other parties to be more competitive, to be more to the ear and to the mouth and the hearts of the people...

SS: What exactly, what precisely are they protesting? Because you say they are protestors...

WS: It differs. For instance, German election was clearly dominated and also the Austrian election, clearly dominated by migration, that's for sure. Migration, refugees, this was the major issue. And, I think, we are now exactly listening to what the concerns of the people are and changing our policy. This is what democracies are about. We do not have elites flying in the orbit in space, but we are very bound to earth and listen to what are the real problems of citizens. Same in Germany - Angela Merkel changed completely the politics... it is much more now controlling of the inflow of the migrants and refugees, and it will pay off - no doubt about it. This is a way our democracies work. Sometimes you have conflicts - democracy needs drama and conflicts all the time, because you have alternatives at the table. This is not like in a dictatorship - dictator says "yes" and everybody bows... No, in democracies you have to fight for your opinion and have to to listen to the people.'

SS: I want to talk a bit about UK leaving the Union. Things aren't going to be the same, it's happening right now. Do you feel like a powerful member leaving Union - it's going to weaken it, or on the contrary, strengthen it, because you're not going to have sceptical Brits who were part of the pan-European decision-making process?

WS: I'll define my answer as, maybe,both. It weakens us, of course, economically, because the British economy is a strong economy, an outward-looking economy, it weakens us because Brits have an excellent international network, good contacts all over the world - in Asia, in Latin America, in America, et cetera - so this weakens us. On the other hand, it strengthens those who are really interested to go much more forward in a way to strengthen our foreign policy, to strengthen our defense capability - not in competition with NATO, but for instance, in peacekeeping operations, within Africa or in Balkans or in other parts of the world, mostly with a UN-mandate or EU mandate or COE mandate. So this is something where the Brits were always very reluctant. So this is something where the rest of the EU could go deeper into a better integrated Union. But both is probably true. The same for Great Britain - I think, economically, it will be a disaster for GB, because a lot of companies will move to the continent. It will create a lot of tensions and problems, they will have to establish new bureaucracies, controlling the environment and consumer protection, it will make all these atomic security issues and trade issues into a very complicated areas. It will not be easy for the Brits. On the other hand, they will have then a little bit more room to maneuver. At the end they will decide and will have to decide are they now better off - I doubt it a little bit.

SS: I want to quote, once again, Jean Claude Juncker, who said recently  that Britain “will have to pay” for leaving the European Union. Sometimes it feels like Brussels is being very hostile to Brits because it wants to scare other members from following London's example. Why they are being so harsh?

WS: That's the question of the bill, the so called "Exit Bill", I think the Brits know and they are quite skilled negotiators - they know, during their time as part of the EU, they decided on something which they are now responsible for as well. You can't go away, you can't order something and then go away without paying the bill. The question is how big is the bill - is it really 100 billion, is it 60 billion, or is it 20 billion, but Theresa May said this has to be negotiated. But I think it should be negotiated on a fact-based way, not to punish somebody or to make a cheap win. I think, in the end, they will find a compromise on that.

SS: Austria’s Sebastian Kurz, whose party has just won the country’s elections, has blamed Brussels, and, in particularly, the EU refugee policy for Brexit, and that's contrary to the official European view - does he have a point?

WS: It was not so much a blame game, it was more or less the concern that if we don't change our rules... the Schengen zone has, de-facto, two elements - no borders inside the Schengen zone, but an excellent and efficient control on the external border. This did not work.

SS: Do you feel like if Brussels haven't been that harsh with the refugee policy, especially with Britain, Britain could have still been a part of the EU?

WS: I doubt it, because the main issue in Great Britain was to take back control - it has nothing to do with migration because GB is not member of the Schengen zone. They control their borders, they have not the same currency, they are not part of the EU prosecution and judicial system - so this is not the real problem. The real problem was "take back control" - in my opinion, the Brits made a big mistake, they opened from the very first moment the labor market for all the East European migrants, and they expected 50,000 people to come from all 10 EU member states and in the end 1 million Poles, along, came. This was an absolute mistake, a miscalculation.

SS: Austria, a country that has at first welcomed refugees with open arms, is now passing serious measures, such as a ban on face veils. How has it come to that?...

WS: No, this has nothing to do with the refugees.

SS: It kind of does, because most of the refugees are of Muslim origins.

WS: Yes, but we didn't have many refugees with burkas, and only burka is forbidden, and not hijab which is just veiling your face. This is a different case. I think the principle issue is what are our values and in our European, Austrian system, we want to see the faces of our people. It's for sure.

SS: You don't feel like Austria is turning a little bit right, politically?

WS: Not at all, not at all. Everybody has the same rights, but if an Austrian woman goes to Saudi Arabia - she has to wear a veil, and when Saudi Arabian woman wants to travel to us, they cannot wear burka. That's the rule. I think this is quite easy to handle. This is not illiberal, this is a cultural norm and this is something everybody understands. By the way, 80% or 90% of people are of the same opinion - the same in France, same in Belgium and other countries.

SS: Mr. Kurz, who is going to be the world’s youngest leader,he has won on issues raised, for instance, by your far-right Freedom Party

WS: Yeah but...

SS: Maybe it's their victory too, no?

WS: No, their victory is real, but less than Kurtz won, Kurtz won +7.5% in the election last time, on 15th of October, and the Freedom Party won 5% and he was so to say the "real one". He was the one who closed the Balkan route, he was the one, really defending the protection of external borders. Sometimes he was not very much welcomed in other capitals and today it's the common position. In fact, all of the EU member states are of the same opinion, that we have to protect the external border, Frontex needs a better mandate, we have to help those countries outside the EU, the Mediterranean countries - Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, or the Lebanese or the Jordan people, Turkey - we are absolutely ready for this and we have to pay more for the UN refugee camps. It's a big mistake to cut down the assistance to the UN world food program. So this is absolutely necessary for Christian Democrat, to help and to support. But it's also needed, we have to control the flow of migrants coming to Europe, and this is now, in my opinion, the common opinion.

SS: You were the first one actually to welcome the Freedom Party into the government back in the day - and you immediately got a diplomatic boycott from your European neighbours. Do you feel like Mr. Kurtz is in for the same experience right now?

WS: No, I don't think so, because they learned their lesson. The sanctions worked for, in their maximum, for 7-8 months and then they gave it up with now gain at all. On the contrary, the people of Austria were united behind my government and de-facto we proved that this government, built from the People's party and Freedom Party was actually pro-Europe. We decided nearly unanimously on EU enlargement and on the EU treaties - the European Constitutional Treaty was de-facto unanimously decided in the Austrian parliament. Today it will impossible, anyway, with an Austrian parliament, which has huge majority - so we proved that we can reform our country, we are still a pro-European country, but with our own priorities, and I'm sure Sebastian Kurz will do the same. He's pro-European, he's a proven Foreign Minister with a good credential, and I'm sure the Freedom Party today is also well aware that their partners are not Le Pen or AfD, or UKIP or someone else, but those who are interested in a well-functioning EU. Maybe with some critical elements - decentralization, subsidiarity more, okay, but pro-European.

SS: Current Austrian leadership is less anti-Russian than their predecessors - do you think will we see a shift in Austria’s policy now, maybe a movement towards easing of sanctions?

WS: Austria was never anti-Russian, that's for sure. On contrary, we see our country as a kind of bridge of our cultures, of our people, and we will never be anti-Russian. Of course, we were not happy with the annexation of Crimea, because you should do it according to the international law, there's the possibility for self-determination...

SS: You know what Russians are going to tell you about it, right? They're going to give you an example of Kosovo and...

WS: Yeah-yeah-yeah, that's for sure. In my opinion, there's the need for a better regulation in the international law for all these things, maybe for Catalans and all these questions. This is decided in a very ambiguous way. Either you there's the UN charter, the right for self-determination, or on the other hand, there's the integrity of countries and borders. So I think we see our country as a bridge -we are absolutely not-anti Russian. We think, after the elections, there's a window of opportunity and we should look where could be so to say a positive spiral upwards - if Europe and other friends do this, Russia could answer in that way... So, to develop a much better functioning situation. I think everybody's interested, because nobody is gaining at the moment. The sanctions are working, but de-facto they are damaging both sides. That's the reality. They are damaging our economy, they are damaging the Russian economy and the Russian financial system... I know a lot of people who are looking for creative ways to get better results.

SS: Wolfgang Schuessel, thank you very much for this insightful interview. We want to thank the Grand Polyana 1389 Hotel for letting us host our program here.