It’s wise to avoid rash decisions in UK-Russia spy scandal – ex-Austrian defense minister

The poisoning of a former double agent in Salisbury has caused a diplomatic scandal – with the UK calling for united global action against Moscow. But are all countries really on board with the British version of events? We talked about this with Werner Fasslabend, former Austrian defense minister. 

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Werner Fasslabend, former Minister of National Defence of Austria, welcome to the show. It’s great to have you with us today. Austria refused to heed the call of UK’s Foreign Minister Boris Johnson to expel Russian diplomats over the ex-spy poisoning case. Mr. Johnson called for a “united global action” and your country right now, I’d imagine, must be enduring a lot of pressure for not being part of it?

Werner Fasslabend: There was one third of EU members who declared with all the others the clear solidarity with Great Britain, on the one hand. But one third didn’t decide over sanctions and Austria is one of those nine countries.

SS: But does it feel like you’re being pressured because you’re not united with Great Britain on this?

WF: No, I do not see it. Of course, the question was, I think, if that British presentation had a high plausibility, otherwise all the members of EU wouldn't have decided to make a unanimous declaration. But in the question of the sanctions opinions differed because, of course, there was no clear proof, on the one hand. And on the other hand, there was also the question whether it was very reasonable to react with sanctions and breaking the dialogue between Russia and the Western countries. And Austria is one of those countries that is firmly convinced that it is necessary and will be necessary to keep up this dialogue and to talk about all the security matters between Russia and the Western countries.

SS: Former Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt said Austria’s position is incompatible with EU membership, while former Latvian foreign minister Artis Pabriks sees this as ‘a bad joke’. Is there a risk Austria's relationship with Brussels will turn sour because of this?

WF: I do not think so because also the Belgian government had a similar position. Luxembourg - the country where the president of the European Commission comes from - did the same way as Austria, also Portugal, Greece, Slovakia, Cyprus, Malta and others. And so far there was a clear decision from the Austrian side, it was clear that we would not go into sanctions…

SS: You’ve actually hit it on the nose, that was going to be my second question because there are other countries also that aren’t united with Great Britain on this issue. Why is your country singled out for criticism in this expulsion episode?

WF: We thought, you know, that, on the one hand, there was no proof and there is no proof up to the day. If the members of the EU Council probably got more information than we do have as observers and academics all over the world… Still there was no proof. Everybody afterwards said that there was a high plausibility for the case, but there was no proof. And if there’s no proof, of course, you also have to consider your reaction. This is one side. The other one is that Austria will take over the presidency of EU in the second half of this year. And I think that it will be one of the major tasks for Austria to not only try to make good contribution to the solution of the EU problems but also to the EU relations to our important neighbours, and Russia is one of them. And so far it was very clear for the Austrian government not to take part in any sanctions regime but to try to keep up good relations with Russia.

SS: Critics say Vienna selectively invokes its traditional neutrality whenever it feels that its interests are jeopardised. Do you feel that your country is fairly accused of being the EU’s ‘security policy freeloader’?

WF: I do not think so. Austria is a neutral country, but our neutrality is only military neutrality, it’s not an ideological one. And I do not see any ideological problem in this question. Of course, on the one hand, Austria always will try to act in solidarity with other EU members, but it will also go its own way and fight for its own position when it is convinced that it’s necessary. And our government was convinced that it was necessary in this case not to react spontaneously, too fast but to keep open all the channels of information, of dialogue, of speaking about the problem. And as I can see now, this is my personal analysis, due also to the development of the last days, I think, it was the right decision.

SS: So this whole diplomat expulsion business - do you think, it has any profound effect? I mean, you kick diplomats out one day, the situation becomes better and a new group comes in. Besides, half of those states that joined the UK’s measures expelled one single person each. What is one person’s departure really going to change?

WF: It is only a signal. I guess, poisoning of the agent was probably a signal for somebody, I don't know who. But also the reaction of the EU countries certainly was a signal, sanctions were a signal that there’s a red line in the relationship because we are not in the face of a Cold War. There should be not only better understanding, but also better co-operation between Russia and EU, and, of course, every side has to look at its actions and reactions. Therefore, as I see it, it was probably signaling a red line that the relationship even in troublesome cases shouldn’t go beyond a certain limit. And that was clear - this cannot be a nerve gas or chemical weapons.   

SS: Despite the mutual diplomatic expulsions, projects like the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany (which Austria supports) are going ahead. Does this mean that the political gestures like kicking out diplomats are mostly for show?

WF: Maybe the question of Nord Stream 2 is also part of these discussions and these considerations about sanctions, easily could be. But I think that you have to look at it from a reasonable point of view, from a reasonable position, and the position that I see is that for Germany this is an important project. Germany has given up its nuclear capabilities. It is highly dependent on energy from all sides and, therefore, an efficient way of getting energy - and this is certainly North Stream 2 - is and will be important. Of course, you can discuss many things that are linked to it. But I can absolutely understand the German way of keeping the North Stream 2 project as one of the major contributions to its own energy security.   

SS: NATO is boosting its military preparedness in Europe in case of a conflict with Russia, increasing the number of troops, aircraft and ships available for rapid deployment - that’s after the spy scandal broke out. Can NATO be using this row to build up its presence closer to Russian borders even more so?

WF: I do not see that there’s really a build-up of NATO forces against Russia. If you look at the strength of military forces in Russia and in neighbouring EU countries you can see that there are almost no soldiers, no tanks, no fighters in the Baltic states or in some other neighbouring states. And so far I do not see a real danger. What I see is that both sides should try to keep the common trust about their own ways and the common future. If you look back to the last exercises “Zapad” that Russia had last year, you could see the heavy reactions from the Baltic countries. Also, the way it was done in reality, of course, you can see that there’s quite a subjective sensitiveness of danger on the one side. Maybe also on the Russian side - you can judge much better than I can. But what I see  -  there’s no need to do so not in the moment and, I would also say, not in the foreseeable future. 

SS: The EU is planning to create a so-called ‘military Schengen’ in Europe that would see inter-state borders scrapped for moving military equipment and troops. This is seen as a step forward towards accomplishing a European Defence Union that is supposed to reduce Europe’s dependence on NATO. Do you think Europe needs one?

WF: I’m absolutely convinced that NATO is important, on the one hand, but European autonomy will also be important because EU is not only an economic union, but also a political union and it can only be an efficient political union if it also can care about its security by itself. We’re only at the beginning. About 20 years ago I organised the first European Defence Ministers’ Meeting in Vienna. Since then there has been some progress, but the progress is not so strong and now we’re going into a new phase that the European countries with the lead of France and Germany will try to build up some own capabilities. But this will not mean that NATO will lose its function. On the contrary, I think, that old organisations are necessary and will be there also in the next decades.

SS: Austria sees itself as a bridge-builder between East and West. Does it have enough weight and clout to change something between Russia and the Western world?

WF: Because Austria is geographically situated right at the border line between Western Central Europe and Eastern Central Europe it has many links to Western Europe and to Southeastern Europe and, therefore, sometimes we do have a little bit more internal knowledge about what is going on. Maybe sometimes our understanding of people and politics is a little bit different to other Western European countries. But I’m sure that this specific knowledge of Austrian politicians about the situation in other regions is very important and can be a good contribution not only to a dialogue but also co-operation. And I’m convinced that co-operation is important and will be needed from both sides. It is important for Russia and it is important for EU because there is some interdependency between the countries politically, economically and otherwise. Politically - not only for European affairs, but also for the development in the Middle East. Economically - anyhow because Europe is dependent on Russia’s energy and Russia is dependent on industrial incentives and industrial development coming from the European side.  

SS: So Austria has long been calling on the EU to ease its sanctions on Russia, and protested against adding more. The sanctions are hurting the Austrian economy; will business circles force Vienna to do anything to change this?

WF: Of course, sanctions in Austria are not looked upon with great pleasure. But on the other hand, Austria was always willing to carry out common decisions coming from EU, and Austria will do it in the future because a common European security policy is necessary. And even if you have different positions and opinions you have to follow that. And Austria will do it, because otherwise we also wouldn’t be able to influence European politics. We try to do so in a sense of more common projects and more dialogue between the two sides.      

SS: Yours is not the only country in the EU that has a moderate look on sanctioning Russia - however, the sanctions get extended unanimously year after year. Can there be a real difference in opinion within the EU about sanctions, or the protests against them will never go beyond declarations?

WF: Those countries that have more intense economic relations with Russia, like Austria, but also bigger countries like Italy and so on, they are not so happy about it. But they will follow the common European line, this is very important. Otherwise the weight of the European Union and therefore the possibilities and capabilities of those countries within EU would be weakened. And, therefore, I guess, the sanction regime will not be changed just by discussion but by change on the ground.   

SS: Now, as you mentioned, Vienna is presiding in the EU for the second half of 2018. How can this be used to improve EU’s relations with Russia? Would other EU states listen to you?

WF: Yeah, we will have the visit of President Putin in June, I guess, that certainly will bring an intense exchange of views and positions. We will try to use this opportunity already before the presidency in order to find out what are the moments, where are the fields where Austria could act. This is not easy because every side has relatively clear positions and you only can go step by step trying to improve the relations and try to find solutions for minor problems in order to do the next step and to have a bigger progress on the whole. And I think, this way is something Austrian diplomats and Austrian politicians are well aware of and, therefore, will try to do so.    

SS: Chancellor Sebastian Kurz says the country is planning to use its presidency in the EU to work on securing its borders against new waves of migrants. Will this finally fix the spat between the Eastern and Western members over the refugee problem?

WF: I think that now almost all the European countries are aware of this high challenge of not only refugees but migrants coming from Africa and Asian countries. If you look at the demographic development this will not become a minor problem in the future, but the challenge will increase in the future. Therefore, it’s necessary to overthink the European politics and, also, to establish new instruments and tools in order to have a better control at the border. Of course, if you need the consensus of twenty seven countries, as we have to do in the European Union, this is a long way, this is difficult, this is a process that lasts. But there’s a clear will to do so because otherwise this would endanger the overall consensus within EU. Therefore, I’m sure that we will find solutions within the coming months and, I guess, Austria will contribute quite a bit during its presidency in the second half of this year.    

SS: Your old government used to support the refugee quota system, and that's all changed now in Vienna. Does that mean the refugee quotas, the idea that countries have to accept a certain number of refugees - whether they like it or not - is gone for good?

WF: Well, nowadays the actual official ruling is that countries should take more or less a certain number. But, of course, you cannot enforce it within Europe against the will of the governments. As I said already, there are quite a lot of countries that are against taking a specific quota - Visegrad countries and others. You only can execute such a rule if there is an efficient border control. But if the border control is not efficient nobody knows how many migrants will come tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. They will not be ready to take it. And so far efficient border control, on the one side, and trying to get efficient rules for distributing migrants and finding solutions how to handle this challenge - of course, they go hand by hand.

SS: Part of Austria’s migrant integration strategy is a ban on face veils, but right now only a dozen or so people have been charged since it came into force - not so many people have been charged. But actually one person that was charged was wearing a giant bunny costume. It makes us smile a little. So I want to ask your opinion - how effective this ban really is? 

WF: I think, this is not the most important problem that we have in the migration issue. Certainly the most important thing is that people who come to Austria have to learn the language, have to be able to communicate with the others, have to adapt Austrian rules and be ready to live here under the rules of the Austrian government, not only official rules, but the rules coming from the society. This is the most important one. The other one is that you have to differ between those people who have the rights to stay here - these are real refugees - and other migrants that only come to Austria due to economic reasons because they can’t find a better job or to earn more money than they can do at home. It’s not possible to take all those people from all the countries that haven’t a payment that is as high as we have in Austria. And, therefore, you have to differ very clearly between refugees and migrants. Refugees means people who have come to Austria out of security reasons. They have the right to stay here but they have to integrate. And all the others are selected or they have to go back because we cannot take millions and tens, hundreds of millions of people from Africa and other countries.

SS: Alright, thank you so much, Mr. Fasslabend, for this interview. We were talking to Werner Fasslabend, former Minister of National Defence of Austria, discussing the diplomatic rift between Russia and Britain and what role Austria can play here and in other European issues.

WF: Thank you. All the best.