H.E. Elisabeth Kornfeind

Ambassador of Austria to the Kingdom of Belgium and to NATO

on diplomatic activities during the Austrian Presidency of the Council of the European Union.

I have taken up my duties as Austrian Ambassador for the Kingdom of Belgium and NATO in January this year. The second half of 2018 was already marked as the time for Austria’s EU-council presidency. Thus it was clear that Europe and the European Union will play a considerable part of my duties, although the council work itself will be dealt by the Permanent Representation and its officials from all parts of the Austrian administration.

For Austria, this presidency will be the third one, after 1998 and 2006, and it is certainly not comparable to the previous presidencies. Not only has the institutional framework changed after the Treaty of Lisbon, with a president of the European Council and High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy, but also because Europe finds itself in a very challenging international environment. Within the European Union, we see serious discussions among member states. The migration crisis and, before that, the financial and economic crisis, have left their marks, and we have to deal — for the first time in the history of the European integration process — with a member state that wants to leave the EU.

As a medium sized EU-member state, we have to raise all forces within the administration to accomplish our tasks. So far, Austria chaired more than 500 preparatory meetings in Brussels, Luxemburg and Strasbourg and has already hosted roughly half of all the meetings planned in Austria. In total, there will be more than 200 meetings in Austria. In Salzburg the Heads of States and Governments met on 18/19 September, more than ten informal Meetings of Ministers have already taken place or will be due soon. From the start it was clear that we will have certainly a much more challenging semester than during our previous presidencies. As we are faced with a demanding environment for the Council Presidency with Brexit, the start of the negotiations for the next Multiannual Financial Framework, which entails the future focus and priorities of the EU, geo-political developments and unfortunately also internal discussions — it was clear that we have to communicate to our citizens that the EU also delivers on its promises. The motto of the Austrian presidency, “A Europe that protects”, relates to all three priorities.

Security and the fight against illegal migration, securing prosperity and competitiveness through digitalization, and stability in the European neighbourhood, with a clear EU perspective for the countries of South Eastern Europe.

At the same time it is tantamount to secure the unity of the EU. The EU-council presidency puts Austria in the spotlight, both here in Brussels and in the rest of Europe. At the same time, citizens in Austria become more aware of the EU, be it through the topics that Austria has to deal with as presidency, or through the many high level meetings that Austria hosts in different parts of the country.

This half year also provides an occasion to put Austria in the spotlight here in Brussels. Known for its cultural life and its cultural events, Austria will be represented by very interesting and high profile cultural events here in Brussels. To name just a few: a big exhibition on the influence of the painter Gustav Klimt on contemporary artists all over Europe, titled “Beyond Klimt”, will be shown at the Bozar until the end of January 2019. Renowned orchestras, notably the Wiener Philharmoniker, but also our leading orchestra for contemporary music, the Klangforum, as well as the Wiener Symphoniker give concerts, complemented by a variety of cultural events in Brussels, covering literature, theatre, visual arts and dance. The Austrian Cultural Forum Brussels has come up with an interesting program, which we hope will create interest and inspiration. It helps that EU institutions have declared 2018 as the Year of the European Cultural Heritage. There could be no better motto for us to show that a political idea and vision needs the emotional conviction that culture, and cultural exchange can give.

The focus of Austrian government policy lies on European cooperation, in foreign policy but also in advancing the common market. Located in the center of the continent, Austria has a long tradition as a bridge builder between East and West — a tradition we are very much aware of until today. Austria has a strong regional structure and — the nine provinces, the “Bundesländer”, play an active role in European affairs and contribute to a better understanding of the EU on a regional and local level. In this respect, there are some parallels with Belgium, and its strong regions, cities and communities.

Being ambassador to Belgium is a very satisfying job, as there are so many positive ties which can be further developed. Not only do we share a common history, for example under Empress Maria Theresia, whose 300th birthday was celebrated in Austria last year, and who has founded important institutions especially in education, science, arts and culture . The structure of our economies is comparable — relying on small and medium-sized enterprises — and we have strong economic ties. The trade and services volume has reached about 5,6 billion €, and more than 570,000 Belgians visited Austria last year.

There is a vibrant cultural exchange as well. Last year, a large exhibition in Vienna was dedicated to Peter Paul Rubens, and. on Oct 1st, a major exhibition on Peter Breughel the Elder, on the occasion of his 450th anniversary of his death, will be opened at the Kunsthistorisches Museum (Museum of Fine Arts) by His Majesty King Philippe and Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen. Both exhibitions underline the role of these outstanding painters as truly European artists, and the European cultural heritage.

Let me conclude by expressing my hope that the Austrian presidency can contribute that the European Union will emerge stronger and well prepared for the current challenges. On the bilateral level, increased cooperation between Austria and Belgium will benefit the people of our countries, and contribute to stability and prosperity in Europe.

Interview with Barbara Dietrich, CEO Diplomatic World