Ambassador Christian Steiner on Austria’s National Day ‘Austria Is Committed to Effective Multilateralism’

By Genc Mlloja

Senior Diplomatic Editor

For many people in Austria October 26 is a day to look back on what they and their ancestors have achieved since the end of World War II, said Austrian Ambassador to Albania Christian Steiner marking the National Day of Austria in an exclusive interview with Albanian Daily News.

The Ambassador mentioned some of the festivities held on this occasion in his country and in Albania where the Embassy traditionally hosts the “Festa Austriake” accompanied by a concert each year, which is one of the largest National Day Receptions in Tirana thanks to generous sponsoring by the Austrian business community in Albania. But, as Mr. Steiner said, due to the current pandemic festivities cannot take place with physical presence this year. “We hope that you will enjoy our National Day virtually on the Facebook page of the Austrian Embassy.”

As we were talking on Covid-19, the Ambassador spoke of Austria’s support to Albania highlighting the fact that his country continues to closely monitor the situation in Albania with regard to the Covid-19. “We - together with our partners - will take into account the new reality of Covid-19 in our further projects.”

Speaking of the Country Strategy of the Austrian Development Cooperation for Albania, which was extended with one year, the Ambassador unveiled that the exact intervention areas will be discussed and agreed upon with the Albanian Government during the year 2021.

Answering a question, Mr. Steiner said Austria sees an effective Pristina-Belgrade dialogue essential for regional co-operation and support and appreciate the endeavours of Miroslav Lajcak as EU Special Representative for the Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue and other Western Balkan regional issues. “We believe that the common European perspective for Serbia and Kosovo is an essential factor in achieving a normalization of their relations and that a structured dialogue with EU mediation is the best way to reach this goal. A close coordination of EU and US efforts is also important to make sure that citizens and businesses in the region can feel the positive change.”

Ambassador Steiner touched upon the EC report on Albania saying that it points out that important progress on key reforms has been made. “However, the report also mentions numerous areas which require further progress such as freedom of expression and media.”

Vienna’s top diplomat to Tirana drew the attention that the pandemic is a big challenge to the international order, and in this frame he quoted Foreign Minister Schallenberg who outlined in his speech at the UN General Assembly this year it fuels the fire of existing geopolitical conflicts, while casting a shadow onto other security threats. “While the fight against COVID-19 has overshadowed everything else, the conflicts and crises around the world have not simply disappeared. Wars and humanitarian crises are not afraid of a virus,” Austrian Ambassador Christian Steiner noted in the interview which follows:

-Albanian Daily News: On October 26, 1955, the Austrian Parliament passed the constitutional law on permanent neutrality, which has been celebrated as the Austrian National day since 1965. Every year, this day is celebrated by Austrian people and in this frame, Mr. Ambassador, which is the significance of that historical day and how do people feel looking back at that event?

Ambassador Christian Steiner: The Austrian National Day is celebrated on October 26 and relates to political developments after World War II. After the end of the War, Austria was occupied by the four Allied forces (Soviet Union, United States, Great Britain, and France), who divided the country as well as its capital Vienna into four zones. Although the Austrian parliament was democratically elected, every legislative regulation or political action of the government at first required consent by the Allied Control Council and later on could still be vetoed by it.

The negotiations over a State Treaty putting an end to the occupation could finally be concluded in the spring of 1955: the Austrian State Treaty was signed on May 15, 1955, in Vienna's Schloss Belvedere and entered into force on July 27, 1955. On October 26, 1955, the Austrian Parliament passed the constitutional law on permanent neutrality.

For many people in Austria it is a day to look back on what they and their ancestors have achieved since the end of World War II. In 1945 Austria was a very poor country with most of the infrastructure destroyed and the economy hit very hard by the effects of the war. Hard work and the support of the Marshall Plan were essential for the reconstruction of the country and the establishment of a flourishing economy.

-As far as I know the traditional celebration has been enjoyed by a series of events in Vienna and other parts of the country. The pandemic has changed everything including festivities. In general, Your Excellency, how has the ongoing coronavirus disease impacted people's life, the repercussions it has caused on the economy and other fields?

-Traditionally the National Day is celebrated with a series of events in Austria:

• The Federal President honours the victims of resistance and lays a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

• New recruits of the Austrian Armed Forces are sworn in.

• The Council of Ministers holds a festive meeting.

• The Federal President addresses the population in a speech on TV.

• Open houses are held at the Office of the Federal President, the Federal Chancellery, ministries and other public institutions.

• The citizens have the possibility of visiting federal museums for free or at a discounted fee on that day.

In Albania the Austrian Embassy traditionally hosts the “Festa Austriake” accompanied by a concert each year. It is one of the largest National Day Receptions in Tirana thanks to generous sponsoring by the Austrian business community in Albania. Moreover, the Austrian Honorary Consulate hosts a reception in Shkodra. Due to the current pandemic festivities cannot take place with physical presence this year. We hope that you will enjoy our National Day virtually on the Facebook page of the Austrian Embassy.

-Despite its burden Austria has seen beyond its 'fences' and the anti epidemic aid, including that of the EU, has been vital for Albania. Looking at the future development of the disease which will be Austria's aid to Albania to cope with its eventual more life threatening growing spread?

-To better cope with the Covid-19 pandemic the Austrian Development Cooperation has supported the people in Albania and in other countries of South East Europe over the past months through the International Federation of the Red Cross and Caritas Albania. Austria has also responded to a request made by the Albanian government in the framework of the EU Civil Protection Mechanism. For Austria it was essential to address the immediate needs by distributing food parcels, hygiene kits, sanitary gloves and hand disinfectants to vulnerable and quarantined persons and families. We have continued our support with medical, mental and psychosocial assistance for patients, their families and medical staff involved in tackling the emergency. On 21 October the Austrian Federal Government put 12 Mio euros at the disposal of Austrian NGOs. The funds will be used to alleviate the effects of Covid-19 in focal countries of the Austrian Development Co-operation such as Albania.

Austria continues to closely monitor the situation in Albania with regard to the Covid-19 and we – together with our partners – will take into account the new reality of Covid-19 in our further projects. Social inclusion, gender equality and empowerment of women have become even more important issues to address due to the pandemic.

I would also like to stress that the EU is the biggest donor in Albania also when it comes to alleviating the effects of Covid-19 providing life-saving medical equipment and support for social protection and economic recovery.

-A country strategy for Albania 2015–2020 has been a guide to the proliferation of Austrian aid for the country. Mr. Ambassador, how much has this initiative delivered and what do you expect from its extension to 2021?

-The Country Strategy of the Austrian Development Cooperation for Albania outlines three priority areas: Governance and Rule of Law, Integrated Water Management and Labour market-oriented Vocational Education and Employability. In addition, social inclusion, gender equality and environmental protection are identified as cross-cutting issues.

The one- year extension of the Strategy allows us together with our partners to consolidate the existing interventions. The exact intervention areas will be discussed and agreed upon with the Albanian Government during the year 2021.

Regarding our further engagement in Albania the main mission is and will remain the support of the EU accession process of Albania and to focus even more on areas where Austria can bring added value to Albania. Since February this year the Austrian Development Agency has been implementing the International Monitoring Operation supporting the vetting process of judges and prosecutors.

-Austria has always been keen on the progress of Pristina- Belgrade dialogue which incidentally has taken a new twist with the energetic involvement of the US in it. In your view, Your Excellency, how much efficient could the two strands of the dialogue, supposedly the economic dialogue led by Washington and the political by Brussels, be? Given the reactions of all sides involved after the Washington accords do you believe the final settlement of the conflict is becoming more possible?

-We see an effective Pristina-Belgrade dialogue essential for regional co-operation and support and appreciate the endeavours of Miroslav Lajcak as EU Special Representative for the Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue and other Western Balkan regional issues. Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg and Federal Minister for European Union Affairs Karoline Edtstadler chose Tirana, Belgrade, and Pristina for their first visit abroad after the break-out of the Covid-pandemic with the Pristina-Belgrade dialogue one of the main topics of the discussions with their interlocutors followed up by further contacts. We believe that the common European perspective for Serbia and Kosovo is an essential factor in achieving a normalization of their relations and that a structured dialogue with EU mediation is the best way to reach this goal.

A close coordination of EU and US efforts is also important to make sure that citizens and businesses in the region can feel the positive change. These efforts are already bearing fruit as a customs station on the Serbian-Kosovo border recently became fully operative with EU planning and financing and US final political tipping.

-What can the EU do more to promote Western Balkans' integration into European value chains as Albania and North Macedonia are expecting the start of the intergovernmental talks within this year?

-The pandemic has shown that for some products it is essential to keep the production sites close to the countries where the consumers need the product. I believe that Albania and the other countries in South East Europe are well positioned to be more integrated into value chains given their geographical proximity and close institutional links with the European Union as was outlined in the webinar “Albania and the Western Balkans after the Coronavirus: opportunities in the new global economy?hosted by the Austrian Embassy Tirana and the Vienna Institute for International Economic Studies on 10 June this year.

Together with the country reports the European Commission has presented an Economic and Investment Plan on 6 October this year. Austria welcomes this package of up to 9 billion Euro which should foster economic development, infrastructure and digitalization in the region as an integral part of the support to the countries on their path to the EU. The Communication stresses the importance of good governance with structural socio-economic reforms, strengthening the rule of law, respect for human rights, and improving public administration as essential to achieve sustainable economic growth.

-In the meantime how much does the political situation in Albania in face of apparent ongoing tensions between the two major adverse political forces mainly on electoral-related issues and a deadlocked judicial system can influence any forward step in the accession process?

-The reform process of the candidate countries was assessed in the country reports presented by the European Commission on 6 October. Austria welcomes that the report on Albania points out that important progress on key reforms has been made. However, the report also mentions numerous areas which require further progress such as freedom of expression and media. The next important step will be to convene the first accession conference. 97% of Albanians support the EU integration process, this seems to be a very clear and strong political mandate to work on this major political goal.

- In conclusion, Mr. Ambassador, I would recall that Austrian National Day relates to political developments after WWII. Before your country's historical event the anniversary of Germany's unification was marked on October 3, while the 75th anniversary of the foundation of the UN was celebrated by the virtual summit on September 21. Unfortunately against the backdrop of these inspiring peaceful milestones shadows of a revival of a new Cold War loom, and which is the stance of Austria in view of this and its contribution for peace and stability in the world given the fact that the COVID plague menaces humanity?

-2020 is a year of anniversaries for Austria. Austria has been an active member of the European Union for 25 years. Austria has profited a lot from EU membership, investment and trade has increased tremendously. In a referendum on EU accession in 1994, 66,6% of Austrian voted in favour. Approval of EU membership has increased since and is currently at around 70%.

The UN celebrated its 75th anniversary, and Austria has been a member of the UN for 65 years and has been participating continuously in UN peace-keeping operations for 60 years. Vienna is a proud host of 40 international organizations, being one of 4 main UN seats with important members of the UN family such as UNODC, UNIDO and IAEA in Vienna. Vienna is also the main headquarters of the OSCE with Albania running a very committed chairmanship this year.

Austria is committed to effective multilateralism. However, the pandemic is a big challenge to the international order. As Foreign Minister Schallenberg outlined in his speech at the UN General Assembly this year it fuels the fire of existing geopolitical conflicts, while casting a shadow onto other security threats. While the fight against COVID-19 has overshadowed everything else, the conflicts and crises around the world have not simply disappeared. Wars and humanitarian crises are not afraid of a virus. On the contrary, many of them were even aggravated by the pandemic. We must ensure that these crises are not obscured by the shadows of COVID-19. We all need to stay alert and not let the headline-grabbing virus distract us. No one should believe that our focus on fighting COVID-19 constitutes a carte blanche for breaching international law or for a military adventure.

Foreign Minister Schallenberg also called for more multilateral cooperation on COVID-19 prevention and effective treatment. Newly developed vaccines must be a global public good, accessible to all at a reasonable price. To this extent initiatives like the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator and its COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access Facility are encouraging and the role of the World Health Organisation is indispensable./ADN