Discussing Current Issues: An Interview with Sebastian Kurz

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Photo by Ksenia Poplavskaya


by Jelena Vićić

Year 2014 marks the 25th anniversary of the end of the Cold War, and possibly the beginning of a new one. The fallout of the financial crisis, the Ukraine conflict, the ISIS threat and anti-immigration sentiments are some of the troubling trends Europe is facing today. About these and other issues, Polemics talked to Austrian Minister for Europe, Integration and Foreign Affairs, Sebastian Kurz.

Jelena Vićić: In your view, what are the biggest achievements since the end of the Cold War, and what are our biggest challenges?

Sebastian Kurz: When the Central and Eastern European countries joined the EU it was a milestone of European solidarity. Accession has benefited both countries joining the EU and established Member States. EU-Enlargement has boosted economic growth and improved living standards in the acceding countries. Today we have to overcome the looming economic crisis and to further strengthen solidarity among EU Member States – that is crucial from my point of view.

JV: Some are saying that we are currently on a brink of a new Cold War. What is your reaction to this statement?

SK: We recently celebrated the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was in 1989 that the perspective of an integration process comprising Europe as a whole became a realistic option. Many of us still remember the special kind of prison the Iron Curtain had created in post-1945 Central and Eastern Europe. The EU is the best guarantee for peace and individual freedoms.

JV: The official name of the ministry you are heading is the Ministry for Europe, Foreign Affairs and Integration. However, the department of Integration joined the Ministry only in March 2014. This almost coincides with your appointment as a Foreign Minister in mid-December 2013, while you previously held the position of the State Secretary for Integration. What were the motivations and reasoning behind the merger? Also, can you tell us something more about immigrant integration in Austria?

SK: Since the very first day of the creation of the then new office of the “State Secretariat for Integration” we have consciously adopted a new and objective approach, entitled “Integration through achievement”. People in Austria shall not be judged on the grounds of their origin, the color of their skin or their religion, but by their achievements. Furthermore I do think that early support is much better than to invest money later. We, therefore, have implemented measures to support children and young people – to have a good command of the German language before starting school, we support measures to reduce school drop-out rates and so on. All issues associated with integration are of crucial importance in order to secure future prosperity and social peace in Austria.

JV: The National Action Plan for Integration looks quite impressive. Austria started implementing the recommendations in 2010, and the proposed time for review was 2014. When looking at the Integration report from 2013 and 2014, it seems like the main focus was the ambitious project of creating a welcoming culture in Austria. Can you tell us more about it?

SK: A welcoming culture helps immigrants receiving information on certain topics right in the beginning and from one source only and this assists the sense of feeling warmly accepted. They would also know whom to refer back to in case of questions. Creating a welcoming structure means the best possible integration from the very beginning on – with a consistent arch of integration from the country of origin through to the conferral of citizenship. This also guarantees long-term chances of participation and social cohesion. And now, with Integration being put under one umbrella with the agendas of Europe and Foreign Affairs, it is possible to reach immigrants at an even earlier point more easily.

JV: Another interesting aspect of the 2014 report is the focus on retaining foreign graduates in the country. Can you say something more about that? What are the specific changes that will be introduced when it comes to the requirements for Red-White-Red card and when can they be expected?

SK: The Red-White-Red Card aims to facilitate the immigration of qualified labor from third countries (including their families) with a view to permanent settlement in Austria, based on objective personal and labor-market related criteria. What we need is a migration policy that enables and promotes the immigration of qualified persons who are needed on the job market, because this creates the best conditions for successful integration. Very highly qualified workers, skilled workers in shortage occupations, other key workers, self-employed key workers and graduates of Austrian universities and colleges of higher education are entitled to gain the Red-White-Red Card. Especially for the graduates some improvements are needed – like including Bachelor graduates instead of Master degree holders only and an extension of the period international students can stay in Austria for job-seeking. We are currently working on this issue with the Federal Ministry of Labor, Social Affairs and Consumer Protection and the Federal Ministry of the Interior.

JV: Austria started welcoming foreign laborers some 50 years ago. However, the Austrian National Action Plan for Integration was created only recently. What makes integration more important today than before?

SK: Over many years, there have been hardly any programs to help newly arriving migrants to integrate into their new country. But the challenges resulting from direct contacts between different cultures and people must not be hidden as it was done before. Today, the Austrian federal government has identified “Integration” as a key issue on its agenda and continues to positively shape social co-existence. We know that we need qualified immigration and successful integration achievements to be able to secure our well-being in Austria. Today, immigrants do not only fill gaps on the job market, they are contributing to the well-being in Austria as a whole. They also commit to voluntary services, while enriching our art, culture and media landscape. Diversity is more and more seen as an opportunity.

JV: While talking about diversity, what are in your view the main obstacles to creating a multicultural society?

SK: The presence of different cultures and languages is certainly an important source of enrichment for Austria these. Yet, we have had too often emotionally-charged socio-political discussions in the past – this was the main obstacle: having negative propaganda on the one hand and naive illusions on the other hand. It is my conviction that facts and extensive expertise must speak for itself, away from ideology and deadlocked dogmas. The point is to recognize conflicts and offer concrete solutions. This approach is also the basis for the National Action Plan for Integration – we are addressing both sides of the migration society here: the receiving society to open the doors and the migrants to participate and contribute. I am convinced this broad approach will allow us to make progress in the field of integration while also benefitting the Austrian population as a whole.

JV: Some criticism of globalization of western model democracy has been coming from Moscow lately. Namely, President Vladimir Putin during the Valdai Conference said that imposing “one’s own models produces the opposite result,” – Islamic radicalism to name one. What are in your view some of the main forces that influenced the emergence of Islamic State of Syria and Iraq?

SK: The reasons for the emergence of the ISIL terrorist organization are manifold. ISIL’s attacks in Iraq this year, possibly planned well ahead, took place at a time of weakness of the central government in the aftermath of the elections. It demonstrated how much the unity of Iraq was threatened by the sectarian policies of then Prime Minister Maliki. ISIL’s strength in Iraq therefore results from a time of successive crises in a troubled region, widespread dissatisfaction with the Maliki-government and an alliance between Sunni tribes and ex-Baathists. The big challenge ahead of us is to obtain inclusiveness in Iraq, The new government has to credibly commit itself to addressing the demands and grievances of the Sunnis and other alienated parts of the population. Only a credible alternative to the politics of the past can create the conditions conducive to political stability, meet the needs and aspirations of all components of Iraqi society and counteract resentment of parts of the population [such as Sunnis and Kurds], thereby depriving ISIL of an important basis.

In Syria, ISIL took advantage of the loss of control by the government over parts of Syrian territory, the crimes committed by government forces as well as of the lack of unity among the opposition forces. Reportedly financially strong and well equipped in terms of arms, it turned out to be attractive to many fighters that came from smaller and less successful members of the armed opposition to the regime.

It has never enjoyed much ideological support in the areas under its control, but the brutal aggression against the Kurdish town of Kobanê has led to new, collective efforts against ISIL’s offensive that has united local forces and the international coalition led by the U.S. being comprised of a wide variety of countries, among them many Muslim countries as well.

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Photo by Ksenia Poplavskaya


JV: Why do you think that ISIS had so much success recruiting in Austria and how do you comment on Austrian approach to jihadists?

SK: We are certainly very concerned with these developments which are currently of key importance for the Austrian government. It is true that about 150 young people from Austria have joined this network of barbaric terrorists. In this context I would like to stress that we definitely must not and will not put Muslims in Austria under a general suspicion. The overwhelming majority of Muslims in Austria does make important contributions to society.

Concerning the jihadists we have to separate them into different groups: a big share of these people is of Chechen origin. Although they have received protection from persecution in Austria they are often traumatized from decades of warfare. Others are socially excluded persons, some are converts and others, in particular young girls, are being seduced via the social media with methods normally used by pedophiles. Regarding the issue of jihadists coming back to Austria, the Ministry of the Interior questions everyone, who is under the suspicion of supporting ISIL. Some are certainly disillusioned having experienced the horrors on the ground. Others have committed crimes, for which they have to be held fully accountable and some are a possible threat, who have to be observed very closely by our police.

We are in close cooperation with the Federal Ministry for Family and Youth as well as the Muslim Community in setting up a network for prevention and de-radicalization. It follows a two-track approach of deterrence and prevention, the latter being the key to giving young people a long-term perspective in our society.

JV: Austria is planning to overhaul the Law on Islam from 1912 in response to rising radicalism. Most importantly, the new bill would ban foreign funding of mosques and imams. What are your thoughts on this new bill? Are there any fears that such a change would antagonize Muslim community in Austria, and how would you respond to them?

SK: We have been preparing the overhaul of the Law on Islam for three years now and the Muslim Community in Austria has always been closely involved. With the new law we make sure that Muslims in Austria are granted their proper rights such as with respect to cemeteries or Halal-food, but it also sets up certain obligations. All official representatives of the Muslim religious communities in Austria have been involved in the various stages of the drafting process. The current draft bill has led to different responses and we remain of course in dialogue with the Muslim community. The final objective should be an Austrian expression of Islam without influence from abroad: it is not a contradiction to be both a proud Muslim and a proud Austrian.

JV: Earlier this year you travelled to New York to address the United Nations General Assembly. In your speech, you spoke about some serious challenges the world is facing today. Amongst them, you mentioned the situation in Ukraine. You suggested that we need to move our thinking from “either Europe or Russia, to both Europe and Russia.” This sounds like a balanced approach that is characteristic of Austria. With that in mind, how do you see the role of Austria as a potential bridge between Russia and the European Union?

SK: We are convinced that the crisis in Ukraine cannot be solved by military means. A sustainable solution has to be political and therefore based on dialogue. This dialogue is what Austria has been promoting ever since. We are a militarily neutral country, not a member of NATO and we host the OSCE, which has taken on an immensely important role in the Ukraine-crisis. We actively support the OSCE missions in Ukraine, including with currently 11 seconded observers. We also see the need for an inclusive national dialogue in Ukraine. This is the only way in which the division within Ukraine can be reconciled. In the 21st century, this conflict cannot be solved without these two dialogues – internationally and nationally. In the long run, a model has to be found in which Ukraine does not have to decide between Europe or Russia, but can choose and enjoy good relations with both. Our long-term goal is a peaceful Ukraine without a frozen conflict in the East and a normalization of relations between the EU and Russia.

JV: Austria is also moving ahead with the South Stream pipeline, a venture that will bring more Russian gas to Europe but that Brussels has criticized for its noncompliance with EU rules. Alfred Gusenbauer said that Austrians are “pragmatists to the core,” adding that, “Some Western Europeans seem nostalgic for the Cold War. They like having Russia back as the enemy. Well, we don’t.” Would you agree with Mr. Gusenbauer’s statements? And how would you respond to criticism coming from Brussels regarding the recent decision to go ahead with South Stream?

SK: Diversification of supplies, both of supplier countries and supply routes, is an important objective of European energy policy. South Stream is a project, which would bring gas from Russia through a new route to Austria and therefore increases our security of supply by adding another route. There is no question that South Stream must comply with European law. This is what the European Commission has said so far and we fully agree. Russia is not an enemy. Cooperation between Russia and the EU is important in order to tackle a whole variety of issues.

JV: How do you see Austria’s neutrality today? Has Austrian neutrality changed in the face of EU’s Common Security and Defense Policy implementation, and especially in regards to recent sanctions to Russia?

SK: Austria declared itself neutral in 1955. Even though neutrality’s nature has since then changed to some extent, two core elements are still valid: no foreign troops are allowed on Austrian soil and no Austrian accession to any military alliances. The last point means that we cannot become member of NATO. But that doesn’t mean that we do not engage in European and International Security Policy or that we don’t have an opinion. Quite on the contrary, we actively participate in the decision making process of the Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP). According to Art. 23 of our Constitution, Austria fully participates in CSDP. Thus, this participation doesn’t affect Austria’s neutrality. We deploy soldiers and policemen to military operations and civilian missions, for example in Bosnia-Herzegovina and in Kosovo. But also as a partner of NATO via the Partnership for Peace (PfP) we are actively engaged: Austria is for example the biggest non-NATO troop-contributing nation in Kosovo.

JV: Some prominent realist scholars, such as John J. Mearsheimer, argue that Europe and the U.S. are the ones to blame for the current situation in Ukraine. He argues that NATO’s expansion came too close to the Russian borders, and threatened Russia and its sphere of influence with the talks of Ukraine and Georgia joining NATO in 2008. Moreover, the argument goes that for Putin, the illegal overthrow of Ukraine’s democratically elected president was the last straw. How do you comment on this analysis? Has the West truly antagonized Russia? Do you see an end to the Ukraine crisis?

SK: First, I have to remark that Austria is not a member state of NATO and thus cannot speak on behalf of NATO. Regarding your analysis: In December 1991 Ukraine had become a sovereign state. The prerogative of a sovereign state is to choose its own foreign policy without interference from the outside. Like we have to respect Russia’s sovereign policy choices if in line with international law, Russia should respect the choice of other sovereign countries as well. This mutual respect of the sovereignty and independence of other countries is an essential part of any solution to the Ukraine crisis and a core principle of international law which must be respected.

JV: How does Austria see its role in the world today? What is Austria’s sphere of influence and what are its objectives?

SK: Austria as a member of the European Union does its best to contribute to shaping European foreign policy by expressing our views on areas where Austria has specific know-how, so where we can add value: the Western Balkans, Central Europe or the Near and Middle East. Particularly with the countries of the Western Balkans and Central Europa Austria enjoys close historical, economic and cultural ties. Therefore Austria can really provide an added value in these areas and I think we are even expected to give our views and input in this regard. It is, in my view, no coincidence that it is an Austrian who was entrusted with the important dossiers of Enlargement and Neighborhood Policy in the new European Commission. Furthermore, Austria is also very active in promoting human rights, in particular with regard to the rights of women and children. Furthermore, Austria is one of the most prominent advocates of a world free of nuclear weapons. In December, just to give you a recent example, we will be very proud to host an international conference on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons.

JV: Finally, what are, in your opinion, the main advantages of your generation in facing the challenges of today and tomorrow?

SK: My generation is the post-Cold War generation. The Iron Curtain collapsed when I was 3 years old. For us in Europe, the years after the collapse of the Iron Curtain were years filled with hope and new opportunities: we are used to travelling freely, we grew up in societies where human rights were respected and we are used to communicating without borders, in particular on Facebook and Twitter. We are therefore used to reacting fast and flexibly to new developments.

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