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Austria and the Balkans, Between Interests and Populism

Historically, Austria is one of the EU countries which has the tightest relationship with Southeastern Europe. Are the Balkans still present in Austrian political debate? Which are the topics that interest the Austrian public the most?

Yes – writing also for German newspapers, I can say that the Balkans are more present in Austria than Germany, for example. At the same time, I have to say that the interest towards the region in the Austrian public sphere has been significantly decreasing over time. In my view the main focus today is on economic interests and ties. What is missing is regional expertise from the political actors in Austria when it comes to the Western Balkans, something which is much more visible in Germany. The Balkans keep being interesting because we have also many people from the diaspora living in Vienna, and of course, because the region is physically close to Austria. That is why, as a correspondent from the Balkans, I can still publish a lot of materials in Austrian media, something I probably could not do in other EU countries.

So the cliché that Vienna is “the capital city of the Balkans” is still true…

Yes, but I would say only half true. Of course, there is a lot of diaspora there, but things have changed since the 1990s when the refugees came from the Bosnian War. When it comes to migration – and this is one of the main issues which was reported about the Western Balkans in the last couple of years – migrants are no longer coming from the Western Balkans. The so-called Balkan route which crosses the Balkans to Austria was followed closely by the media, but at the political level it was mainly an opportunity for populist politicians like former Chancellor Sebastian Kurz to score some points for themselves.

Does Austria have an autonomous foreign policy when it comes to the Balkans?

There are some initiatives, but nothing that I would define as exceptional or very effective. Austria remains one of the EU countries who is honestly interested in the accession of the Western Balkan countries to the EU. This is mainly driven by economic interests, because a lot of Austrian companies are already in the region. Of course, for those who do business, it is far better to operate within a rule-based environment with no borders. But when you look deeper into this issue, what what can a small country like Austria do in order to really support reforms or progress? I do not see a substantial contribution, but I do not blame our politicians for that: we are just to small to move the process further.

Do you see a clear, coherent policy by the Austrian authorities when it comes to the management of migration passing through the Western Balkans?

As I mentioned, since 2015, this has been mainly driven by political convenience. People who come to Austria via the Western Balkans mainly come via Serbia and then Hungary. Interestingly our Chancellor, Mr. Karl Nehammer, built a cooperation framework on migration with the governments of Serbia and Hungary, two far-right populists, autocratic regimes. But, at the same time, he is vetoing the Schengen accession of Romania and Bulgaria, accusing these countries of being responsible for the migration to Austria, which is just not true. I believe this whole migration issue was used in Austria to score political points, to blame other countries, to create fears and manipulate the public. But I see no transparent and honest debate.

Do you think there are also deeper rooted reasons why Austria is against Romania and Bulgaria joining the Schengen area? What are the consequences of this stance in bilateral relationships between Austria and these two countries?

I believe this is pure populism: there are no deeper roots, and the position of Austrian politicians is very shallow. If you go into this debate and you ask these politicians: why do you stop the accession of Bulgaria and Romania? They do not have a point, they do not have a real argument. It is pure distraction. At the same time, the political establishment does not even care about destroying bilateral relations, especially with Romania, despite the huge economic interests. It is a provincial mindset.

What do you think should change for the Austrian leadership to revise its position on the access of Romania and Bulgaria to the Schengen space?

The problem is, nobody in the European Union understands the current Austrian position. I talked most recently to the Prime Ministers of Romania and Bulgaria, I was just in Sofia some weeks ago. They just do not know what the Austrians want. It is a really difficult situation because normally you can offer something or say, how can we work on this? But Austria only cares about limiting migration.

But are Austrian, the Bulgarian and the Romanian government talking?

I think there is a conversation between the Bulgarian government and the Austrian one. That is also why Bulgaria was less critical towards Austria than Romania. The Prime Minister of Bulgaria told me they are trying to convince their Austrian counterparts, and of course there is also pressure on Vienna from outside.

Bucharest, on the other hand, is very critical. And I think bilateral relations are substantially ruined. Austria somehow betrayed Romania, as Vienna always told the Romanian government there were no substantial problems with Schengen. And then they suddenly pulled a 180. Nobody understood what happened. It was most likely because of an electoral campaign in Austria, and it has nothing to do with migration or with Romania or whatever.

Eventually, I believe that if the Netherlands – the other EU member traditionally most opposed to new Schengen enlargements – accept Bulgaria and Romania for Austria it will not be possible to resist too long in saying “no”.

Source : Balcan Icaucaso