‘We have no problem with Islam but we don’t want any disruption or anything that goes against our cultural values’ – Watch Video
A longstanding diplomat who joined the Austrian Foreign Service in 1978, Dr Brigitta Blaha gave a talk on Austria’s Foreign Policy at The Pakistan Institute of International Affairs (PIIA) on 9 February 2016. Prior to her present posting in Pakistan as Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Republic of Austria, Dr Blaha had served her country in Washington, Bangkok, Rome, Tokyo, Hong Kong and New York. An astute diplomat, she speaks German, English, French, Italian and Spanish and has extensive experience in dealing with integration and foreign affairs, Austrians abroad, citizenship matters, elections, social and health and Labour issues. The event was chaired by Dr Masuma Hasan, Chairman, PIIA, former Cabinet Secretary to the Government of Pakistan and former Ambassador of Pakistan to Austria, the UN and International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna.
Certainly, in the existing political milieu, the interest in EU matters is amplified because of the continuing exchange between David Cameron and EU leaders. As we know so well, these days nothing in European politics is as important as the UK’s exit, or “Brexit”, from the EU. With a record one million people arriving irregularly in the EU last year, swelling numbers of refugees are giving rise to extreme Xenophobia in Europe and Austria is no exception. As noted in the recent lectures given at the PIIA by Turkish and Syrian diplomats, the humanitarian calamity in Syria is the dynamo behind the mass exodus and a Europe-wide war against the unwanted is raging on at the moment. In such testing times, few voices accord with reason.
For ambassador Blaha, the EU is a “very successful project of peace”; if anything, as a superstructure it has kept war at bay; it has promoted equality and is symbolic of Europe’s foremost achievements in the aftermath of apocalyptic war and disaster. But of course, as seen in the Calais Jungle etc, the entire system of EU immigration and asylum law has been exposed as betraying those fleeing persecution who are seen as parasitic economic migrants disguised as refugees.
Dr Blaha said Austria has a very flexible foreign policy which is in effect a policy of total neutrality. The reportage and videos from our event on Austria’s Foreign Policy are available below and are followed up by some blog commentary on the highly important subject of Brexit which seems to be overshadowing events in Europe. The ambassador also answered questions on die Integrationsfrage, or the integration question in Austria.
Austrian envoy terms European Union a successful model, Dawn, Haneen Rafi, 10 February 2016. (Minor editing by PIIA)
In the question hour session after Austrian Ambassador to Pakistan Dr Brigitta Blaha had spoken about her country’s foreign policy, the thread of the conversation repeatedly returned to the strains and stresses within the EU, of which Austria has been a part of since 1995. She said that EU membership played a “pivotal role” in Austria developing its relations with non-European countries such as those in Asia, Latin America and Africa. In relation to the touchy issue of sovereignty, she explained that even though the EU exerts a strong influence over Austrian foreign policy, EU membership equally offers Vienna new opportunities in the global system.
With rising concerns with refugees from conflict-ridden areas headed to the shores of Europe, as well as member states facing extreme financial uncertainty, the future of the EU is anybody’s guess.
Dr Blaha was asked to share her views at the PIIA on Tuesday about the EU’s internal tensions, to which she responded in very guarded words about not being able to prophesise the future. For her:
The EU has been a very successful project of peace and we have not had any conflict ever since the Second World War which is a great achievement. However, there are crises at hand and adjustments need to be made as the EU started with six members and now has 28; structural adjustments need to be made which is not always easy.
With the impending referendum in the United Kingdom which is to decide whether or not the UK should stay in or leave the European Union by the end of 2017, Dr Blaha said that the EU was trying very hard to not make this exit happen.
PIIA chairperson Dr Masuma Hasan also questioned Dr Blaha about the current status of Austria’s largest foreign labour force — the Turks. According to Dr Hasan, on her previous visits to the country, she felt the community had not much integrated into Austrian society and asked Dr Blaha about her opinion on the matter.
The Turkish labour force residing in Austria, many claim, are increasingly ghettoised and at the receiving end of a hostile local population.
According to Dr Blaha:
Originally we needed labour so they were invited from Turkey and the Balkan countries, but the idea was that they would come to Austria, work, and eventually return to their own countries. However, that did not happen. At present they are part of our society, though may not have been integrated to the same degree as other ethnicities that came from other parts of the world.
She also shared that efforts were under way by the Austrian government to fully integrate the Turks and provide them with religious freedom to practice Islam “in accordance with our values, laws and regulations.”
Dr Blaha also spoke about the strategic importance of Austria in the cultural and political arena. “Austria considers itself an international bridge-builder and a place for inter-cultural and inter-religious dialogue as these contribute towards global trust-building and peaceful coexistence.”
Another area that Austria is emphasising on with regards to foreign policy is human rights. “The promotion and protection of human rights is one of our main priorities and in particular the rights of women and children, the safety of journalists, the promotion of freedom and religion, the protection of religious minorities and combating human trafficking,” said Dr Blaha sharing her thoughts with the audience in the historic library of the PIIA.
Austria, after being declared a sovereign state, aimed to establish itself as a neutral state and to this day shies away from getting involved in the domestic politics of other countries, and in conflict areas, especially with regards to military involvement. “This active policy of neutrality was present even in the time of the Cold War. Even though Austria shared borders with communist countries, we always considered ourselves as ideologically part of the Western community of democracies. This is the basis of our foreign policy,” added Dr Blaha.
Austria’s envoy says human rights protection an integral part of her country’s foreign policy. The promotion and protection of human rights at home and the world over forms an integral part of Austrian foreign policy, and we have no problem with Islam but we want everyone to practise their religion within the ambit of the rules and regulations stipulated by the government.
This was stated by Brigitta Blaha, Austrian ambassador to Pakistan, while addressing the media, intellectuals and members of the PIIA on Tuesday evening. She was providing an overview of the Austrian foreign policy.
To a question as to whether the Turkish immigrant labourers had managed to assimilate into Austrian society especially as far as religious freedom was considered, she replied:
We have no problem with Islam but we want everyone to practise his religion within the ambit of the rules and regulations stipulated by the government. We don’t want any disruption or anything that goes against our cultural values.
Talking of human rights, she said that it particularly included the rights of women, children, and religious minorities. She said Vienna had become a centre of international developmental institutions and the fight against international terrorism. She remarked that:
In the domain of international development cooperation, our emphasis is on poverty reduction and fostering international peace and amity … We aim at a cultural dialogue because culture is a very important ingredient of international amity.
In this regard, she said there was a plan to sponsor a training tour of Pakistani musicians to Austria. By and large, she said, Austria had a very flexible foreign policy:
It is a policy of total neutrality. We do not allow any foreign military powers to use our territory and we don’t join any military pacts. As for our leanings, we are more inclined to the ideologically democratic Western camp.
In 1955, she said, Austria became a member of the United Nations, and Vienna was home to so many United Nations organizations like the UNIDO, and other international economic organizations like OPEC (Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries).
Austrian foreign policy, she said, existed in concentric circles. The first one was the immediately neighbouring countries like Switzerland, Liechtenstein and Germany, she said. Then came countries like those of southern Europe and the states of the enlarged European Community (EC), after which came the countries of the Middle East and the Mediterranean, and later the countries of South and South-East Asia. She added:
We believe in having peace in the Middle East and the Mediterranean region. We have strong links with the nations of South and South-East Asia.
To a question about the fissures that were making themselves visible in the EC, her opinion was that the EC had been a very successful organisation and that there had been no intra-Europe conflict after World War II. The talk was followed by a highly involved question-answer session.
In his letter to the president of the European Council – Donald Tusk – about a new settlement for the UK in a reformed EU, David Cameron stressed that British concerns boil down to flexibility and his proposals for reform included (i) economic governance (ii) competitiveness (iii) sovereignty and, of course (iv) immigration. Eurosceptics in his party instantaneously denounced him and mocked him for selling out to Brussels and among other things his package for reform was labelled a “thin gruel”. On the other hand, influential leaders such as Barack Obama and Xi Jinping expressed their preference for the UK to stay in the EU.
Tusk responded by trying to appease Cameron by offering him sweeteners but in eye-watering headlines across the country, the British prime minister was bluntly told that Tusk’s deal was “a slap in the face” for the UK. For example, the deal fell short of an express pledge made in the Conservative election manifesto that promised to ban all welfare benefits to EU migrants. But “hand on heart”, Cameron said that he has achieved the manifesto’s EU goals despite only getting an “emergency brake” on benefits rather than an outright ban. On economic governance, he only got “necessary reassurances” from Tusk who said that British taxpayers cannot be made liable for bailing out the disaster struck economies of the Eurozone. Notably, it is not just Cameron who wants a new deal for his country; in light of Dr Blaha’s talk it is interesting to note that Austria’s hawkish foreign minister Sebastian Kurz has also told the press he wants to adopt Cameron’s emergency brake measure in Austria.
On competitiveness, Tusk said that “the relevant EU institutions and the member states will make all efforts to strengthen the internal market and to adapt it to keep pace with the changing environment” and so Cameron may have gotten what he wanted. On the sovereignty issue and “ever closer union” with the EU, Tusk responded by saying that “ever closer union” is “not an equivalent to the objective of political integration”. Tusk’s reply reiterated the EU’s strong commitment to the principle of subsidiarity and proposed a “red-card” system. Under the system, a group of national parliaments making up more than 55% of votes on the council would be able to veto EU legislation.
As Professor Steve Peers has argued, and indeed it is apposite to let him have the last word on the testing subject of EU law, the proposed changes may appear modest at first blush but in relation to EU immigration are nonetheless quite significant because cumulatively they represent:
the first time that EU free movement law would be reversed rather than extended.