Following the Ibiza video scandal that involved former Austrian Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache, the coalition under Chancellor Sebastian Kurz collapsed within just a few days. A no-confidence vote brought down the interim government and with it also the controversial foreign minister Karin Kneissl.
Kneissl was nominated by the far-right Freedom Party to serve as Foreign Minister but always maintained that she was party neutral. In this final interview, she speaks about Austrian foreign policy, neutrality and EU politics as well as about relations with Russia.
In retrospect, was it a mistake to be nominated as Foreign Minister by the far-right Freedom Party? Was it possible to be party neutral minister, as you always emphasised?
No, I don’t think it was a mistake. At times, it was tiring having to explain time and again that I am party neutral. This was not easily understood by everyone.
And let me clarify: I was actually asked by Sebastian Kurz in July 2017 whether I would like to be a candidate on his list for the elections with view of maybe becoming Foreign Minister. At the time, I explained to him that I wanted to be party neutral and therefore did not want to be on a list in an election campaign.
After the parliamentary elections in autumn 2017, Heinz-Christian Strache approached me about a nomination by the Freedom Party as an independent Foreign Minister. I spent four sleepless nights and then came to the conclusion that it would be cowardly to say no.
Looking back at the past 17 months, hardly anybody in my cabinet had any party affiliation. I also managed to realize a few initiatives. But in the end, it was a balancing act.
The past weeks saw a political crisis in Austria unprecedented since the end of the Second World War. The video that was secretly filmed on the island of Ibiza showed the former Austrian Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache offering government contracts in return for financial support, causing great damage to Austria’s reputation. Do you think that the Freedom Party is fit to govern?
Like in any political movement, the Freedom Party consists of a collection of very different personalities. Some of them are indeed suitable for ministerial office, others not. I was asked to serve as an independent expert minister. Unlike party politicians, I never had to spend weekends at party events or campaigning. I used this time to write my speeches.
How can a small, neutral country like Austria define its own foreign policy while being a member of the European Union (EU)?
First of all, it makes a very big difference whether you are a member of NATO or not. I realized very quickly after taking office that I was excluded from some information concerning energy and security, which are handled via direct NATO channels. Take the example of the informal Gymnich meetings of EU Foreign Ministers, that candidate countries also attend. My colleagues from Albania and Montenegro had better access to their counterparts from France and Great Britain because of their NATO membership.
But the truth is also that EU countries have a range of different interests and this will always be the case. I do not see a scenario where the EU will really have one common foreign and security policy. We are not the united states of Europe. I don’t see this happening, even in the long-run.
Should unanimity voting in the EU be abolished?
No, I don’t consider this a good idea. I believe that the problems are somewhere else, namely: the absence of a genuine political debate. My experience was that most ministers, if they show up at all, read prepared statements. Sometimes there were only 15 out of 28 ministers in the room. The task of the High Representative is to truly prepare our Council meetings and not to shy away from real political debates.
How would you characterise Austria’s neutrality policy? Can it be reconciled with EU membership?
For Austria as a neutral country, the presence of international organizations is an essential part of our foreign policy profile. In Vienna, we host the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Organisation for Organisation for the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and the UN, among others. In line with our capacities, we are always ready to provide peacekeepers for UN missions. Let me also point out the de-mining project in Syria, which I launched and where we are testing the ground.
However, I do remember the times before Austria became an EU member in 1995. Eminent professors of European law insisted that neutrality was irreconcilable with EU membership. Those same experts later changed their opinion in favour of neutrality and EU membership.
When Austria joined the EU, I worked in the cabinet of late Foreign Minister Alois Mock and I do remember feeling a little bit confused. So, to answer your question, I still believe that it would have been more consistent to abolish neutrality on becoming a member of the EU, or else not to become an EU member and maintain neutrality, as Switzerland has done, as embodied in the Austrian State Treaty of 1955, which ended foreign occupation after WWII.
Can neutrality be reconciled with increasingly deeper cooperation on defence issues on the European level?
To me, defence cooperation in the EU is still more talk than action. Given the security challenges of hybrid warfare and cyber security, we all have to reshuffle our priorities. It’s no longer about the number of tanks, but about intelligence gathering and software.
You initiated the so-called Sochi dialogue (similar to the Petersburg dialogue initiated by Germany, or the Trianon dialogue by France), together with Austrian President Van der Bellen. Can Austria help ease tensions between Russia and the West?
Currently, Russia and the West are at a loss for words. Even at very informal gatherings, such as at the World Economic Forum in Davos, I did not see any real dialogue. One of President Putin’s advisors once told me: “During the Cold War, we talked more than now.” I think that this is dangerous and for me the Sochi dialogue is a way to counter this trend.
Do you think that Austria is currently strongly pro-Russian?
It is true that we engage in intense diplomacy and talk to each other rather than about each other. When it comes to business, there are also other countries in Europe that are active in Russia. For example, big energy companies such as Italy’s ENI, Britain’s BP and France’s TOTAL are heavily engaged in Russia, actually on a much bigger financial scale than Austria’s OMV.
To be taken seriously, it is always useful to defend one’s own positions and interests. Thanks to the excellent professional relationship, which I managed to establish with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, our dialogue was always rich in substance, open and frank. And don’t forget that we back the EU’s sanctions against Russia and stick to them in every detail.
Can Austria act as a mediator between East and West?
For this to happen, we have to be actively approached by the parties. The US and Russia don’t need a mediator, Trump and Putin can always talk to each other, as they have done before. However, I can say that we have provided our good offices in other situations, for example in the name dispute between Athens and Skopje.
As a final question, how should the EU deal with China’s rising power and growing global influence?
As I have written in my book Changing of the Guard, we have to keep in mind that China is not only an economic actor but also a geopolitical player. I regret that countries such as Italy or Luxembourg have negotiated separate Memoranda of Understanding with China. Particularly Luxembourg, that is very sound economically and doesn’t really need Chinese money.
Finally, could you imagine a comeback in politics at some point? Austria will have a presidential election coming up in 2020.
Well, as I said before, I never saw myself as a politician, but as an independent expert. Having studied and trained to be a diplomat, I feel at ease in the area of foreign affairs. As of today, I will get back to the manuscripts that have been waiting in my computer since the summer of 2017. I will also work as an energy analyst again in the area of oil and gas.
And of course, I will really cherish the time that I can again spend with my animals.