What was hyped but failed

Sovereign duty, problems with the freestyle

The Council Presidency was Austria's third since joining the EU. It took place under special auspices. The current EU Commission under President Jean-Claude Juncker will enter its final year in office in 2019. The European elections will take place at the end of May, before that the EU Parliament will officially dissolve. Until then, it is important to work through as many projects as possible that are in the pipeline, said the long-standing top diplomat and former political director in the Foreign Ministry, Stefan Lehne, to ORF.at.

For this reason, Austria's program was largely predetermined, “you can't invent a lot of new things”. “90 percent were compulsory, ten percent were a free choice,” said Lehne. As far as duty is concerned, he gives the Presidency a good report. Most of the Austrian teams in Brussels and Vienna did a good job. The freestyle, on the other hand, “was not always completely successful”.

Numerous chunks removed

“The Austrian Council Presidency has done a lot in the last few months,” said the German “Politico” journalist Florian Eder, designer of the “Brussels Playbook”, in an interview with ORF.at. Eder's newsletter is required morning reading for the Brussels bubble.

The list of projects that have been initiated and negotiated is long. In the field of renewable energies, the Clean Energy Package was politically finalized after two years of negotiations. There were agreements regarding the regulation of carbon dioxide emissions from new vehicles, the ban on one-way plastic and the traffic package, which, among other things, aims to strengthen the rights of long-distance drivers.

Presidency balance in numbers

  • In the past six months, 2,062 meetings have been prepared and chaired by the members of Austria's permanent representation to the EU.
  • Four EU summits took place during the Council Presidency (including the one in Salzburg), 36 councils of ministers in Brussels and 13 informal ones in Austria.
  • 161 political and hundreds of other technical trialogues were held.
  • In 53 trialogues, agreements were reached between the states and the European Parliament.
  • 75 agreements were reached in the Council of EU countries.

The content of the multi-billion dollar research program Horizon Europe, the expansion of the Erasmus exchange program and a reduced VAT on electronic publications were also decided. Together with the EU Commission, the Europe-wide strategy in the field of artificial intelligence was pushed forward.

At the beginning of December, on Austria's initiative, the member states adopted a declaration on combating anti-Semitism. Progress was also made under the Austrian Presidency in the difficult negotiations on the next long-term budget. At the EU summit in Brussels in December, there was praise from EU leaders for this.

No bridges in migration

The motto of the Council Presidency was “A Europe that protects”. Austria was unable to meet the high goals it had set itself in the area of ​​migration and asylum policy. The increase in personnel at the border protection authority Frontex has been postponed; the “landing platforms” for migrants in the states of North Africa mentioned by Chancellor Sebastian Kurz (ÖVP) at the EU summit in June are off the table for now. "It looked much better on paper," said ex-diplomat Lehne.

At the beginning of the Council Presidency, Kurz announced that Austria wanted to be a “bridge builder”. "At Frontex they wanted that. But they didn't find enough countries that wanted to cross this bridge," said Paul Schmidt, General Secretary of the Austrian Society for European Politics (ÖGfE) to ORF.at. The reform of the Dublin system failed again in asylum policy. Austria had invested a lot of time and energy here: Austria's permanent EU representative Nikolaus Marschik met with his counterparts from the other EU states during the Brussels summer break in August to explore possibilities for a compromise. Ultimately, however, the differences were too great.

"Migration question played too high"

The strong focus on migration policy also met with criticism: “The migration issue was played far too high. If one had used the same energy on climate protection, on the revival of the EU enlargement in the Balkans, we would be further ”, said the former EU Commissioner and ÖVP politician Franz Fischler the“ profile ”.

MEPs with mixed results

“Ironically, when it comes to protecting the external borders, to which the 32-year-old Kurz owes his steep rise, the conservative politician can hardly show any success,” wrote the “Handelsblatt”. In the case of migration policy, the result would hardly have been any different with a different presidency, the German newspaper quoted a Brussels diplomat as saying. "But other governments would probably have spoken less."

Once again, the financial transaction tax has failed. After tough negotiations, all that was possible was to agree on a meager share tax. The balance sheet in the digital sector is mixed: The tax plans for Internet companies were largely thwarted by Germany, Sweden and Denmark, the decision on copyright was postponed, e-privacy remained in the drawer - more on this in fm4.ORF.at.

No to the migration pact as a "disruptive factor"

The Council Presidency was overshadowed by a domestic political decision: Austria's withdrawal from the UN migration pact. Lehne speaks of a “disruptive factor”: “Because of course a chain reaction has been triggered. A number of governments did not want to be less populist than the Austrian one and have joined this trend. "

"A project that in and of itself was nothing more than a signal for greater cooperation between sending and receiving countries in migration and legally non-binding while preserving national sovereignty, has suddenly been stylized into a kind of devil", said Lehne. That was not well received by the majority of EU governments. ÖGfE General Sector Schmidt has a similar opinion: The No to the Migration Pact "was not beneficial to Austria's image because the national interest was put above the EU Council Presidency".

Flowing borders

In the area of ​​migration and asylum policy in particular, the boundary between Austrian domestic and European policy was fluid. “This six-month presidency went hand in hand with the second six-year government,” said “Politico” journalist Eder. as far as migration and the refugee issue are concerned. "

In Brussels, however, according to Eder, something else has been noticed in terms of government cooperation between the ÖVP and the FPÖ: “Sebastian Kurz looks away to the right of the Freedom Party during the occasional failures, as long as they do not become anti-Semitic, where he always drew a very clear line Has. And the FPÖ participates in things that make Kurz appear as a very liberal reformer and which actually their own electorate - as I see from the outside - can not really please. "

"A little luck" in Salzburg

The hospitality and the perfect organization were rated positively from all sides. According to Eder, “a bit of luck” is generally required for a successful Council presidency. That was what Austria had at the Salzburg summit in September. The weather in the city, which is notorious for the sleet of rain, lasted. The result was pictures that will be remembered: the heads of state and government strolling through the Mirabell Gardens in the sunshine, the group photo in front of the backdrop of the Hohensalzburg Fortress.

But what will remain inextricably linked with the Austrian EU Council Presidency in the distant future is “Brexit”. The tough negotiations between the EU-27 and London, led by EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier, were concluded in November. Officially, the Council Presidency played no role in the talks. Kurz was nevertheless active in matters of “Brexit”. The Chancellor traveled to London to see Prime Minister Theresa May and met her before the EU summit in December. "I also believe a bit in the concern about the image of the Council Presidency," said Eder. Austria had less luck with the abolition of the time change. The EU Commission had played the ball to the member states on this issue - but they did not find a common position.

Philip Pfleger, ORF.at, from Brussels