Healthy Euro-skepticism?

25 05 2009

020_19_Merritt

Photo: Giles Merritt (center) speaking at the Public Opinion and Europe symposium. Photo Credit: Matthias Wurz

“Reporting on EU Affairs is boring, and it’s not the journalists’ fault,” exclaimed Giles Merritt, Editor of the Brussels-based bi-lingual journal Europe’s World and Secretary General of the think-tank Friends of Europe, and paused. And while the audience of academics, diplomats, politicians, the occasional journalist and those interested in European affairs caught their breath, he added, with a twinkle in his eyes, “I used to be a journalist reporting on European Affairs.”

Merritt’s provocative remarks were part of an international symposium on ‘Public Opinion and Europe’ held at the Diplomatic Academy on May 6 – 7. Co-organized by the Austrian-French Centre for Rapprochement in Europe and the French Institut Français des Relations Internationales, the conference was chaired by the Centre’s director and former Austrian Foreign Minister Peter Jankowitsch.

In six panel sessions, high-ranking diplomats, civil servants and academics from Austria and a number of EU member states, sought answers to questions on how the public views the European institutions and what could be done about Euro-skepticism. Speakers included French Senator Hubert Haenel, who chairs the senatorial committee on European Affairs; former Director General of Austrian National Bank Heinz Kienzl or Christian Leffler from Sweden, currently Head of Cabinet for EU Commissioner for Institutional Relations and Communications Strategy, Margot Wallström.

The conference concluded at the palatial French Embassy, prominently located at the picturesque Schwarzenbergplatz, in eyesight of the Memorial of the Soviet Army across the large square with its spectacular fountain. As the some 100 participants enjoyed the delicious cuisine française – charmingly hosted by His Eminence Ambassador Phillippe Carré – Giles Merritt, former Brussels correspondent for the Financial Times and regular contributor to the International Herald Tribune, offered and in-depth view on Europe over a glass of exquisite French red wine. Read the rest of this entry »





Krugman Comment: Pröll versus Bankruptcy

3 05 2009

Pröll Budgetrede 21. April 2009Photos: Finance Minister Josef Pröll (standing) delivering the budgetary speech, Apr. 21, 2009. Photo Credit: Matthias Wurz

The plenary chamber of the Austrian parliament was packed by 9:00 on Apr. 21, just like the stands for the general public in anticipation of ÖVP Finance Minister Josef Pröll’s 63-minute presentation of the budget.

At 9:05, Pröll rose from his seat to deliver what was expected to be his most important speech of his career so far, presenting the budgets for 2009 and 2010, which was broadcast live by ORF Austrian Television.

Austria, along with much of the world, is in the worst economic crisis in recent memory and the financial outlook is gloomy. The country’s national debt will increase by 3.5% in 2009 and 4.7% in 2010, well above the permitted Maastricht level of 3%. Consequently, the total national debt will reach an alarming 78.5% of Austria’s GDP by 2013, up from 62.5% in 2008. The bank rescue package (Vienna Review reported, April 2009) weighs with EUR 9.3 billion heavily (2009).

Economic Minister Reinhold Mitterlehner added in Der Standard of Apr. 25 that in order to consolidate the budget in the years to come “we also need new sources of income.” In other words, raise more taxes as the estimated tax income for the state drops by EUR 4.5 billion in 2010. Read the rest of this entry »





NATO passé – Austria’s NATO Strategy

3 05 2009

FRANCE-GERMANY-NATO-SUMMIT-DEFENCEPhoto: from left to right, (Former) NATO General Secretary Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, U.S. President Barack Obama, French President Nicholas Sarkozy and Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel at the NATO Summit 2009. Photo Credit: Getty Images

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), found cause to celebrate this year: On Apr. 4, 1949, the collective defense alliance was founded in Brussels on the eve of the Cold War. Sixty years later and now with 28 member states – Croatia and Albania were formally accepted this year – the organization set out to redefine its role after the collapse of communism 20 years ago.

For the first time, the annual NATO Summit was jointly hosted by two member states, France and Germany, whose “close partnership during the course of NATO’s history symbolizes a vision of a Europe whole and free,” according to the NATO website. Following the Summit, member countries’ leaders called for a new doctrine, as the previous one of 1999 neither reflects the changes in Russia nor takes global terrorism – like the 9/11 – into account.

The 60th anniversary also marked the return of France to the allied command structure – a move hailed by members, though deeply controversial within France. French President Nicholas Sarkozy defended his decision by saying that now was time for change:
“Our strategy cannot remain stuck in the past,” he urged at a talk at France’s Strategic Research Foundation in mid-March, “when the conditions of our security have changed radically.” France, Sarkozy argued, will have more influence in NATO missions while the independence of the nuclear-equipped French military will remain untouched.

But all seems well without NATO for Austria, now surrounded by alliance members, except Liechtenstein and Switzerland. The dramatic NATO membership plea by news magazine profil journalists Gernot Bauer and Georg Hoffmann-Ostenhof in the article ‘Holt uns da rein!’ (‘Get us in there!’ Apr. 6 edition) did not, however, spark any further political debate. All political parties seem happy to remain neutral, including those who once argued for NATO membership. Read the rest of this entry »





Obama in Prague: The Speech at Hradcany Square – an Analysis

1 05 2009

About 30,000 people gathered at Hradčanské náměstí (Hradcany Square) on Prague Castle of Apr. 5 to hear U.S. President Barack Obama. The whole city seemed to have turned out to hear this most eloquent of politicians, waiting patiently in the chill morning.

Today, 20 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, Obama praised the role the Czechs had played through peaceful protest:

“The Sametová Revoluce – the Velvet Revolution taught us many things,” he said, pausing, to allow the applause to die off. Not only was his pronunciation nearly flawless, said Czechs in the audience, but it touched those who had taken to the streets so long ago.

“It showed us that small countries can play a pivotal role in the world events, and that young people can lead the way in overcoming conflicts.” As in 1989, “moral leadership is more powerful than any weapon.”

Obama’s visit to Prague came at a difficult time for the young democracy, with a deepening political conflict between President Václav Klaus, first post-Communist Prime Minister and architect of the Czech Republic’s economic success of the 1990s, the conservative minority government of Mirek Topolánek and the Social democratic opposition, led by former Prime Minister Jiří Paroubek

On Mar. 24, just days before Obama’s arrival and in the midst of the EU presidency, Topolanek’s government lost a no confidence vote in the Czech Parliament over whether to allow some of the controversial U.S. missile defense shield to be installed on Czech territory. Topolanek will step down by May 8 to make way for a transition government of technocrat Jan Fischer, head of the Czech Statistical Office, before interim elections in October. Read the rest of this entry »