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Austria and Cyprus: a valued friendship

Former ambassador of Cyprus Andrestinos Papadopoulos interviews Austrian Ambassador Karl Muller

How does Austria view recent developments in the Cyprus problem and energy in terms of the European framework?

I think that for several reasons, the political environment can be seen as relatively more conducive to a settlement than in 2004 or 2008. In the two years I have been in Cyprus I have already experienced changes in people’s attitudes, not least because of the change of government and the effects of the economic crisis.

First of all, the majority of the main powers and big players in the vicinity want reconciliation to happen.

The USA has invested its prestige; American political representatives have put remarkable political capital and considerable efforts into promoting a resolution of “the Cyprus Problem”.

The UK and France have also done or are doing a lot to create a positive dynamic for these negotiations. Israel has turned from being a mere neighbour and bystander into a political and economic partner and friend of the Republic.

After a kind of twilight period, Turkey seems to be much keener on a solution now and more eager to engage positively with the EU.

I also think that Egypt as a traditionally close partner of Cyprus has an important role to play and this can and will be constructive.

Secondly, the main political forces in the Republic, the Orthodox Church and not least the general population as a whole are clearly more strongly inclined towards a fair settlement now than a couple of years ago.

There are many positive developments resulting from the ongoing work of engaged and committed NGOs, especially in restoration and other mainly cultural heritage projects.

Thirdly, like never before, and partly due a groundswell from the grassroots level, many individuals and mayors and other representatives from the divided communities north and south are working together on projects at the local level which make a difference in people’s lives.

As many examples from other parts of the world have proved: all really fruitful political endeavours have a strong local component. So this is very heartening.

An exclusive economic zone is just that: exclusive. Still, the hydrocarbon finds off the coast of Cyprus and nearby seem to be propitious to the peace process for anybody approaching the indubitable link between these two issues in a reasonable way.

But as Cyprus has repeatedly shown in the past, chances can be missed. It would be a real tragedy if instead of being a boon this became another battlefield.

Over the years our bilateral relations have reached remarkable levels. Can you give us an overall assessment of these relations and how do you see them expanding in the future?

Austria values its friendship with Cyprus very highly.

On most crucial foreign policy issues Cyprus and Austria see eye to eye. Both countries, for instance, now have good and even cordial relations with most Arab countries and with Israel at the same time.

On Iran and the Russian Federation both take a fairly moderate stance, without however acting against common EU positions.

Austria has a long tradition of closely cooperating with Cyprus in international bodies like the Council of Europe or the CSCE and OSCE.

The two countries have frequently supported each other’s candidatures for international organisations for a long time. I am confident that in the near future this already very good political collaboration will be strengthened further.

We have a great deal of mutual trust and experience to build on.

There is still room for improvement in the field of economic cooperation, although here too there have been many developments: most new modern water and sewage treatment plants on the island have recently been built by Austrian companies, and Austrian enterprises have been cooperating in the building and reconstruction of the Vasilikos power station.

Trade, mutual investment, energy and the environment, collaboration in vocational training, education and research, in tourism and medicine are all, in my view, offering the biggest, as yet untapped, potential and mutual benefits.

I see the creation and enhancement of these bilateral relationships as a very important part of my job here.

Austria has always been active in the field of foreign policy. What are its challenges at present, especially in view of what is happening in Ukraine?

The main foreign policy priority for Austria in the last two decades has always been to extend the European zone of political stability and economic prosperity eastward and especially to the area south east of its borders.

Therefore, its main goal is to see the full integration of all the countries of former Yugoslavia and of Albania into the EU as soon as possible. Apart from its cooperation with the countries of the Alpine region, Austria is especially active in the EU Strategy for the Danube Region, all the way to its partners Romania and Bulgaria.

Another region of great interest to Austria, partly overlapping with the Danube region, is the Black Sea Region, which also includes Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Most of these countries including those European countries which joined the EU in 2004 and later are comparatively the most important destinations for Austrian foreign direct investment.

The Laender (provinces) of Austria are participating in a varied and increasing number of trans-national regional cooperation organisations.

Within certain legal parameters they are allowed by the Austrian federal constitution to autonomously sign agreements within such cooperation frameworks. One example is the so-called Centrope Region, linking territorial entities (all with a different constitutional status) of Austria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary.

Moreover, Austria as a whole co-operates regionally more closely in different formats with neighbouring countries. One such grouping encompasses, for instance, Switzerland, Slovenia and Liechtenstein.

Austria has strong political and commercial links, with strong trade and investment, with both the Ukraine and the Russian Federation. So it is no surprise that the Austrian President Heinz Fischer met President Poroshenko a few days after his election and attended his inauguration, and that President Putin visited Austria for a bilateral visit on June 24.

Dialogue and the readiness to talk to each other are particularly important in the present phase. Austria is ready to contribute as much as it can to calming the present tensions. One offer, which has been accepted by the Ukrainian (at first, interim) government in the last few months, was to inform and advise it on the basis of our past experience about the legal foundations, prerequisites and the political ramifications of the Austrian Permanent Neutrality.

In the wake of May’s European elections, the future shape of the EU has become a major focus. How do you view the expectations of Europe’s citizens?

The European elections have indeed shown that the mainstream political centre (including smaller pro-European fractions like the liberals) has increasing difficulties in defending a positive view of the EU against the more critical and populist fringes of the political spectrum.

Saying that, it has become obvious that the reasons for the big protest vote were multifaceted.

Very often, they had to do with weak performances of national governments in office and not so much with bad policies devised by Brussels, or with any lack of democratic legitimacy and transparency of EU institutions.

But the aspirations of citizens have to be better addressed. And promises from before the elections must be honoured after Election Day.

That is why I think that the Austrian government has correctly, from the very beginning, clearly stated that Jean Claude Juncker must be candidate of the European Parliament for heading the Commission.

A new openness should prevail and show all European citizens that decisions which risk being seen as backroom deals (even if taken by heads of governments) can no longer invalidate the direct democratic voice and choice of the people.

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