Logo Assembly Logo Hemicycle

25 January 2018 morning

2018 - First part-session Print sitting

Sitting video(s)

Adress by Mr Alexander Van der BELLEN, President of Austria

Mr Michele NICOLETTI

Italy, SOC, President of the Assembly

12:00:27

We will now hear an address by Mr Alexander Van der Bellen, President of Austria. After that, Mr Van der Bellen will take questions from the floor.

Dear President, it is a great honour for me to welcome you today in the Assembly Chamber. I should say “welcome you back”, as you were a member of this Assembly from 2009 to 2012. I hope that you still feel at home in Strasbourg.

Mr President, we live in a period of transition, when Europe is particularly vulnerable to the dangers of nationalism, intolerance and disregard for the values of mutual understanding and respect. In these difficult times, your election in December 2016 represented a clear message of hope for all those who believe in Europe and firmly hold to our values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

In your inaugural speech, you spoke about the importance of continuing to believe in Austria as being at the heart of Europe, not just geographically but politically. Your firm attachment to a fence-free Europe, strong and tolerant and united in its diversity, speaks for the path that you would like your country to take. Austria is a vital part of Europe. It is a land of unlimited possibilities, as your experience as a child refugee teaches us. I am sure that, with you at its helm, your country will continue to play its traditional role as a bridge builder between people, cultures and nations.

It is a great honour for us to have you here in the Parliamentary Assembly and we very much look forward to hearing your address. It is a great joy for me to give you the floor. Thank you very much.

Mr Alexander van der BELLEN

President of Austria

12:03:33

President, Secretary General, Madam President of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities in Europe, honourable members of the Parliamentary Assembly, thank you. I also see that there are many people up in the gallery. I welcome you all.

President Nicoletti, thank you for inviting me to speak to this Assembly today. Let me start by congratulating you on your election this week as President of the Parliamentary Assembly. Members of the Assembly know you and they trust that you will be able to guide their work during the next two years and to achieve the results that are called for. You and I had a very good and useful exchange of views this morning.

Dear members of the Assembly, this week you elected the next Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe, Ms Dunja Mijatovic, who will assume office in April. I extend my congratulations to Ms Mijatovic and assure her of Austria’s wholehearted support for her in this function. We have had an excellent working relationship with the current Commissioner for Human Rights, Mr Nils Muižnieks, who has paid special attention to the concerns and needs of civil society throughout Europe. We look forward to building an equally good relationship with his successor, who hopefully will be able to carry out this function in all member States of the Council of Europe.

It is a great pleasure for me personally to be back in this Parliamentary Assembly, of which, as the President mentioned, I was a member between 2009 and 2012. As you may know, tomorrow I will have assumed the office of Federal President of Austria exactly one year ago. I take great personal satisfaction in the fact that, during my first year in office, I am able to speak before you here today.

Ladies and gentlemen, as you all know, the Council of Europe is the oldest political organisation of European States. It is through the Council of Europe that we saw the political unification of this continent after the Second World War and the Holocaust. It was the first time that we had an embodiment of that idea. Almost all European States now form part of the Council of Europe.

The history of Europe prior to that was one of ever-recurring conflict and war. Speaking out for human rights – I do not think that that can be emphasised enough – securing democratic basic principles, abiding by the fundamental principles of a State governed by the rule of law, fighting terrorism, promoting economic and social progress, promoting cultural co-operation and promoting the protection of our environment and nature in Europe are the declared missions of the Council of Europe.

This morning, when I arrived in the Palais de l’Europe, I was asked to write a few words in the golden book of the Council of Europe. I wrote as follows: “The Council of Europe is very important to the country of Austria. We are attached to the Council of Europe, our oldest and most genuine pan-European platform. The European Convention on Human Rights is of constitutional rank in Austria. Democracy, human rights and the rule of law are the very essence of Europe. Without these principles, we cannot have the Europe that we all want. Of course, these principles are principles that we must fight for every day. We must secure them every day.”

Almost 70 years after its foundation, the Council of Europe has become a constant presence in Europe. This permanence and the fact that we have a premise based on values is what Europe needs today more than ever. We have already spoken about the three pillars of the Council of Europe – democracy, human rights and the rule of law – but, unfortunately, worrying cracks are appearing in those pillars. Democracy, by which I mean genuine pluralism and proper democratic elections that allow a change in government, does not seem to be guaranteed everywhere in Europe. The full exercise of human rights is in jeopardy in some regions of Europe. As for the independence of the judiciary, in several States there are worrying developments and trends.

It is important that we remember the basic consensus of the past, particularly after the fall of the Iron Curtain. We need to revive that spirit. We are talking about Europe's ability to take responsibility on the international stage, to show leadership, and to influence other regions, whether they are close or far away. That happens, for example, by opening up Council of Europe conventions for accession by non-European States. We are proud of that. We are proud to set an example in Europe of how to cope with conflicts of interest and still move forward. We must safeguard this ability at all costs.

Nevertheless, we all know that in Europe there are still tensions, hotspots and points of conflict. This is reflected in the work done by international organisations, including the Council of Europe. In 2017, Austria had the presidency of the OSCE, where together we achieved a great deal. When it came to real hotspots, we had to consider the circumstances as they were and, unfortunately, we concluded that not much progress could be made. The Council of Europe is not the United Nations Security Council, nor is it the OSCE, yet it has important instruments that, if used wisely and properly, contribute to stabilisation and the potential future resolution of conflicts.

For instance, I refer you to our conventions and the monitoring process for issues such as torture, discrimination against minorities, corruption, and trafficking in human beings. In fulfilling its mandate, the Council of Europe – this is very important – is not dependent on other international organisations. The Council of Europe has tremendous potential and that should be used to the full. All member states should contribute to that. We should be focused and we should work together seamlessly towards that objective.

If I may, I would like to speak about a particularly painful hotspot in Europe, which emerged in spring 2014. A sustainable solution to the conflict in and around Ukraine can only happen if there is a will for peace and real efforts are made by all parties. For that, we need more dialogue, and we need trust between the different sides. The question of the possible return of the Russian parliamentary delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly is one of the most difficult topics that the Council of Europe must address. I very much hope that in the near future the members of the Parliamentary Assembly will be able to reach some kind of agreed method based on consensus that would bring us together, without any winners or losers. The quest for a solution concerns us all, and it is a matter of urgency.

I am aware that the Council of Europe faces serious budgetary problems. This stems from the fact that Russia has suspended its budget contributions since June 2017 and from the decision of the Turkish Government to stop acting as a major contributor to the Council of Europe budget from 2018. I hope that the Russian Federation will review their decision and that it will be possible to arrive at some kind of practical solution with Turkey. Once again, what we need is dialogue, which is key to any progress and a lasting solution.

As you know, the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe plays a leading role in constitutional matters. It is often called on by various bodies of the Council of Europe or by member states to give opinions on matters, which are recognised because of the body’s high level of competence, objectivity and impartiality. The opinions are held in high regard. The members of the Venice Commission are independent, even when it comes to the governments that nominated them. However, I note with some concern that the opinions of the Venice Commission are sometimes being attacked or questioned, particularly if they are not in line with the political preference of the government concerned. We must remember that the Venice Commission has always ensured that its arguments and opinions are based on facts and it has always contributed to removing this potential for political conflict from difficult issues. We must continue to support the Venice Commission.

The European Convention on Human Rights and the European Court of Human Rights are a hallmark of Europe and have been for many years. At the core of this institution, you have the protection of citizens – men and women – who sometimes have to confront their own States. Again, I note with some concern that the rulings handed down by the European Court of Human Rights are not always properly implemented, are implemented slowly or are only enforced in a limited way. We must counter these developments. After all, we all have an interest in ensuring the smooth functioning of the European Court of Human Rights. We need to ensure that the Court is and continues to be in a position to deal with its backlog of cases speedily and to the satisfaction of all. I look forward to my talks with President Guido Raimondi to address such matters.

Let me conclude by saying a few words about my country. As I am sure you are aware, parliamentary elections were held in Austria last October and a new federal government was formed in December. There were various positive, but also critical, comments on this governing coalition in Austria and abroad. It is therefore very important to me to say the following. The overwhelming majority of Austrian men and women – this statement is supported by many surveys – support Austria’s membership of the European Union. In other words, our population is clearly pro-European.

My first mission as federal president took me to Brussels, quite deliberately, to the European Council and the European Commission, and also brought me to Strasbourg to meet the European Parliament. Perhaps it would be appropriate for me to confirm what I already stated on 4 February 2017 before the European Parliament. We are a continent of the “and”, not of the “either/or”. That is what makes us unique on this planet. By way of an example, I can describe my own identity. For some time now, I have seen myself as a Tyrolean, an Austrian and as a European. One does not exclude the other. My home is Tyrol, Vienna, Austria and Europe. In addition, from a political point of view, I am absolutely convinced that the only way that Austria, which is a relatively small State, can achieve its political, economic and cultural interests is within a united Europe. I want to emphasise this point, because when it came to the formation of the Government in Austria I really set great store by that. I wanted to make sure that our Government spoke out about its commitment to Europe. This is very important, as is the continuation of our foreign policy and the fact that we stand by our basic principles, basic rights and basic freedoms. These are non-negotiable principles for us and that is something that is part and parcel of our Government agreement.

As you may be aware, in the second half of 2018, Austria will take over the presidency of the Council of the European Union. We have had talks with our troika partners, Estonia and Bulgaria, and preparations for our presidency are in full swing. I am absolutely convinced that Austria will be looking at the core issues that are of interest both to the Council of Europe and to the European Union, and where the two in fact come together in many respects – for instance, human rights, basic issues regarding the judiciary and democracy. All of this will be factored into our planning for the presidency in the second half of 2018.

In April 1956, Austria was admitted to the Council of Europe, and the European Convention on Human Rights has constitutional status in my country. That is quite unusual, even among member States of the Council of Europe. There are several rulings handed down by the European Court of Human Rights that have contributed demonstrably to the development of the rule of law in Austria, to our status as a country governed by the rule of law. In addition, of course, we joined the European Union in 1995, but our support for the Council of Europe was not in the slightest affected by that event. On the contrary, Austria is determined to continue with this positive commitment to both.

President and honourable members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, I would like to thank you most warmly for your attention and, needless to say, I am at your disposal for any questions you may have.

Mr Michele NICOLETTI

Italy, SOC, President of the Assembly

12:31:30

Thank you very much, Mr Van der Bellen, for your most interesting address. Members of the Assembly have questions to put to you.

I remind them that questions must be limited to 30 seconds and no more. Colleagues should be asking questions and not making speeches. I first call Mr Ariev.

Mr Volodymyr ARIEV

Ukraine, EPP/CD

12:32:16

Thank you, Mr President, for your address to the Assembly. I have two questions. What is your position on the continuing of European Union sanctions against the Russian Federation for ongoing aggression against Ukraine? How can you commend the delivery of a free access lecture in Austria by the Russian Nazi Aleksandr Dugin in which he openly named Ukrainians as a race of degenerates that deserve genocide? It is unacceptable to allow speeches by such a person.

Mr Alexander van der BELLEN

President of Austria

12:32:16

The first question was about sanctions against Russia. Austria is fully committed to the position of the European Union and, of course, was also participating in the decision last December on the continuation of the sanctions. The Minsk Agreement does not show any real development towards a conclusion that the sanctions are superfluous. Economically of course, this is not in Austria’s interests: we have a very close relationship with Russia in trade and in direct investment, but we still accept the position of the European Union and try to keep the dialogue open on all possible – I do not want to use the word “fronts” – in all possible ways.

The second question concerned Mr Dugin. I am sorry: I was not in Vienna and I do not know what happened. If what you are saying is true, it is totally unacceptable. That is obvious. I certainly will not defend that in any way. I do not know who invited him or what the context was, but if what you are saying is correct, I can only say that it is unacceptable in every way.

Ms Petra De SUTTER

Belgium, SOC

12:32:16

I want to thank you for the firm pro-European stance you just took, but I want to express my deepest concerns about the xenophobic and antisocial plans of the new Austrian Government. Austria is the only western democracy where the extreme right now has made its way into government. The whole of Europe is very concerned about this. As a progressive president, you may well have historic responsibility for making sure that your country upholds its obligations regarding human rights and does not lead to a normalisation of extreme right rhetoric. How will you manage that?

Mr Alexander van der BELLEN

President of Austria

12:32:16

I know about this opinion, which is not unique to people outside Austria – it is present in Austria too. It is certainly true that, especially among one of the coalition partners, xenophobic tendencies have been present in past, and also critical attitudes towards the European Union and European unity in general. However, that was the rhetoric of an opposition party, and we will see what the Government really does.

When I think back – it was a different situation, but still – in 2000 we had a coalition of the Conservative party and the Freedom party in Austria, and there was strong concern about the new Government, even with the reaction of the EU14, as it was at the time, levelling so-called sanctions or measures against Austria. After six months or so, the situation quietened. Why? Because you can distinguish between rhetoric and the concrete measures and new laws that were proposed in Parliament. It was a centre-right Government, but they did not violate human rights. They took all kinds of actions against – well, I do not want to go into it really – but actions that were directed against the power positions of the Social Democrats, but not human rights as such, even then.

So personally, I will sit and wait, but use all the opportunities available to a federal president to show you and the people in Austria that civil society is still there. In 2015, Austria had almost 100 000 applicants for asylum. The situation was critical, but it was brought under control with the help of civil society – organisations such as the Catholic Church, other churches, the Red Cross, non-governmental organisations of all kinds and ordinary people who helped with apartments, food, railway tickets and so on. That is the other part of Austria that you should not forget when you look with concern at the new government. I understand up to a point, but do not forget that you are talking not about Austria but about some political developments, which should be taken seriously but should not cause you to panic.

Lord Alexander DUNDEE

United Kingdom, EC

12:32:16

We all appreciate and respect the good example that your country has set on migration policy. As you just mentioned, in 2015 you welcomed 90 000 asylum seekers – more per capita than even Germany. First, in that connection, during your country’s forthcoming European Union presidency from July this year, what plans do you have for improving co-ordination among our European States, both for the handling of future asylum seekers and for maintaining high standards for their fair treatment after they have arrived?

Secondly, taking into account your country’s constructive support for European Union enlargement within the Western Balkans, during your European Union presidency what combined measures will you encourage for that region to advance the necessary reforms and to diminish and control organised crime and corruption?

Mr Alexander van der BELLEN

President of Austria

12:32:16

I did not hear the second part of your question. The first was on the co-ordination of asylum policy in the European Union, and the second was ...?

Lord Alexander DUNDEE

United Kingdom, EC

12:32:16

The second was: in regard to your positive policies towards European Union enlargement within the Western Balkans, what plans do you have in your European Union presidency to control crime and corruption and help the advancement of the necessary political and constitutional reforms?

Mr Alexander van der BELLEN

President of Austria

12:32:16

It will not be an easy presidency, that is for sure. The Brexit negotiations are going on – maybe they will come to an end, maybe not. There are certain financial issues relating to the European Union budget, not least because of the Brexit negotiations, and the situation regarding asylum co-ordination is unsatisfactory to say the least. Still, at the moment the situation is under control. It was different in 2015. In Austria, there was a bit of a time lag in people’s reaction to the fact that the situation was out of control, in the sense that at least 1 million people crossed into Austria – some 10% stayed there – without there being border controls or any information about who was coming or going. It was certainly unsatisfactory, to say the least.

On the other hand, I understand – to a degree, at least – the positions of neighbouring countries that have no tradition of accepting refugees in great numbers. Austria has that history. We had a similar situation after the Second World War, we had 1956 with Hungary, we had 1968 with Czechoslovakia, we had the crisis in Poland in the late ’90s, and we had Bosnia and Herzegovina. Each time, large numbers of people – 80 000, 100 000 or 200 000 – came to Austria in a very short time, so we basically know how to deal with it. I understand that countries such as Hungary, Slovakia and Poland do not have that experience. However, if this continues in the long run, it is not acceptable, after decisions are made according to the rules of the European Council by majority voting, for member States that do not agree with the rulings to say, “Well, you made a decision, but we won’t go along with it.” If that happens in other cases, the European Union will break up. That is no way to continue on our path. I take that almost as seriously as the fact that the distribution of refugees and asylum seekers across the Union is very difficult indeed. Breaking the rules is more serious in the long run.

The government, Commissioner Hahn and I are convinced that the Western Balkans should be one of the priorities for the policy of the European Union. All the countries of the Western Balkans must have a prospect of joining the Union. If we do not take that seriously, a kind of political vacuum will develop and other countries will move in. We have already seen that happen in Bosnia and Herzegovina, for instance, and that is not in the European interest. Having said that, I think we should not be naive. We are talking about five, six or seven countries in the Western Balkans. Commissioner Hahn optimistically estimated that we could have an agreement by 2023, meaning that they could join in 2024 or 2025.

This is not just a question of the countries trying to join the European Union doing their homework. It is obvious that they must do that. It is also a question of the homework that we – the old member States – have to do. I do not think that Union’s present institutional framework can cope with six new members, even if the United Kingdom leaves the Union – and I am very sorry about that. It is too many. We have to think about voting rights in the Commission, who will nominate judges and so on. Such questions have to be dealt with in parallel with the application negotiations with those countries. We should take that issue more seriously, because, as someone said, there is a certain Müdigkeit – fatigue – regarding enlargement in the Union. This clearly puts fire in the discussion.

Mr Rik DAEMS

Belgium, ALDE

12:32:16

Mr President, a member of your government recently stated that asylum seekers should be concentrated in special centres in order to be processed swiftly – foul language. We both know that words can kill. Austrians do not deserve that kind of language, and you did indeed condemn it. My question is the following: what are the real powers invested in you as a president to oppose or block any decisions by the Austrian Government that undermine any basic rights in your country?

Mr Alexander van der BELLEN

President of Austria

12:32:16

Language is important, you are right, and I have said so in public, although I think the interpretation of that statement by our new Minister of the Interior was rather far-fetched, but still.

My powers as a federal president are similar to those of other presidents who do not have real executive powers. I have some influence in how I behave: where, when, on which topic and in what manner I make speeches – that is, influencing the public – and talking to the media, obviously. I have to sign new laws, but I do not have a veto power. I have to check whether the laws were passed with a sufficient majority in parliament. It is very rare for the federal president not to sign a law. I can remember only one case in the last 50 years, which was when President Heinz Fischer was convinced that a small point in the law was contrary to the constitution. It was not terribly important, but still, it was unconstitutional, so he did not sign and parliament had to deal with it again.

I could talk about this topic for hours, but to make it short, one of the problems – actually, it is not a problem, but a good thing – is that our constitutional court is an institution that you can really have trust in. I say that even though I was a sort of victim of one of its decisions, when it annulled the result of the May 2016 election, in which I had won, but by only a small margin. In the end, that decision by the constitutional court turned out to be a good thing, because in the subsequent December election I won not by a margin of 50 000 votes, but by 350 000 votes. So as it turned out, it was right again, but that’s another story.

Any law can be challenged before the constitutional court, depending on certain rules – who is allowed to do that, and so on – so even if parliament passes a law that I have my doubts about but I am not sure whether it is really unconstitutional, and that law is then passed, somebody else can fight it before the constitutional court. This is really a serious matter. The constitutional court is not easily open to political influence. It has about 15 members, and this is something that will come across my desk in the next few months, because judges have to leave office when they are 70, and that is the case for three judges at the moment. Again, I have to sign their nominations to the court.

This is Austria, and that means that the government and I will have discussions – about who the possible candidates are, why they are candidates and why they have been put forward – and usually things like that are discussed before it becomes public that we have different opinions. In this way I have some influence. They make a proposal, and by law I may take the liberty not to sign, because it is a proposal. That is the fine Austrian language, which says: “The president cannot do many things by himself; he waits for proposals by the government,” but a proposal is a proposal. I can say, “No. Please, next proposal.” You do not do that very often, but you can do it.

Ms Ioanneta KAVVADIA

Greece, UEL

12:32:16

I would like to stress the rising far-right trend in many countries, including your own, which is reflected in calls for more border fences, closed borders and a Fortress Europe-type approach to refugees and migrants. This is an agenda that we are seeing adopted by mainstream right-wing parties, including in Austria. Is this not a major danger? I would also like to hear your opinion about the decision by Austria’s Jews to boycott Holocaust commemorations over the rise of the far right.

Mr Alexander van der BELLEN

President of Austria

12:32:16

You can be assured that I have my own opinions about policies towards foreigners, including refugees. Of course, not every man or woman who crosses the border seeking asylum has sufficient grounds to be granted asylum. We all know that. The difficult question is what to do then, but this is not new. We have had this problem for decades, and not only in Austria but in all European countries, where greater numbers are applying for asylum. Personally, I would not wish to make such decisions, I can tell you. We are talking about families being separated and people having to return after living for years in Austria, and it is the same in Italy and Germany.

These are difficult questions. On the European level, we should be aware that we have left Greece alone for a long time – too long. We have also left Italy alone for a long time – too long. Up to a point, I could say that Austria should not complain too much, because we are only worried now that we are having to deal with large numbers, but at present the situation in Austria is – how should I put it? – under control. People have a roof over their heads – they have an apartment; they can live somewhere. Their daily needs are fulfilled and there is practically no violence. Yes, there is bad language – let us call it that – in the so-called media, but there is no actual violence against migrants. Statistically, we have not seen an unreasonable increase in crime, either by foreigners or against foreigners. Still, it will accompany us for years. Even if kids are fully integrated and going to kindergarten and school and so on, we have to integrate the people who are 30 or 40 years old, which will be difficult for the labour market. It will not be easy in any case.

We also have to be careful: when accepting immigrants as refugees, especially from the Near East, we certainly do not want to import anti-Semitism at the same time. I do not want to be naïve: if you grow up in an anti-Israeli environment, which is usually the case for these refugees – and understandable, too – that can easily develop into anti-Semitism, and that is the last thing that we need in Austria or in other countries. The Israelitische Kultusgemeinde in Vienna and in Austria are very careful where they go to commemorate the anniversaries of the liberation of Auschwitz, or the end of the Second World War or the occupation of Austria by Hitler’s Germany. They are very careful about where to show up and where not, and I understand their position.

Ms Dubravka FILIPOVSKI

Serbia, FDG

12:32:16

For Western Balkan countries, political stability, peace, economic co-operation and resolving all open issues through dialogue are crucial. Bulgaria and Austria will have the presidency of the Council of the European Union, which Western Balkan countries see as opening the possibility of speeding up the European Union’s enlargement policy. How do you see the role of Austria in that process?

Mr Alexander van der BELLEN

President of Austria

12:32:16

Historically, Austria has had a very good position in the Western Balkans. In Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia – everywhere – we are welcome as negotiators, either for firms investing directly there or in trying to further trade between our countries, including Serbia. I am happy to say that President Vucic will visit me in Vienna next week, where we will discuss those things. As I said before, we have a strong interest in European Union enlargement in the Western Balkans. It is in the interest of the countries there and of the countries of the European Union, and it is particularly in the interests of Austria because of our strong historical personal and economic relations with all those countries, without exception.

Still, there are some problems, which you will of course know better than me. There is the issue of Kosovo. I mention that because, after Cyprus and the problems between Slovenia and Croatia, the leaders of the European Union are tired of accepting new members that have border problems with other neighbours. Those have to be dealt with before gaining full membership of the European Union. I hope those issues will be dealt with satisfactorily within a couple of years, especially in the case of Serbia. I am fairly optimistic about that.

Mr Michele NICOLETTI

Italy, SOC, President of the Assembly

12:32:16

Thank you. We will now come to groups of three questions.

Mr Sylvain WASERMAN

France, ALDE

12:32:16

My question is about the role of Austria in Europe. Although we judge the coalition on what it does, and although we have faith in Austria’s democratic institutions, politics is about values and convictions, and it seems obvious to me that some of the values and convictions in Austria now are diametrically opposed to what we are doing here. Do you think Austria can really play a full role in European reconstruction, and can you guarantee that?

Mr Jokin BILDARRATZ

Spain, ALDE

12:32:16

In your address, you emphasised that Europe has to be a continent of inclusion, not exclusion. We agree with that, but thousands of people are dying crossing the Mediterranean, and the European Union has not met the various promises within the framework of its principles. How do you value the European Union-Turkey Agreement right now, with regard to migration?

Mr Seán CROWE

Ireland, UEL

12:32:16

Like many others, I was shocked and disappointed by the electoral support that the far right Freedom Party of Austria – the FPÖ – received in the general election in your country on 15 October 2017. Although you had a close battle with the FPÖ candidate in 2016, whom you thankfully defeated, we have a situation in which the FPÖ is in coalition with the Austrian People’s Party. I am extremely concerned that such a right-wing party is in government in Western Europe.

Just two weeks ago, on 11 January, the Austrian Interior Minister, who is from the FPÖ said he wanted the Austrian authorities “to concentrate asylum seekers in one place.” That is a provocative use of “concentrate”. How do you, as an Austrian democrat, respond to that language and extremist approach?

Mr Alexander van der BELLEN

President of Austria

12:32:16

On the first question, about right-wing parties and the future of the European Union, when I worry about the future of the European Union, I worry about developments across the countries of the Union, not in Austria alone. In the long election campaign in Austria for the federal presidency – it lasted the whole of 2016 – it was, in a sense, interesting and tragic that, in the six months leading up to the second election, I tried to take up European topics in every speech and interview, and there was zero echo. Nobody was interested. That situation changed dramatically after the error of the majority of the British people in voting for Brexit. People, including me, suddenly woke up to the idea that it is a real possibility that this fine institution, the European Union, might break up. That changed the whole atmosphere.

At the time of Brexit, the Freedom Party made the mistake at first of welcoming the decision of the majority of the British people. After a couple of weeks, they realised that the decision was not popular at all in Austria, so they changed their position. You might call that opportunistic. I am not calling it that. In fact, I think that it is reasonable and laudable. Nevertheless, if I am in a bad mood, I remember an article that was written, I think, by a German journalist at the end of 1933 or the beginning of 1934. The journalist said that Germany had a democracy – Weimar Demokratie – but that it did not have enough democrats. If I have slept badly, I think to myself, “I do not want to wake up one day and say that we had a united Europe, but we did not have enough Europeans.” If this sort of Müdigkeit – tiredness – with and misunderstanding of the necessity of a united Europe exists, this is not just a question of the relative strength of right-wing parties; it concerns us all.

There was a question about people trying to cross the Mediterranean. The situation in the sea between Greece and Turkey is more or less under control. We are talking about very small numbers of people, and that has been the case for a year or so. Even the situation between Italy and Libya has improved considerably. I really admire the Italian authorities, which, in this terribly complicated and difficult situation, did a great job negotiating with Libya. With whom in Libya? There are no real working political or State institutions there, but the Italian authorities somehow managed to get fewer people on the sea, crossing the sea and drowning in the sea. This brings up a new problem: the people staying in Libya under terrible conditions and the people crossing the southern border into Libya. We have to look at the whole northern part of Africa in order to get the situation there under control. That will cost money, but it is in our interest.

Mr Crowe’s question was again about the Freedom Party. I am sort of tired of this subject. We have to take these developments seriously, but also with tongue in cheek. In Austria, over at least 100 years there was always the potential for a clear right-wing party – under different names, of course. That was the case under the monarchy and after the monarchy failed in 1918. I am not here to worry about France, but I was very, very happy that President Macron won the election last year. In German, we would say, “ein Stein fiel mir vom Herzen”; I felt as though a weight had been lifted from my heart. With France, you could worry that father Le Pen got about 20% of the votes against Chirac, and that Madame Le Pen got about 40% of the votes against Macron. What is going on in France? I am happy for you to focus your interest on Austria, but please realise that this political development is not particular to Austria.

I have thought about this issue. When I won the presidential election about a year ago in December 2016, you could say that there was a coalition of centre-left voters. Hardly a year later, the voters made a centre-right coalition possible. But, if you look closer, that included the same people. Of course, people voted for me who were not greens, social democrats or liberals, but who were very conservative. They did not like the other candidate so, gritting their teeth and making a fist, they voted for me. Hardly a year later, there is an absolutely legal and legitimate position in parliament making a centre-right coalition possible. That is normal in a democracy. Within a very short period, we had centre-left and centre-right majorities. C’est la vie.

I will do my best to keep my many promises to my voters. Among them was that I want to be a president for all Austrians. I have to ensure that I really do keep the interests of all Austrians in mind, not only my voters – although they are, of course, in my heart; the others are in my head.

Mr Michele NICOLETTI

Italy, SOC, President of the Assembly

12:32:16

We must now conclude the questions to Mr Van der Bellen.

Mr President, I am very grateful for the strong message of unity and trust that you have delivered to the Parliamentary Assembly. In closing, I would like to mention a famous South Tyrolean who dedicated his life to the values of co-existence and dialogue. Alexander Langer was a builder of bridges between people, cultures and ideas. He felt that there was no alternative to co-operation between cultures and had a determined vision for a multi-ethnic society. He wrote an article calling for the following: “No to exclusion and to forced inclusion. Yes to human co-existence that accepts complications and differences, and that tolerates imperfection.” For all that, it is absolutely necessary to pay attention to small groups and their experiences. Thank you.