Austria remains a large investor in Hungary and this will not change in the long run, despite some current problems, says Austrian ambassador Dr. Ralph Scheide to Diplomacy&Trade.
Though the focus of the interview was meant to be the last six decades of Austrian – Hungarian relations, the current migrant crisis could not be avoided. As the influx of migrants and refugees continued, affecting both bilateral relations and each of our countries separately, Diplomacy &Trade asked Ambassador Dr. Ralph Scheide about the economic and social consequences of this latest wave of migration.
He stressed that we have to make a distinction between the short and long term stays of the migramts. In the short term the basic question is how to provide shelter, food and other basic services such as medical care in a decent and humane way while their asylum claims are being processed. Those who are granted asylum in Austria may take part in a comprehensive integration program. These skills, and the most important is a decent knowledge of the German language, are essential for entering the job market as soon as possible.
"Do not forget that Austria, like Germany, has integrated many immigrant workers (“Gastarbeiter”) over the last decades. And yes, there is a shortage of workforce in some segments of the economy but it is far too early to see whether the newly arrived asylum seekers will be able to fill those gaps.
Replying to D&T's remark that there was an open confrontation between two groupings (Visegrad countries without Poland and rest of the union) at the recent informal EU summit in Brussels, he noted that "while there are strong interest groups within the European Union, clearly the most important decision finding format is the EU as such. Of coarse it is normal to have different political alliances on a given issue. It may well be the case that two or three countries have a common position on one issue but completely disagree on other issues. I am referring to the Visegrad countries as well as I am sure they do not always agree on all questions within the EU."
Touching on the last six decades, Ambassador Scheide gave a short summary of this important period for Austria. He recalled earlier times as well, citing the infamous sentence of the French prime minister Georges Clemenceau in 1919 that Austria, after they lost WW1, was "A leftover country". He acknowledges that the period between 1918 and 1945 was a very difficult one, many people in Austria did not believe in the possibility of the existence of an Austrian state.
At this point, the Ambassador addressed an extremely important question: what was the very basis of the remarkable social and economic development achieved over the last decades. The Ambassador made it clear that one key development was the common decision of the two main political parties to work together concerning fundamental issues. "That was a tremendous step forward. Before WW2 a short civil war erupted, political parties fought one another and there seemed to be no perspective for cooperation in the future." - he emphasized.
The so called "Grand Coalition" is a common form of political cooperation in some countries in Europe where otherwise opposing parties work together to lead a country by finding common solutions. Austrians witnessed such a coalition several times since 1945 and it worked. Asked if this could be a good lesson for Hungary the Ambassador said he was not in a position to give any kind of advice on the system of government of a neighbouring country, but considering Austria's experience, clearly this works. "The fact that the main political forces are forming a coalition government does not mean they do not have contradictions. They have very heated debates on several issues but this is normal. They always work on finding compromise, a common understanding. Admittedly, and compared to the Hungarian system, this way of policy making is not very speedy. But it considers the opinions and expertise of a huge bulk of interest groups and stakeholders.”
He also spoke about active neutrality and search for peace after regaining sovereignty, mentioning that Austria quickly became a member of the U.N. and Vienna hosted a series of international talks on arms control. Another point which illustrates the success of Austrian foreign policy is the remarkable presence of international organizations in Vienna and the undoubtedly positive role of the country in finding ways of cooperation with neighboring countries during the cold war.
"We whole heartedly welcomed the fall of communism and the beginning of a new phase in the history of these countries. We considered Hungary a champion among these countries and made every effort to strengthen our political, economic and cultural relations", he said.
This was expressed in a simple way: Austrian companies began to export in large volumes to Hungary, later many of them opened a subsidiary here and some of them even extended their facilities. In addition, cross border cooperation evolved rapidly, joint projects under the EU’s territorial cooperation scheme began being realized by firms and local governments on both sides of the borders as well as the Austrian regions of Burgenland, Wien, Niederösterreich, Steiermark and the three West Hungarian counties. This August, the European Commission adopted the new EUR 78 M cross-border cooperation program ("Interreg") between Austria and Hungary. “We are now working with our Hungarian friends to see how to spend it wisely, mainly on cross-border connections and projects with a strong environmental focus”, he added.
Speaking on the bilateral trade since the Big Change, the Ambassador mentioned the growing volumes and deepening cooperation. Austria remains a large investor in Hungary and according to him this will not change in the long run, despite some current problems. "These problems are the best proof that we need to do even more to adjust European rules to changes within the European Union. We face these problems together and can solve them together.", he said.
Challenges may occur in our bilateral economic relations as well, and we have seen several of them over the last five years. Increased extra taxes on foreign firms and the introduction of stricter rules towards retailers are examples of negative news to Austrian companies. These steps continue to put pressure on Austrian businesses in Hungary. Therefore, D&T asked the Ambassador how Austria can influence these processes and how the interests of Austrian companies can be defended here.
"For foreign investors a conducive legislative environment is one of the most important factors. Otherwise, they will look to other countries. They need stability and a business friendly approach, whether in Hungary, Austria or any other state. Earlier during the year there was a welcomed agreement between a big Austrian bank, the Hungarian government and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. While the realization of this agreement has not yet to be fully completed, we hope that this process will go smoothly in the interest of both sides", he expressed.
Other important fields of bilateral relations are developing cultural ties further and deepening cooperation in education. The Ambassador was proud to mention at least two major institutions which are good examples of this positive cooperation: the two Austrian Schools for primary and secondary education and the Andrássy University, both in Budapest. The latter plays an important role for the German speaking countries as it is the only university outside these countries where the education is in German. "There was always a strong cultural presence of Austria in Hungary and vice versa. It is a fantastic experience to listen to the music of composers such as Imre Kálmán or Johann Strauss. It is much more than neighborhood, it is almost a common identity in many fields.", he said.