A Talk with Austria's Ambassador to the US

I’m a Euro-booster. As one who formerly lived in Europe I desperately want the European Union to work, because I very much want to see a second super-power in the world that is Western, and committed to political liberty and a market economy.

And on a personal level, because I lived in Eastern Europe for years, I share their desire to be integrated into a strong European Union.  My wife is Polish and my children will soon have dual US/EU citizenship.

That said, I am also a Euro-skeptic. I see unresolved issues of local sovereignty, continued unwillingness to become militarily self-sufficient, immigration issues and a common European identity that remains very weak.

HUMAN EVENTS Political Editor John Gizzi and I spoke to The Honorable Eva Novotny, ambassador of the Republic of Austria about her views on the EU. Ambassador Novotny is extremely well-informed, thoughtful and, while recognizing that there are problems with “no easy answers,” optimistic about the future of Europe.

We spoke with her about Slovenia assuming the presidency of the EU. She described this as a very exciting moment for Slovenia and Austria, in view of their historical and geographical ties, and as a sign of the increasing integration of the EU with the former Eastern Bloc countries.

We asked about Austria’s advocacy of the admission of Macedonia into the EU.

“It’s not just that Austria is a strong proponent of admitting Macedonia, it’s that the EU will not be complete until we have admitted the countries of what is called the Western Balkans. It concerns not just Macedonia, but also Albania and the former Yugoslav republics, which constitute a sort of black hole in Europe.”

But with the EU expansion into the “Western Balkans” comes the problem of Kosovo and their demands for independence. Ambassador Novotny pointed out that the Russians have said they will accept no resolution of this sensitive issue without the consent of Serbia. She also noted Americans said that they would recognize a unilateral declaration of independence of Kosovo. The Kosovars themselves tell them that their patience will run out in December — and Europe is caught in the middle.

The implication of this is that Europe is attempting to become the fourth super-state in the world, and does not have the military capability to settle a local territorial dispute or the clout to tell two other super-states to butt out of its affairs.  Or to even settle disputes among smaller members.

And this is not just a problem in the Balkans. In the recent election, a candidate for Chancellor of Germany said that the post-war Polish/German border adjustment should not necessarily be considered final — to Poland’s great consternation.

The ambassador remarked, “One of the best things about the European Union is that all of these border issues don’t really matter any more. Within the European Union we don’t even notice the borders. They are getting irrelevant. There’s no point in going back through history, we have turned a big leaf in history in the development of the European Union.”

History teaches that this view is utopian. I have experienced first-hand the reaction of Poles in the western part of Poland — formerly the easternmost part of Germany. German tourists flock to these areas, many come to see the properties owned by their families before the war. A whole service industry has grown up around it, and Poles are glad to see the hard currency — they just wish it didn’t come attached to so many Germans.

“Every time I hear German spoken in these lands, I feel like people I don’t like are coming to my house,” is how one Polish woman put it. She further remarked that, “A European Union seems like a good idea to me, but it’ll be a long time before I think of myself as European first and Polish second.”

Ambassador Novotny takes a more cosmopolitan view. “Identity is not a single concept, but occurs in various layers,” she said. “I’m from Vienna and have a strong identity as Viennese. I also have a strong identity as Austrian. I have a strong European identity when I am in the United States or Japan. So identity is like an onion, one you can peel. I definitely have a European identity, a very strong one. But it does not override my Viennese or Austrian identity, they complement each other.”

When the United States agreed upon a structure of union, one of the provisions they agreed to write into the new constitution was a guarantee that the federal government would not exercise its power over the states to alter their borders. The EU has, as yet, no agreed upon constitution, although Ambassador Novotny says that one of the political tenets of the EU is not to interfere with the borders of the member states, how the federal structure of the Union would deal with secessionist demands in Flanders, Silesia, etc has not yet been put to the test.

Nor is it simply a matter of territory changing hands, but of the movement of peoples. Immigration is a sensitive issue in Poland where it concerns the rights of passport-free travel and purchase of real estate by Germans in the former German lands. In the prosperous countries of Western Europe the question of immigration from non-EU countries has become a matter of concern for the very survival of a European identity.

The question arises if Europeans are coming to see themselves as a united people — on the eve of the extinction of their civilization.

“We have to look at the broader picture here that in Europe we are faced with an aging population and birth rates are not sufficient to replenish population,” the ambassador told us. “So you have a shrinking workforce, people who live longer, need more social services and more health care. So you need immigration for the workforce and to keep your tax base going etc. At the same time you have a growing resistance towards immigration. And that makes a conundrum which is very difficult to resolve and needs a lot of political wisdom to deal with. France, Spain, Italy have always been open to immigration from North Africa and that’s a particular problem.”

Novotny concluded, “But of course the question is there, how far can we open the country to foreign influence. And there is no easy answer. We are trying to work on common EU policies, but of course it’s difficult because the mood of countries varies.”