Mr Ambassador Gerhard Reiweger, you are already in the third year of your mandate in Romania. If you were to take stock of this period spent in Romania, how would you sum-up the experience so far?
The more I get to know about Romania, the more I am discovering how diverse the country is. Geographically, culturally, linguistically and economically. As a consequence, we have started to put ever more emphasis on the Embassy’s contacts to various regions of Romania. In some parts of the country, the memory of the historic relations to Austria is very much present and kept alive, which increases the interest in cooperation projects, be they in the fields of business, education, culture, tourism, or others. In particular, we try and stay in contact with the German speaking communities that trace their origins back to the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Politically, the past 3 years were a time of change in Romania. We saw the election of a new President and many new developments on the level of government. There was an awakening of civil society and an increase in civic engagement, which I think is a good sign for democracy.
Austrian business has maintained its position as number two in terms of Foreign Direct Investment and we were happy to see that some issues that were of great concern to Austrian companies were improved or solved. In the past years, Romania has seen a significant economic upswing which has further reduced unemployment. Austrian business continues to support the introduction of a dual education system which would alleviate the scarcity of skilled labour in certain fields.
Presently we are looking forward to a close cooperation with Romania on European issues as Austria will hand over the rotating EU Council Presidency to Romania at the end of 2018.
What is the domain of bilateral cooperation that registered the most important progress since you took office?
In the past three years we tried to move forward in many different fields. Political contacts were strengthened when President Klaus lohannis accepted Austria’s invitation to come to Salzburg for an inofficial visit with then Federal President Heinz Fischer in 2015, and we were glad to see PM Sorin Grindeanu come for a working visit in Vienna this year.
Economic cooperation is another important field in our bilateral relations. If business figures are good it is mainly a success of private sector activities. These were, however, often initiated and strongly supported by the work of the economic department of our Embassy. Trade figures are up and our list of business grievances has decreased significantly.
The Cultural Forum at our Embassy successfully organized Austrian contributions to many important film, art, theatre, music and dance festivals in Romania. Among the highlights were Klaus Maria Brandauer’s performance in the play “Das letzte Band” in Sibiu/Hermannstadt and a performance of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra at the Enescu Festival in Bucharest. Last year the Austrian Cultural Forum successfully coordinated a major international cartoon festival in Bucharest, which was a joint project of European cultural institutes.
Personally, I put a lot of effort into strengthening our ties to the big cities of the country. We were able to give a push to city partnerships and increase education cooperation. In 2015, we were happy to open a new Austrian honorary consulate in Constanța, our third honorary consulate after Timișoara and Sibiu.
How would you describe your cooperation and dialogue with Romanian authorities, on topics of major interest for the bilateral plane but also for common Europe?
I am happy to note that we always find strong interest in an exchange of views and in cooperation projects with Austria, both with central and regional authorities. We have regular contacts with the President’s office and the Foreign Ministry on European topics and there is a regular exchange of visits on the working level. In the field of economic legislation we are advocating a more systematic system of consultations with the respective business sectors. The role of our Embassy in this respect – contrary to what some people think – is mainly to help with the flow of information by keeping communication channels open.
In a recent statement, you pointed out that Austrians do not know enough about Romania and creating a country brand is “a challenge.” What is in your opinion – as representative of a country whose brand is well-defined and well-known all over the world – the most important trump card that Romania should put to good use in an optimal way in building its country brand?
Nation-branding is a difficult exercise. And the most difficult part of it is the development of a clearly defined strategy. Decision-making on a nation branding strategy ought to include all relevant stakeholders, and those are many: government, the business community, civil society associations, e.a. At a recent conference in Cluj, the Center for the Study of Democracy at Babeș-Bolyai University, in cooperation with the Foreign Ministry and the President’s office successfully tried to initiate a discussion about what Romania could and should do in that respect. If I were asked for input I would propose to make Romania’s multicultural tradition a key element of any nation branding strategy. In this way Romania’s historic links to the rest of Europe could be highlighted and would play well with audiences abroad that still know little about this country. A courageous move would be to tackle a negative stereotype about Romania head-on by making Romania’s successes in fighting corruption a country trademark.
With the Brexit dossier on the table, the EU must show unity now more than ever, considering that other dossiers that are important for the common European project are also major priorities for the leaders of the Union. From this point of view, the future mandates of Austria and Romania at the helm of the European Council are forecast to be not easy at all and full of challenges. What are the biggest challenges for post-Brexit Europe and what role will Austria play in the negotiation process?
Austria will hold its 3rd EU Council Presidency in the second half of 2018, when the Brexit negotiations might reach their crucial round. Coherence of the EU27 and safeguarding the interests of the European Union are essential for the success of the negotiations. The European Commission and the EU Member States must closely interact during the whole negotiation process. The Austrian Council Presidency will contribute here as much as it can. In order to best protect the interests of European citizens it is indispensable to concentrate on essential issues: migration, protection of our external borders, security and the preservation of the internal market. The EU will have to deliver on these issues and the Austrian Council Presidency will do whatever it can to help the EU succeeding in doing so.
Another key issue is the impact that the UK’s leaving the European Union will have on the EU budget. Under Austrian Council Presidency first discussions will start on the next Multi-annual Financial Framework. Austria – but also the succeeding Council Presidencies – will have to invest a lot of energy in order to seek for cohesion and compromise within the EU27. Finally, Austria intends to use the Brexit momentum for an open and constructive debate on the future of the EU.
What are the steps already taken by the Austrian and Romanian authorities for the success of the collaboration between the two presidencies of the EU in the second half of 2018 and the first half of 2019 respectively, when Romania will host a post-Brexit summit, as President Juncker recently announced?
Austria is very much committed to close cooperation with Romania and the next trio presidency in order to have a smooth hand-over of dossiers. There are regular bilateral consultations in European affairs on the levels of ministers, state secretaries or director generals, the last such bilateral consultation having taken place in Vienna at the beginning of October.
The Diplomatic Academy in Vienna has submitted a tailored offer to the Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs for the training of Romanian officials in view of the Romanian Council Presidency. As the so-called “trialogues” are very important in the decision finding of the EU, the Austrian Foreign Ministry will encourage Austrian line ministries to keep close contact with their Romanian counterparts during our presidency.
We would be delighted if the cooperation during our respective EU Council Presidencies would lead to a closer partnership between Austria and Romania on EU affairs on a permanent basis.