Go-ahead for intensified cooperation in Central Europe
Central Europe has been growing together again since 1989. The Central European countries now want to intensify their cooperation even further, especially with a focus on security and migration. This was the tenor at the "First Central European Security Conference" on May 15, in Vienna's Park Hyatt Hotel, attended by more than 150 personalities, including ministers, state secretaries and numerous diplomats from Central European countries. In the future, the conference initiated by Austria is to take place annually in order to strengthen transnational cooperation in Central Europe and to create security awareness for the Central European region.
"There are problems that affect our continent and that cannot be solved by large European countries alone," said Markus Tschank, Member of the National Council, referring to the migration crisis in 2015 and 2016. Mr. Tschank is President of the Institute for Security Policy, which organized this meeting on the initiative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Defense. Partners were the Order of St. George, the Pan-European Movement Austria, SECI (Southeast European Cooperation Initiative) and the University of Vienna.
"There's upside potential"
Initial cooperation efforts in Central Europe need to be further intensified, Tschank said. "There's upside potential." The Member of Parliament is convinced: Europe will in future integrate itself in security policy in such a way that "its primary task must not consist in ever more deeply integrated bureaucratic structures, but in ever more developed security services for its citizens".
Defence Minister Mario Kunasek also has high hopes for cooperation in the region, sending a video message to the participants, as he was in Croatia himself: "Over the centuries, the Central European region has shown how unity through diversity can function. Now forward-looking and joint measures are needed for the security of the citizens of Central Europe. The Central European Security Conference would close "a long overdue gap" here. Minister of Infrastructure Norbert Hofer was also optimistic: "I am firmly convinced that this is a strong start for a close cooperation in the sense of strengthening what is important to us, namely peace, freedom and prosperity in Austria, Central Europe and the European Union".
Influenced by the House of Habsburg to this day
Central Europe was defined by Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl as "a space in which the history of the Habsburg monarchy unfolded". A "multi-layered and at the same time common culture of living" is characteristic for this space. Kneissl quoted the publicist Wolfgang Broer as saying that "a Ladin and Friulian, a Croatian and Slovenian, a Moravian and a Bavarian, a Slovak and a Triestine are associated with an imaginary centre that cannot be located in London, Paris or Moscow". Today, the countries of Central Europe are close friends and partners of Austria in its commitment "to a stronger EU in the areas of security and defence". Kneissl also quoted SKKH Otto von Habsburg: "The further we push the borders of freedom eastwards, the safer the middle will be".
Among the participants of the subsequent panel discussion was the deputy Grand Master of the Order of St. George and Special Ambassador of Hungary, SKKH Georg von Habsburg. "Central Europe has not been pushed together, but has grown organically," he emphasized. Even today one could still learn from the Habsburg Monarchy: "Only in the Austro-Hungarian army were there military bishops, military imams and military rabbis who prayed together for the success of the army. This has not been forgotten in the Southeastern European states. Now it is of primary interest - especially in view of our security - to bring the Southeastern European states "to the EU as quickly as possible".
The shock effect of the refugee crisis
Autumn 2015 left a lasting impression, as especially the discussants from Austria's neighbouring countries made clear. It was agreed that an uncontrolled influx like that must not be repeated. Vesna Györkös Žnidar, Slovenia's Minister of the Interior, was very clear: "Scenarios like 2015 and 2016 are unacceptable". To this day, the EU's measures against illegal immigration are still inadequate. "This situation threatens the foundations of the EU." When more than 1.5 million migrants came to the EU via a Western Balkans route, it became clear "that the EU as a whole is not up to the challenge". Žnidar, however, praised the "excellent cooperation" at that time with the then Austrian Minister of the Interior Johanna Mikl-Leitner.
Lilyana Pavlova, Minister for Bulgaria's EU Council Presidency, found similar words: "Chaos reigned two years ago". Countries bordering the crisis regions felt abandoned. This must change. "Otherwise, the next crisis will come and we'll be unprepared again." And: "We no longer want to discuss, but act."
Erhard Busek, special coordinator of the SECI (Southeast European Cooperation Initiative), also criticised the EU on this point: "There is no mechanism in the EU to deal with this problem". The instruments were missing. Developing them would, of course, cost more money, which the states would then have to be prepared to pay.
"Arrogance towards Eastern and Central Europe"
Busek also sharply criticized Western Europe's current "arrogance towards Eastern and Central Europe". He did not agree with the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán on some issues either, but he was right in accusing the EU of "violating Schengen in 2015, when migration took place boundlessly without people being recorded". Busek also complained that Central and Eastern Europeans were outnumbered in the EU leadership. The former communist countries had a different history, but one could clarify the differences "in the personal conversation and in the argument, but unfortunately this argument takes place far too little.
The still "poor knowledge of Central Europe" among the population is "an educational and a media problem". A great deal could also be done in the area of infrastructure. "In the Habsburg Monarchy it took four hours by train from Vienna to Krakow. Today there are eight." In the past it was also possible to travel from Vienna to Trieste by train.
Europe must do more
No participant doubted that a new wave of migration would soon come to Europe. "The question is not whether it will come, rather when it will come," emphasised Georg von Habsburg. One does not know how the situation of Christians in Egypt will develop. A changed political situation could immediately trigger a new wave of refugees there. Habsburg also wants the EU to be much more active: "When I think back to the economic crisis and Greece, an EU summit took place every two weeks. I would like the EU to address the issue of migration just as intensively."
Concrete proposals were also discussed during the discussion. The Bulgarian Minister Lilyana Povlova presented a new mechanism within the EU developed by Bulgaria during the Council Presidency, on which the European states still have to agree. "The Bulgarian approach is aimed at prevention through new field offices." This mechanism could be proactive, informed and acted on time, with the help of new financial resources and technical support, when another wave of refugees enters Europe. The budget for external border protection and for Frontex is also to be massively increased. Povlova hopes for an agreement before the end of the Bulgarian Council Presidency. Then the Austrian Presidency could pick up where it left off. Povlova praised the excellent cooperation with Austria, which has set similar priorities for its EU Presidency. "It needs a Europe that protects." And: "United we are strong."
Regional cooperation, external border protection, asylum
Slovenian Minister Vesna Györkös Žnidar also made it clear: "We need regional cooperation. National measures alone are not enough." Furthermore, an "effective external border protection" is essential, without which Schengen cannot function. To this day, the EU's external borders are "inadequately protected". Moreover, "the asylum system must not be used as a migration route to the EU". Migrants should be stopped at the external borders. Once they have entered European soil, it will be extremely difficult to get rid of them. Meanwhile there are tens of thousands of people "who do not fulfil the conditions for a legal stay in the country. They go from one country to another. This is a serious challenge to our security. The EU must find an answer to this."
"We have a long way to go," underlined Petar Mihatov, Croatian Deputy Minister of Defence Policy. New Balkan routes are currently being developed. We must be vigilant. Mihatov also said: "We should act now instead of waiting for things to get out of hand." So far, Europe had not been very well positioned in the area of security: "For a long time, defence was mainly in the hands of NATO". Now there is a rethinking. Mihatov sees positive developments here. In the future, an effective division of labour between NATO and the EU is conceivable. It is important to know what to expect from the EU and what to expect from NATO.
Europe's geopolitical position in the world
Markus Tschank hopes that Central European cooperation can also compensate for the current shortcomings of the EU: Since the mechanisms in the EU are currently lacking to master the challenges of migration, the small states in Central Europe would have to "move together, create their own platforms and develop their own mechanisms. That's the only way to fill that gap."
At the same time, however, Tschank sees the EU as a whole as called upon to strengthen Europe's position in the world geopolitically: "The era of automatic interest building with the USA is over," he said, referring to President Trump's new US foreign policy ("America first"). "Europe is now more on its own." Minister of Infrastructure Hofer also stated: "The EU is becoming increasingly important to us in its importance. As individual member states, I do not believe we can survive in this global competition of superpowers."
Foreign Minister Kneissl, among others, underlined that a well cooperating Central Europe can and should also strengthen Europe. She referred to the new book by Erhard Busek and Emil Brix "Central Europe revisited: Why Europe's future is decided in Central Europe". The central thesis is: "Central Europe is the future of Europe". Kneissl stated: "If we take this thesis as the basis of our discussion, then we bear the responsibility not only for our own safety. Central Europe needs Europe and Europe needs Central Europe."