The Ambassador of the Republic of Austria to the Hellenic Republic, Andrea Ikic-Bohm, talks in an exclusive interview at EBR about the current economic challenges and business opportunities in Greece, the reinforcement of bilateral relations and the European elections 2019
Many Austrian companies have been active for decades in Greece despite the economic crisis. How do you evaluate the bilateral relations among Greece and Austria in terms of the improvement of business environment and the facilitation of productive investments?
Despite the challenges the Greek economy has been facing since 2010, the Austrian companies active in Greece have generally managed to remain very loyal to their customers and business partners.
The circumstances demanded that some restructure their operations and adjust to new circumstances.
However, a few Austrian companies even managed to successfully expand their operations.
Especially production facilities in the field of packaging materials were able to take advantage of the growing attempts of Greek companies to export their products. Greek companies realised during the years of crisis that they need to rely on exports.
In addition, there has been increased cooperation in the infrastructure sector. The privatization of the ports of Piraeus and Thessaloniki triggered Austrian investments. The Austrian company Rail Cargo formed a Joint Venture with the Greek company Gold Air.
Together they applied for and received a license to operate as the first private cargo railway company in Greece. Furthermore, due to the booming Greek tourism sector Austrian Airlines is now operating 82 flights to 17 destinations in Greece during the summer months, bringing ever more Austrian tourists to Greece.
In what other areas is Austria interested in investing in Greece?
Among the many future potential areas of cooperation, there are substantial opportunities in the agricultural sector. Greek farmers are growing a great variety of products which are of excellent quality.
By investing in plants and machineries, an even higher value could be added. Another area, which is of importance for Austrian investment, is waste recycling, a field in which Austrian companies have a leading edge and will always be ready to show their strong interest.
What is your general feeling about the current economic & political climate in the country?
In the past few years, Greece has undertaken tremendous efforts to overcome the economic challenges caused by the financial crisis. The structural reforms of the past few years are finally bearing fruit and many macroeconomic indicators, such as the growth factor as well as the falling unemployment rate are pointing towards a positive trend.
Especially since the exit from the financial programme, on which I would like to congratulate Greece, a positive dynamic can be felt. In order to attract foreign direct investment, the trust in Greece’s economy needs to be reestablished.
Especially stability in the framework of taxation, a business-friendly public administration, regulatory measures that mirror the present requirements and a stable social partnership are important factors for companies’ investment decisions.
The government is in the process of drafting a series of legislative measures aimed at improving the regulatory framework for investors. We are optimistic that a business friendly environment can and will be achieved in the near future.
The FYROM deal has been characterized as a diplomatic success of major importance. What is your opinion about this and specifically how does Austria see the European perspective of the Western Balkans?
The Prespes Agreement indeed constitutes a major diplomatic success, one that has ended a decade - long dispute between two neighboring countries. As both Austrian Federal Chancellor Sebastian Kurz as well as Austrian Federal Minister for Europe, Integration and Foreign Affairs Karin Kneissl have reiterated, the Prespes Agreement is a milestone for the whole region and is positive news that can trigger further progress for the region, especially in times when Europe is faced with challenges on many levels.
Austria has a longstanding interest in the Southeastern European (SEE) region, has supported the EU perspective of the SEE-countries from the outset and has made it a priority in the framework of the current Austrian presidency of the Council of the EU.
Bringing the six accession candidates from SEE closer to the EU in the framework of the enlargement process is a strategic investment in peace, democracy, prosperity, security and stability in Europe.
It is thus in the interest of both the EU and the region and serves as a transformative power and driving force for reforms. The Austrian Presidency has therefore focused on achieving concrete progress in the accession process of the SEE countries by promoting further integration measures.
The motto of the Austrian Presidency of the Council of the EU is «A Europe that protects», emphasizing the fight against illegal migration and competitiveness through digitalization. If you had to make an overall assessment of the Presidency’s work these months, what was its contribution and what should have changed?
In my opinion the Austrian presidency of the Council of the EU has been very successful so far. Austria managed to put her priorities and initiatives on the European agenda in the field of fight against illegal migration, competitiveness through digitalization, and keeping the EU perspective of SEE countries high on the political agenda.
In fact, there has been overwhelmingly positive feedback on the over 200 events organized during the presidency so far both in Austria as well as in other member states. Among the highlights of the presidency so far were the informal meetings on the level of heads of state and government on the 19/20th September and 14 informal ministerial meetings in the formations of justice and home affairs, foreign affairs, general affairs, economy and finance, agriculture and fisheries, as well as one informal ministerial meeting in Brussels on the topic of development cooperation.
These meetings have achieved open discussion of current topics and provided important contributions for facilitating decision taking. A lot of grass-roots work is being done as well to bring forward as many legislative projects as possible to be finalized before the EP-elections in May 2019 – it is a true “working presidency”.
Austria has also contributed on a very important technical issue. Together with the general secretariat of the Council of the EU Austria has laid groundwork in establishing the “Presidency Portal for Informal Events”, an online management tool for paperless preparation of meetings, which will be used by future presidencies to come.
More recently, the EU managed to find a political consensus on the BREXIT agreement with rules acceptable to both the EU-27 as well as the UK. Federal Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and the Austrian Government have always given their strong support to reaching an agreement through which the EU and the UK will remain strong partners.
Chancellor Kurz stressed that his government is pro-European, while at the same time he maintains close ties with the Visegrad group and he decided to withdraw Austria from UN migrant pact. Do you believe that after that Mr. Kurz still wants to reinforce the country’s role as a «bridge builder» in Europe?
Building bridges and facilitating dialogue have been fundamental to Austrian foreign policy for decades. Due to its geopolitical position and its permanent neutrality Austria served as a platform for international dialogue already during the Cold War.
Since 1979 already, Vienna has been host to one of the official seats of the UN and with more than 40 headquarters of international organizations situated in Vienna, emerging as a hub for the promotion of peace, security, sustainable development, disarmament and non – proliferation of nuclear weapons.
Moreover, it has figured as a venue for international mediation and negotiation for decades, including the Iran talks and the talks between Greece and FYROM. Austria is and remains fully committed to multilateralism. If an issue gives reason for significant substantive concerns, and this not only to Austria, there must also be room to voice it.
The very concept of bridge building includes the openness for dialogue and good and respectful relations with every partner around the table. Federal Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has repeatedly called upon Austria’s role as a bridge builder and even more so as EU-Council Presidency. In fact he has made great efforts in contributing to the consensus on the BREXIT-Agreement – a great achievement of all sides involved under challenging circumstances.
Given that the next & most crucial EU parliamentary elections are only a few months away, how would you comment the rapid upsurge of populism in Europe?
In recent years, the EU has had to face multilayered challenges, which also shook the confidence of its citizens. It is therefore of paramount importance to strengthen the citizens’ trust in the EU, as well among member states.
During its presidency, Austria also aspires to bringing citizens and the EU closer together again, for instance by facilitating citizens’ dialogues or by having organized a high level conference on subsidiarity on the 15/16th November in Bregenz.
An EU that listens to its citizens, takes their concerns seriously, tries to find common answers to challenges which need to be tackled by all Member States while leaving space for issues that can be more efficiently dealt with by the Member States or Regions, is what the Austrian Presidency focusses on – also with a view of the upcoming EP-Elections.