March 8, 2006
Ursula Plassnik

Ursula Plassnik, Foreign Minister of Austria. She is also playing a key role in the European Union, as Austria now holds the European presidency.

Ipek Cem: Tonight our guest is Ursula Plassnik, Foreign Minister of Austria. She is also playing a key role in the European Union, as Austria now holds the European presidency. Welcome to the show.


Ursula Plassnik: Thank you.


Ipek Cem: The third of October was a key date for Turkey, and also for the European Union, and Austria seems to be one of the most vehement opposers to Turkey’s start of negotiations. Actually, the idea was that the start of negotiations was something that everybody worked towards, but there were certain clauses for Turkey, such as the open-ended nature of the talks, and also the absorption capacity, and we, in Turkey felt a little bit alarmed, a little bit (maybe) left behind by all of these actions. (and) Now Austria is at the helm of the European Presidency and enlargement is an important issue. What has changed since October 3rd when Austria took the helm of the European Presidency?


Ursula Plassnik: There was a lot of emotion surrounding the 3rd of October and it was a difficult situation, I think, for everybody. But I always had the feeling that I had a very good and open line of communication also with my Turkish colleagues and with the Turkish public opinion to the extent that this is possible in such a situation, because the main point was that we should be clear about what we expect from each other, that we should have a very close look at the conditions and at the legal texts that we have to agree upon before embarking on such a great enterprise as is the beginning of negotiations with Turkey. So I think that in the end, we reached a new level of understanding, a bit less emotional, less disappointed, and more sober, more realistic, now that we also have a look at the very concrete things that we have to do. And the very concrete reform process that is on-going in Turkey.


Ipek Cem: You have recently said that you feel some of the first chapters may be opened during the period of your European Presidency. Do you still see that as a feasible goal and what would be the timing of those chapters? May is a date that is being tossed around.


Ursula Plassnik: What takes place now is a rather technical phase of the proceedings, and this is the regular proceeding that applies to any candidate country. It is first of all a “legal home-work”, if you want. It means that in the so-called screening process we have to examine European legislation on the one hand, and Turkish legislation on the other hand. Compare it, see how we can go about the practical negotiations. The first chapter we will be dealing with is research and development. This is a chapter which is relatively an easier chapter. We have invited the Turkish Government recently, as we have invited the Croatian Government, by the way, to present us their view on this chapter of the negotiations and we are expecting an answer. So this is the way we go about in an established routine, and we will certainly be a fair, and matter of fact partner in this negotiating process.


Ipek Cem: We know that on the 8th March there is the Troika meetings with Minister Gül and you’ll be hosting him in Vienna. What are some of the agenda points? What are some of the priorities for these meetings?


Ursula Plassnik: We do have an enhanced political cooperation with Turkey, which means that twice a year the Foreign Ministers are meeting in a Troika format, and this will be done tomorrow. Abdullah Gül is expected, I will meet him later tonight and we will discuss tomorrow. We will go through the international agenda of topics that are of direct concern to the international community such as the Middle East agenda. We will also have an occasion to talk about the domestic developments, the internal reform agenda, in Turkey, and get a brief from our Turkish colleagues on this. We will, I suppose, also discuss the dialogue of cultures and religions to which all of us attach great importance.


Ipek Cem: Recently, with the caricature crisis, there has been a lot of discussion and cooperation with Turkey and the EU, including yourself, including Javier Solana, and then the meeting with the Islamic Conference Organisation. How was that viewed within the EU itself in terms of the different countries, because it was a highly emotional topic as well. Some said there is not enough support for Denmark, some said the Muslims are outraged. It was a difficult topic.


Ursula Plassnik: Well, it is a difficult topic because somehow this cartoon crisis, as we all have come to call it, pulled away the veil from unease that has deeper roots and that needs to be addressed. So you cannot do all that in one day. There is a lot of frustration in the Islamic world, in particular in the Arab world, that has a number of roots and reasons that have obviously nothing to do with the cartoons crisis, but that need to be addressed. Europeans have to express their point of view. Islam for us is not - the Islamic world for us is not something that is far away or outside of Europe. We have Islamic communities in Europe, and we are living with them in a very positive spirit, and trying to do what is possible also to improve mutual understanding, so the dialogue that we need and we are working on will be held on different levels. It will be held inside Europe among the different cultural and religious communities and it will be held with our partners in the world with different organisations, but also with individual countries. (and) We have to take the necessary patience and we have to take the necessary differentiation also to address the subject matters openly and in a positive and constructive spirit.


Ipek Cem: Turkey always talks of itself as a bridge country between East and West. Between Muslim nations and modernity. Do you feel that as Turkey moves closer to Europe, and as Europe moves closer to Turkey, in terms of political-economic coherence that Turkey will be playing this role further with the EU? Do you see such a role for Turkey? How strong will be the dialogue and the discussion between the two cultures?


Ursula Plassnik: Turkey is on the road into the European community of values. Turkey wants to become a member of the European Union. This is what our negotiations are about. This is the aspiration. So, Turkey is a Muslim country, 99% Muslim country, and Turkey is in the middle of an extraordinary development of combining a Muslim society with modernity, with European values, with openness, with pluralism. (and) This is an exciting project, that is very ambitious and that requires enormous changes also in Turkish society, but I think it will be watched form all sides with great sympathy and with great support; how this proceeds; how this development proceeds.


Ipek Cem: We often hear the argument that European citizens, some of them, are very skeptical about Turkey joining the EU because Turkey is so large, and because it’s relatively poor compared to mainstream Europe. We see in the opinion polls, especially in France, in Germany, in Luxemburg, and in Austria, the support for enlargement in general, and in particular for Turkey joining the EU is kind of quite low. If there was a referendum today, Turkey would probably not be accepted by the public of these countries to be a full member of the EU. How do you see this process moving forward, because on the one hand we have the process of negotiations, which as you say is a legal, and a process that will be a technical process. Let’s say in 15 years, Turkey completes the 35 chapters, and legally gets the right to be a member of the EU. (and) Then there’s the case of the referendum. What will happen then if Turkey fulfills all its obligations, but then the public of these countries are still against Turkey’s joining the EU?


Ursula Plassnik: Abdullah Gül, when he was last in Vienna, was asked exactly that question by a journalist. He was asked, “What will you do if a referendum is negative?”. He said without hesitating that you have to accept the outcome of a referendum. I would like to add to this something quite different which is that this is exactly why we have to take this step by step, why we have to realize on both sides that this is going to be a long road. It will have setbacks, and it will have its moments of rejoicing, and we will have moments of doubts on one side or on the other. I think this is something that we have to expect. But we have to keep the goal in our vision. We have to know that this is what we work for, and we also have to work on the assumption that referenda will be at the end of a negotiating process. It will be at the end of a process where we figure out what the solutions can be. So what will be presented to a referendum in Austria, but also maybe in other countries will be the result of a very thorough and a very complete, comprehensive negotiating process that will bring Turkey into the European system of values and rule of law, and this will be the result will be presented to public opinion, and it is under this presumption that I am quite confident being able to present a result, as negotiators, that will be acceptable to the public – and will convince the public on both sides. (because) The Turks also have to agree, they are the shareholders, the stakeholders of this process as well.


Ipek Cem: Yes, in the past year, even in Turkey, the opinion polls show less support for Europe than before and some of it has to do with Europe’s hesitation, some of it has to do with world events, some of it is internal. But you are right: there is hesitation on both sides. I want to move on a little bit to the Austrian Presidency, and some of the goals that you have set for the Presidency, and some of the challenges you have. Especially the European Constitution and there will be the meetings in June at which point I believe you will be presenting a report or a way forward document. Regarding some of the issues, what can be a common goal for Europeans to kind of feel very confident and very motivated with the idea of the EU again? I know it’s not a one-line answer… but just to get a sense of your thoughts…


Ursula Plassnik: Maybe there is a link from the questions we have discussed before to this question. Management of expectations. You know? We should be careful when it comes to expectations. Europe cannot solve all the problems. Not for Turkey. Not even for Europeans. So we are both in danger of somehow putting too much weight  in terms of expectation on the European Union’s capacity to solve each and every problem. This is not true. We have to be realistic, we also have to rebalance or have to see what can be based on, at which level of the set of rules that we have. (and) This is part of the European experience at this moment as well. We have to concentrate on practical results. People want practical answers to practical questions they have. Among them is the question of frontiers: how big is Europe? It is getting bigger and bigger and bigger. What are the terms under which we discuss these questions? But for me there is one positive notion that combines and refocuses our minds in Europe, and that is the European way of life. The European, this complex set of values we have developed, of rules we have developed, of values that are not so easy to combine. Unity in diversity is one of the key parts. How can you manage diversity as substantial as the diversity we have in Europe? How can you combine a competitive economy with a high standard of social security, of environmental sustainability? How can you make the European “peace project” tangible in each generation? For me it is the Balkans that play a big role in that respect. So I think if you take these objectives, that are by the way very clearly formulated in the constitutional treaty, if you look at those you will see that there is a European way of life, a European way of seeing our common future, and our common destiny. And I think we sometimes need to refocus on these objectives, to be in a more positive mood for Europe, rather than (you know) picking the things and sides that are not so totally convincing for one group or the other.


Ipek Cem: There is also the problem of unemployment in Europe. I recently read about 14 million unemployed, if I am not mistaken. Are there certain policies at the EU level that are being developed to tackle this? (and in fact) Is enlargement seen as a threat for creating more unemployment perhaps in Europe?


Ursula Plassnik: We all have to live up to the challenge of globalisation. (and) The things we can do on European level to respond to the challenges of globalisation have to be better explained probably to European citizens all together. But it is true that the number one issue on people’s minds is that they are worried about their jobs, about their employment, and it is not easy for everyone to see what can be done on the various levels. In the first place, employment policy is a national agenda item. It is a national responsibility, but if you look at the EU level there are certain framework conditions that have to be provided for, and can be provided for, so in the next Spring, in the European Council in two week’s time we will discuss in particular the issues of research and development. It is very important for Europe to be innovative, to stay innovative, and use the human resources potential. We will also discuss the unlocking of the potential of the small and medium sized enterprises that are really the job motors in Europe. (and) We should take a specific look at questions like energy. What can we do to develop a new European energy policy that will be relevant also in that respect?


Ipek Cem: Talking about the Balkans – I know this is a priority, you just mentioned – Romania and Bulgaria are expected to join perhaps in January 2007, if there are no delays. What are your expectations on this in that the reports are going to come out soon?


Ursula Plassnik: The basic agreement is for Romania and Bulgaria to join the European Union on the 1st January 2007, unless the clause of delay is activated. There is a possibility to delay this moment in time for one year and the decision will be taken in May – I expect the decision to be taken by May – on the basis of a report by the European Commission. Now the Romanians and the Bulgarians are in the phase of completing their homework – if you want – there is a lot of issues where there is still need to adapt; in particular in the rule of law area, in the judicial systems, in the combat of organized crime. There is a schedule and an agenda for homework that they are working on and we can only, will only be able to judge the progress that they have achieved both in May.


Ipek Cem: Austria holds one of the bigger populations of Turkish origin citizens in Europe, after Germany and France, about 250,000. And I think that about 100,000 of them are Austrian citizens. How is the relation with the Turkish community going? How are they integrating into society? Are there certain programs to make that more feasible? I know you have other communities as well so we’re not maybe just talking about just one community, but communities within one nation.


Ursula Plassnik: We attach great attention and care to the subject matter of integrating communities and I don’t want to be complacent but really invite you to have a look, in particular, in Vienna where there is a big Turkish community and this is very much part of our everyday life. If you go to the Naschmarkt or the Brunnenmarkt you will scent and see the Turkish influence, but also for example, I will take Abdullah Gül tonight to a very posh restaurant that is owned by a very successful Turkish …. Austrian of Turkish origin I should rather say.  So we are trying to deal with the issue of various religions and cultures in a very conscious and attentive way. Of course there are practical difficulties. If you look for example at the schools, at the different languages being spoken, the support that is given, people will sometimes have the feeling that there is not enough support given; and you can discuss these issues. But on the other hand we have a very good relationship with our in particular Muslim communities. We are providing for religious instruction, we have been doing this in public schools in Austria for something like 25 years. We are also providing for the information of the teachers. This is being done, religious instruction is being done, in German language, which also facilitates the integration process. So, altogether, the impression I get from different sides is that this is on a good way and this is a good, there is a good outlook on our common future.


Ipek Cem: You seem to have a good cooperative relationship with Minister Gül, as is reflected in the media. Is this kind of helping at difficult times? When there are tough issues to discuss, sometimes to have a personal view on this and listening to each other helps. Have you found that this has helped you, with Minister Gül?


Ursula Plassnik: Yes, absolutely. I respect him, and I value him as a colleague and as a human being, as a politician, and we have – at least from my side, but I think you will hear pretty much the same from him – had a very open and positive relationship of dealing with each other. Also in difficult situations, we have a relationship where we call each other if there is a question that comes up, if we want to give each other a message. So each of us finds it normal to call the other, and we do that very directly. This includes that we reach moments and points where we know that we do not agree on specific issues, but I think that this is part of a very good relationship. It is expression of a good relationship, that you stay in contact, that you take the other one seriously and I’m quite sure that this will continue in the future. It is a pleasure to work with not only Abdullah Gül, but with his team.


Ipek Cem: US policy in the Middle East is affecting Turkey as being neighbours with Iraq, also with Iran, and right now the situation in Palestine and Israel is also quite tense. We know that Europe wants to take a more leading role in international affairs and have a more cohesive policy and be stronger internationally in terms of following up on its initiatives. What are some of the aspects of US policy that you feel differently about, especially when it pertains to the Middle East? When I say “you”, right now I’m talking with you as EU, and then perhaps as Austria if there is anything different.


Ursula Plassnik: Well, this is the Middle East peace process that we want to support. It is part, of course, of our regular consultations in the format of the Middle East quartet. I think that is an important point, that we try - the United States of America, Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations – to advance common positions and to support Palestinians and Israelis in their relationship, in their way to live with each other, by giving practical support and practical inputs.


Ipek Cem: Now we are on the 8th March and it is Women’s Day, and we look at Europe and we feel that women are quite advanced there, and compared with other parts of the world. You are quite an accomplished European woman. How do you feel Europe’s women are doing today – then 10 years ago, 20 years ago? Are they really advancing in terms of the glass ceiling, in terms of equal pay, equal opportunity, access to education? Is there still a lot to be done in this respect in Europe?


Ursula Plassnik: I think there is still a lot to be done. The older I get, the more I see what still has to be done and I had the priviledge of growing up with parents in a family where it was normal that women would have the same share, the same burden, but also the same contribution to make and I see with thime that a lot needs to be done. On equal pay, on each level of the society, we have not come as far as we want. Access to information has improved dramatically, but if you look at the world there is still a lot to be done, and a lot of support to be given. It depends on the regions. Turkey is a good example: there are not many countries in Europe where there has been a female head of government as in Turkey. (and) On the other hand you will have are parts of Turkey where the access to information of women is by far not what probably Turkey and the European Union would wish to see. So, we should not be complacent and we should not take anything for granted. On the other hand, I think that in political life, but also in other areas women have become a normal phenomenon. They have become part of what has to be dealt with, what has to be expected and, especially in politics I have the impression that voters – that probably the people, the population has specific expectations with regard to women. For a different style, maybe, or different nuances in style, also for contributions in substance. It is good.


Ipek Cem: Do you feel it has helped you, being a woman, sometimes? Maybe to be more communicative with people, more understanding?


Ursula Plassnik: I’m not so sure about being more communicative…. I know a lot of male colleagues that probably do better. But I think there is quite a good balance after all. You know there are certain setbacks and certain prejudices you face on your way. So you know more or less about them so you can respond to them. (but) On the other hand, maybe women do have a range of behavioral possibilities that might be in some instances larger than that at the disposal of male colleagues.


Ipek Cem: In the Turkish press, sometimes you get comments because you wear a scarf by a Turkish designer, Atıl Kutoğlu or things like that. Positive comments. I was just noticing your bracelet, it’s from Urfa, you just told me. So what was your impression of that region when you visited?


Ursula Plassnik: I was very impressed, because I had the pleasure of visiting an Austro-Turkish project which is a big hydro-power plant there. And apart from that project, I was impressed by the beauty of the town, and by the friendliness and openness of the inhabitants. They were very forthcoming, and I have very fond memories of the stay there.


Ipek Cem: On that note, I want to thank you very much for this candid interview.


Ursula Plassnik: Thank you. Thank you for coming.


This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, NTV networks and Ipek Cem cannot vouch for its accuracy.