The arrival in Belgrade of H.E. Nikolaus Lutterotti received special attention in the media due to the fact that he is one of the three close associates of Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, a foreign policy advisor, to have been directed towards diplomacy. In this interview for CorD Magazine, he says his task is to continue strengthening the existing excellent relations between the two countries. Austria, which is currently presiding over the European Union, has placed the stability of Southeast Europe at the very top of its agenda, while it continues, like Bulgaria before it, to advocate in favour of enlargement. Ambassador Lutterotti says that he believes 2025 may be the year of the next enlargement of the Union, but that depends the most on whether the membership candidate counties fulfil their obligations.
Your Excellency, how do you feel as an ambassador at the start of your term in the country you’ve dubbed “Austria’s most important partner in the region”?
– I am very honoured to represent Austria in Serbia, a country with which we have excellent relations. For us, Serbia is a neighbouring country even though we do not share a common border. We are connected through many personal, economic, cultural and historical bonds. The Serbian diaspora in Austria is a very important part of our society and represents a very significant connection between Austria and Serbia. Austria has been one of the largest, if not the largest, the investor in Serbia over a long period. And our political relations are as good as they have ever been. We have frequent visits at a high political level, which underscores the depth and importance of our relationship. In October the Austrian Federal President, Alexander Van der Bellen, will pay an official two-day visit to Serbia at the invitation of President Vučić.
The Austrian press reported on your appointment, noting that you are one of three close associates of Chancellor Sebastian Kurz to have been appointed as ambassadors. Do you have a special task in that sense?
– My task is to represent Austria in Serbia as well as I can, and I hope that I will be able to contribute to strengthening our excellent relations even further. We consider developments in the countries of Southeast Europe, and in particular Serbia, and the EU accession process as a priority matter of our foreign policy. And these developments are also a priority during our Presidency of the European Union. We believe that this region deserves the highest political attention, given the proximity of our countries and the intensity of our political, economic, cultural and personal relations. And we also have a genuine interest in supporting Serbia on its path to the European Union. Not only does this provide – in our view – an incentive for economic, societal and institutional reforms, as required by the EU accession process, but also contributes to the stability and prosperity of this part of Europe. We also genuinely believe, to paraphrase Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, that the European Union would be incomplete without the countries of the Western Balkans.
I am very honoured to represent Austria in Serbia, a country with which we have excellent relations. For us, Serbia is a neighbouring country even though we do not share a common border
Your country will preside over the EU until the end of 2018. Preserving the stability of Southeast Europe was placed at the top of your list of priorities. What do you think the greatest challenges are in that respect?
– First of all, I would argue that if we look at the entire region, 2018 has been a good year so far. The EU has reinvigorated its focus on the region by setting out a clear strategy and reaffirming, on numerous occasions, its goal of enlarging the European Union. Both the Bulgarian and Austrian presidencies have placed this region and its EU perspective at the top of the EU agenda. But there are significant challenges that remain with regard to regional reconciliation, good neighbourly relations and internal reforms, in particular as far as the rule of law, the fight against organised crime and corruption and the freedom of the media are concerned. These need to be addressed, and we offer our support. The Prespa Agreement between Greece and Macedonia over the name dispute has shown that, with the necessary political will, courage and determination, solutions can be found to seemingly intractable problems. We hope that the dialogue between Belgrade and Priština can also advance significantly over coming weeks and months.
You’ve said you believed the European perspective of the region was the best way to ensure stability. Given the situation in the EU, but also in the region, do you still think – as you stated recently – that 2025 could mark the date of Serbia’s entry into the EU?
– I believe that 2025 is possible, but there is no guarantee. It is mainly up to the candidate countries themselves to determine the pace of reforms and thus the pace of accession negotiations. We know that this is a demanding and challenging process and we have great respect for all the efforts that are being exerted. But we also believe that these reforms will pay off. We can see a positive trend in the economic development of Serbia after some very courageous and challenging reforms. The same will be valid for reforms in the fields of the rule of law, judicial independence and the fight against corruption. The benefits of the EU accession process will be visible and will be felt by the citizens and businesses, as reforms aren’t only implemented and take effect on the day of EU accession.
Given that the EU is an area you know well, do you believe that members will reach a consensus on internal reforms, and how much could those changes cause a shift in the alliance that we now know as the European Union?
– I am confident that the EU will reach a consensus on internal reforms. The EU has managed very critical phases in the past and will also succeed this time. And I am sure the European Union will come out stronger than before. The Austrian presidency’s priorities are intended to strengthen the European Union by focusing on security, safeguarding Europe’s competitiveness and prosperity, as well as the stability of Southeast Europe. We are convinced that only through strengthening the European Union will we be able to maintain the level of prosperity, stability and respect for fundamental freedoms as we know them. For the EU to become stronger, it should focus again on the significant challenges and leave it up to the Member States to decide on those issues that are better dealt with at their level. This is what we call the principle of subsidiarity. It needs to be reinforced.
Do you think Serbia’s EU membership depends exclusively on the outcome of the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina?
– The requirements for Serbia’s EU membership are very clear and imply that a successful conclusion of the 35 accession negotiation chapters needs to occur before accession. And the political leadership of Serbia has made it clear that it wants to undertake all the necessary reforms because doing so is in the very interest of Serbia and its citizens. Chapter 35 deals with the normalisation of relations between Belgrade and Pristina. If both sides were to agree on a comprehensive and legally-binding agreement on the normalisation of relations, this would certainly free up a lot of political energy for reforms in other sectors and the negotiations of all open chapters.
The solution that Austria and Italy found is certainly a very positive example of dealing with such a sensitive bilateral issue involving minorities. But I also want to emphasise that every situation is unique
You once worked in the Department for South Tyrol at the Austrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The way Austria and Italy resolved the issue of this controversial border area – by giving it broad autonomy and “asymmetrical status” in relation to other regions of Italy – has been cited as a possible solution for Kosovo. Why couldn’t this model be applied?
– The solution that Austria and Italy found is undoubtedly a very positive example of dealing with such a sensitive bilateral issue involving minorities. But I also want to emphasise that every situation is unique. I have trust in both sides – Belgrade and Priština – to continue engaging in a constructive dialogue to find a sustainable solution.
There are voices on the Austrian political scene suggesting that it was a mistake to support Kosovo’s unilateral proclamation of independence. Do you believe a solution for Kosovo must be such that it respects the views of both sides?
– The European Union has been clear: both sides need to agree on a comprehensive, legally-binding agreement on the normalisation of relations so that they can advance on their respective European paths. This requires that both sides need to find an agreement. The EU is facilitating this dialogue and Austria supports it.
One of the priorities of the Austrian presidency of the EU is the fight for security and against illegal migration. Why has Austria found itself on the side of countries that oppose the influx of migrants?
– The issue of security is one of Austria’s priorities during its EU Presidency. EU Heads of State and Government concluded at the meeting of the European Council in June 2018 that they are “determined to continue and reinforce this policy to prevent a return to the uncontrolled flows of 2015 and to further stem illegal migration on all existing and emerging routes”. As you can see, this is a policy shared by the European Union. As far as Austria is concerned, you have to bear in mind that Austria was one of the countries most affected by the migration crisis of 2015 in per capita terms. We had more migrants in Austria than most other countries in Europe. It became clear to citizens that the European Union was not in control of its external borders and the influx of irregular migrants, and that something had to be done. But I want to emphasise that Austria has given shelter to many illegal migrants and Austria is also taking on people through resettlement programmes.
Could you please explain Chancellor Kurz’s idea to establish migrant campsites beyond the territory of the EU? Where would they be located?
– At the June 2018 meeting of the European Council, the focus shifted from a debate about the distribution of migrants in Europe towards fighting illegal migration and the business model of people smugglers, as such. In this regard, we support the proposal of the European Commission to strengthen FRONTEX to a force of 10,000 people by 2020 and to explore cooperation with third countries in the fight against people traffickers. The EU, for example, is supporting the training of the Libyan Coast Guard. And we are exploring further cooperation with other countries in North Africa in the field of economic development and the fight against illegal migration. This will also be a topic of discussion at the 2019 Summit meeting between the EU and the League of Arab States in Egypt.