The Austrian ambassador, who is also a member of the Brexit working group, shares his first impressions of EU-UK talks, in an interview on 20 June with the public service broadcaster 100,7. Pictured: Austrian ambassador Gregor Schusterschitz with his wife Mara at the US embassy in May 2016.
Photo: LaLa La Photo
Austrian Brexit working group member on the start of negotiations
“We have lost a lot of time” but the EU’s “plan does not contain anything which would snub the British”.
So said Gregor Schusterschitz during an extensive interview with 100,7 public radio about negotiations between the EU and UK over Britain’s departure from the union.
Schusterschitz is Austrian ambassador to the grand duchy and now representative of his country in the European Council’s Brexit working group.
On Tuesday 20 June, Schusterschitz explained the institutional set-up, the fact that the British government had not presented any policy proposals and which issues are likely to provoke some headaches.
100,7 interview with Gregor Schusterschitz on Brexit:
Mick Entringer, 100,7 public radio journalist: Are you surprised that the start of negotiations has gone so well?
Gregor Schusterschitz, Austrian diplomat: “We have lost a lot of time. With the British notification in March, the countdown of two years has started, and now we’re in June, so we have lost three months already. It is high time to start the negotiations.
“I am sure there are many areas where we can reach a consensus. We need to find solutions on how this problem should be tackled, such as the question of free trade after Brexit, the question of tariffs in Northern Ireland and many other things. In these areas we have common interests and we need to find common solutions which are acceptable to both sides. Other issues are more controversial and will certainly take more time.”
Entringer: The British press has expressed some criticisms of the lack of a common position of the British government.
Schusterschitz: “It is a bit difficult because we have had very few proposals from the British government, and we had no other option than to use these weeks to come up with our own ideas. It is logical that the first person who comes up with fully developed ideas can influence the other party because they are better prepared. But we have developed our positions not in an adversarial spirit but in a collaborative spirit. Our plan does not contain anything which would snub the British.”
Entringer: Why is there no British plan?
Schusterschitz: “The UK just had elections and it is logical that a new government has to develop new policy proposals. The problem of the timetable is also due to these elections.”
Entringer: Is the British government weakened?
Schusterschitz: “It is difficult to say; one hears very different things. Some think it’s good to have a coalition, others think it’s bad. We’ll see about that in the negotiation process. It is certainly a big mistake to underestimate the British: they are always professional and have good staff. Even a weakened British government still knows what it wants and is an equal partner in the negotiations.”
Entringer: Do the Brits make it up as they go along?
Schusterschitz: “The British government has told us that it will communicate its negotiating position in a few weeks. The first proper round of negotiations will take place in mid-July. I expect that the British will present some developed positions then.”
Entringer: Why was the Austrian ambassador to Luxembourg chosen as representative in the Brexit working group?
Schusterschitz: “This question should be put to the minister. They needed someone with experience in Brussels, where I was for many years. Austria will take over the presidency of the council soon, so the team at the permanent representation is already fully occupied with the preparations, so no one was available. I think that is why I was asked.”
Entringer: You have to be in Brussels twice a week; is this not too much, along with your functions as ambassador?
Schusterschitz: “It is a problem, I have to admit. While Luxembourg is a small place, a lot happens here, and it is very active, at European and international level. I do have some trouble combining the two functions at the moment, but from August onwards the Austrian embassy will increase its staff. So we will be able to be as present in Luxembourg as previously.”
Entringer: Luxembourg and Austria are small EU member states. What are the similarities?
Schusterschitz: “I would argue that Austria and Luxembourg are part of the mainstream member states of the EU. We are both net contributors to the EU budget, which means we have common interests in the area of financing the EU. We both have many of our citizens living in the UK, so we are interested in solving that issue. Regarding the specificities: Luxembourg is always concerned about the level-playing field in terms of financial services is something we don’t worry about as much because our financial centre is not as big as Luxembourg’s.”
Entringer: But Austria also has some tax optimisation laws; are there similar positions in this area?
Schusterschitz: “This used to be the case when transparency was an issue, but since the bank secrecy has been eroded, it is less so. It has to be admitted that the Austrian financial centre cannot be compared to Luxembourg’s.”
Entringer: How will the Brexit negotiations be dealt with by the different EU institutions? You are the Austrian representative in the working group of the European Council. The [European Parliament] also has an eye on the negotiations, there is the chief EU negotiator for the European Commission, Michel Barnier, who has the lead in the negotiations. What is your role?
Schusterschitz: “The European Commission is negotiating Brexit; it is very important to us that the EU speaks with one voice. Our working group is charged with giving the negotiating mandate to the European Commission. The commission can only take up those positions that we give it, and will only have the room for manoeuvre that we give it. The European Parliament must approve the final agreement, and it has already stated its policy preferences, which overlap considerably with those in the council and the commission. The EP is informed on the state of the negotiations by the commission and the council. But the policy preferences are set by the working group of the council.”
Entringer: How is the atmosphere in the working group? Is there a consensus?
Schusterschitz: “Naturally, 27 member states do not always have the same interests. We work towards finding a common denominator among these diverging interests. So far, we have a found common position relatively quickly, and it has not been a big problem thus far. We have already had some intensive discussions on citizens’ rights and the financial implications of Brexit on the EU budget, and we have come rather quickly to a common position.”
Entringer: What will be the most controversial issues?
Schusterschitz: “In every negotiation, compromises will become necessary. The question is in which areas these compromises will be made. Some issues are very important for certain member states. Some member states have many of their citizens living in the UK, so for them the rights of EU citizens in the UK after Brexit are more important than for those who have few of their citizens living in the UK. Net contributors have a different position to net beneficiaries when it comes to compensating the loss of the UK contribution to the EU budget. On those issues, there will come a time when intensive discussions will have to be held. But we will manage to come to a common position on these issues.”
Entringer: Do you honestly believe in Brexit?
Schusterschitz: “One has to assume it will happen. As a civil servant, one has to implement the will of the political leadership. All signs point towards it happening. There is a discussion among legal analysts whether the notification of article 50 can be taken back, but I don’t really see it happening in the British political landscape.”
Entringer: [British prime minister Theresa] May is weakened. What if the population realises it may have been a mistake? New elections may lead to a different mandate…
Schusterschitz: “Nothing is ever set in stone. However, my impression is that the people who voted to leave did not do so out of economic reasons. If economic indicators would show that the British economy was weakened after Brexit… There is a historical precedent: Czechoslovakia had in the 1920s 20% less GDP than before the first world war because they lost the single market of the Habsburg dynasty. This meant a real weakening of their economy and loss of prosperity for those Czech countries. But if you had asked the population in 1927, they probably would have been happy to have Czechoslovakia. The economy is not always decisive for political preferences.”
Entringer: The Visegrád countries have been criticised for their lack of solidarity in the refugee crisis. Austria is also a critic, but doesn’t want to take in more refugees.
Schusterschitz: “One cannot compare the situation of refugees in Austria and in the Visegrad countries. Austria has today one of the highest proportions of refugees per capita, which we have taken in and who are in the asylum procedures. We have many more refugees per head than most EU member states. Together with Germany and Sweden, we are one of those countries who took in the most refugees. Therefore, our position on taking in more refugees has to be seen in a different light to those countries who have not taken any refugees. This has to be differentiated clearly, and the [European] Commission has done exactly that. It has launched an infringement procedure against some Visegrad countries but not against Austria.”
Entringer: So Austria is not against the distribution mechanism?
Schusterschitz: “On the contrary, Austria is in favour of solidarity. It has accepted a huge, huge proportion of refugees. The distribution mechanism set up starts however from zero; it sets out the objectives but does not take into account what has already been done. That is what we criticise and we have a problem with that, but it does not mean in any way that we don’t want to show solidarity.”
This interview was originally broadcast on 100,7 radio. It was translated by Delano from German; some questions have been shortened for space and clarity.