Austria takes over EU

Taking the rotating presidency of the European Council from Bulgaria, it outlines Brexit, budget and security as priorities

Photo: BTA Chancellor Sebastian Kurz was a guest of Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov in March.

Austria plans to use its European Council presidency during the second half of the year to shift the bloc's focus away from resettling refugees within the EU and towards preventing further waves of arrivals, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz told a news conference in March, outlining Austria's priorities for the rotating six-month presidency, which it takes over from Bulgaria on 1 July.

The bloc has been bitterly divided over immigration, and eastern Member States like Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic have repeatedly rebuffed requests from Brussels and western EU states to host some of the hundreds of thousands of mostly Muslim refugees that have streamed into the EU since 2015. Kurz is governing in coalition with the anti-immigration Freedom Party, making Austria the only western European country to have a far-right party in government. This follows an election last year dominated by Europe's migration crisis. The bitter row has undermined trust between the bloc's members and weakened their unity.
Austria has moved from calling on the Eastern Europeans to carry their share of the burden to, under Kurz, criticising the debate on quotas and calling for a new system altogether. He has argued in favour of a system in which migrants rescued in the Mediterranean are returned to Africa, rather than brought to Europe, and pledged to stop illegal immigration altogether.
“Our aim is very clear - that in Europe there should not only be a dispute over redistribution (of refugees) but also at last a shift of focus towards securing external borders,” he said.
Brexit, the seven-year EU budget starting in 2021, and security will be the three major Austria priorities in what will be the final full presidency before all-important elections in May 2019. From 23-26 May next year, citizens across what will be 27 EU states will be called upon to elect a new European Parliament. The result will set the course for the next EU Commission and other top jobs in the bloc's institutions. Austria will also bring forward proposals for EU reform.
From 1 July to the end of December, there will be 300 events, 60 Council meetings, 13 of them in Austria, as well as some major events on the working programme. The government in Vienna has earmarked a budget of €43m for its stint in charge. It will all kick off on 6 June in Brussels, when the entire Austrian government presents its detailed EU presidency programme. On 20 September, a special summit will be held in Salzburg, which is dedicated to the topic of security. The final summit on 13 and 14 December in Brussels will be followed by a presentation of the main policy decisions taken during the six months. The Estonia, Bulgaria and Austria 'presidency trio' will outline priorities.
But the time pressure is enormous, since the withdrawal of the UK must be completed by 29 March 2019. Before that, ratification of the final Brexit deal by all national parliaments is required.
Other priorities Austria has set itself include promoting Europe's competitiveness and working towards EU accession for Balkan countries, particularly Serbia and Montenegro, he said.
The Austrian government, led by Prime Minister Sebastian Kurz, was in Brussels on 6 June for a traditional get together with the EU executive ahead of the country's EU stint. Speaking to the press alongside Kurz, Juncker said he expected the Austrian Presidency would be very successful, and played down possible differences, including in tackling migration issues.
Brussels should set a good example for saving, said Austria's chancellor, proposing in a Welt interview to downsize the European Commission from 28 to 18 members and to have only one seat for the European Parliament. “I think if we want to save in Europe, Brussels should set a good example and also reduce administrative spending,” he said.

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