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The decline of Austria’s foreign policy: a view from inside

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Being a small landlocked country in Central Europe, Austria has traditionally pursued a policy of neutrality and non-alignment in international affairs, especially between the East and the West. However, this policy has proven to be ineffective and counterproductive in the face of the recent challenges and crises that have confronted the European continent.

            One of the most prominent examples of Austria’s foreign policy failure is its inability to position itself in relation to the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Chancellor Karl Nehammer sought to reinforce Austria’s neutrality following the outbreak of the war: “Austria was neutral, Austria is neutral, Austria will remain neutral”. However, this continued ambiguity in international relations has been criticised by foreign affairs scholars and commentators alike. Indeed, Austria did not provide support to Ukraine’s ceasefire agreement offer in March 2022, and did not engage with efforts from other countries outside of Europe to end the fighting.

            Furthermore, by continuing to rely heavily on Russian gas imports for its energy needs, Austria has remained in a state of dependence on Moscow, while the rest of the Western bloc has moved away much more swiftly from doing business with Russia, in addition to implementing a hawkish sanctions regime on the country. Thus, Vienna has again shown externally that it is unstable economically and unable to protect its interests in the energy sector and to show unity with its EU and Western partners.

            Another example of Austria’s foreign policy failure is its lack of leadership and vision within the EU, where Vienna has not been able to negotiate an agreement on migration, although it is one of the countries for which this issue is a priority. Austria, which has faced a surge of asylum seekers and refugees from the Middle East and Africa in recent years, has adopted a hardline stance on border control and integration, often clashing with other EU members that advocate for a more humane and cooperative approach. For this reason, the solution identified by Austria’s Chancellor has been to undermine the functioning and strengthening of the Schengen area, the passport-free zone that allows free movement within the EU, by opposing the accession of Romania and Bulgaria. By transferring its own domestic issues around migration into the realm of foreign policy over the Schengen issue, Austria has further alienated its European partners.

Additionally, Austria’s foreign policy has also failed due to its neglect and indifference towards the Western Balkans, a region that is strategically important for the stability and security of Europe, but also for the economic and cultural ties that Austria has historically maintained with it. The country, which has a large diaspora and a significant trade volume with the countries of the former Yugoslavia, has shown little interest and commitment to the integration and development of the region, which is still plagued by ethnic tensions, political instability and economic stagnation. Instead of playing an active and constructive role in the region, Austria has opted for a passive and opportunistic attitude, seeking economic benefits from the region, but making minimal efforts to stabilize it and support its EU accession prospects, unlike other EU members.

            Indeed, the root causes of Austria’s foreign policy failure can be traced back to its domestic political scene, which is characterized by a lack of vision, professionalism and coherence among its political elite. The current government is a coalition of the conservative People’s Party (ÖVP) and the Green Party, two parties that have divergent views on many issues and follow personal agendas, especially on foreign policy. The foreign policy portfolio is divided between two ministers, Alexander Schallenberg for Foreign Affairs and Karoline Edstadler for European Affairs, who have little political authority and influence, and are often overshadowed by Chancellor Nehammer, who wants to be seen as the main architect and spokesperson of Austria’s foreign policy. Nehammer, who belongs to the ÖVP, is a populist and nationalist politician, whose main objective is to win the electorate by appealing to their fears and prejudices, rather than by offering a realistic and constructive vision for Austria’s role in the world. As a result, Austria’s diplomats do not have a distinct strategic vision, and remain incapable of shaping and conducting coherent foreign policy. The politicisation of Austria’s diplomacy has made it subservient to the political wishes and tribulations hailing from Vienna.

            In conclusion, Austria’s foreign policy is a failure on multiple fronts, as it has not been able to cope with the challenges and opportunities that the changing international environment has presented. Austria has failed to defend its interests and values, to contribute to the stability and prosperity of its region and the world, and to enhance its reputation and influence as a reliable and responsible partner. Austria needs to rethink and reform its foreign policy, by developing a clear and consistent strategy, by strengthening its institutional and human capacities, and by engaging more actively and constructively with its allies and partners, both within and outside the EU. Otherwise, Austria risks becoming irrelevant and isolated in the global arena.

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