Austria takes over the Presidency of the EU Council at the beginning of July. On 8 of May, one day before the Europe Day of the European Union, Gerda Füricht-Fiegl, Othmar Karas, Thomas Karabaczek and Regina Kothmayr discussed in Alumni Club’s Blue Hour on behalf of Danube University Krems pertinent arising possibilities and expectations Austria is confronted with throughout the presidency.
According to Gerda Füricht-Fiegl, Deputy Head of the Department of Knowledge and Communication Management at Danube University Krems, increasing numbers of overnight stays, road closures and traffic jams are the impact of Austria's Council Presidency in everyday life. Although regarding the incident from a different perspective, Füricht-Fiegl wonders whether or not the EU Council Presidency might improve EU’s image among Austrians. At present, one third of the citizens have a positive attitude towards the EU, while another third reflects more critical; jet studies prove that two thirds of Austria's population feels a sense of being part of the union. A gap between issues of interest and those actually effecting Austria’s citizens is apparent, Füricht-Fiegl points out. Regarding the media’s role Austria's Presidency delivers the opportunity to prepare EU-relevant topics for the media in order to evoke a discussion about the EU among the population. For Füricht-Fiegl, EU topics picked up by the citizens and therefore being subject to a more lively discussion would already be a success during the EU Council Presidency.
Media drawing the balance in contrast to the agenda
Strikingly for the last two Austrian presidencies budget negotiations were always on the agenda, as now for the third time, according to Thomas Karabaczek, Head of Economics at the Austria Press Agency (APA). However, he ruled out an agreement on the financial framework, as it seems impossible to find a solid compromise to become effective for the member states in 2021. The variety of topics and dossiers to be dealt with during the Austrian Council Presidency are quite the opposite on what is ultimately assessed by the media and politicians. The media tends to mainly focus on migration and illegal immigration as these topics conjure up emotions and are therefore of great interest. Karabaczek sees the risk that the Council Presidency might be exploited as a show in favor of national self-portrayal rather than pursuing European interests.
Effect for European elections
Regina Kothmayr, head of the EU Presidency Task Force in the Federal Chancellery, describes the Council Presidency as an abundance of major events and informal meetings, as well as hard work. In principle the Council Presidency per se is equivalent to a service provider being responsible to organize meetings and events; tasks a country takes over for the duration of six months. The Austrian Presidency is set under high pressure and partially unrealistic, so the need for expectation management is the prior task next to assessing achievements realistically in effectively 4.5 months’ time – the presidency’s period of six months minus the summer and Christmas holidays. Using the dynamics resulting from the Austrian Council Presidency would be appreciated in terms of a higher voter’s turn out after the elections in April 2019.
Role of the consensus-builder
Othmar Karas, head of the ÖVP delegation to the EU Parliament, emphasizes the different roles the presidency of the Council has. The Austrian Presidency shall not assert Austria's interests but rather focus on the role as a service provider concentrating on the EU's goals and projects. As a host Austria has the opportunity to profile the country with its friendly mentality and as a place of culture. It is important that Austria represents within the member states the role of a consensus-builder to consequently make negotiations possible. According to Karas Austria should additionally drive forces in order to tackle important issues. The Brexit withdrawal agreement for instance is an overarching issue, which determines the course of Britain's leave from the EU. In the course of the Council Presidency Karas pleads Austria to focus on communication purposes in order to demonstrate that Austria is jointly responsible for decisions within the EU at all times, independently of its forthcoming Presidency.
Bringing the EU closer to its citizens
The benefits the citizens gain from the European Union should be more emphasized in the future. According to Füricht-Fiegl, the rotating Council Presidency is an opportunity to raise awareness within the respective country. The problem hereby: although the EU Commission has already initiated some communications strategies (i.e. citizens dialogues), according to Kothmayr ideal or more suitable formats are currently lacking in order to approach and involve citizens more effectively. At the same time, the difficulty the media faces is to present all processes, topics and developments within the EU; therefor the reporting often ends in show effects according to Karabaczek. In the future Media should replace the show with seriousness, as Karas argues, and further claims responsibility rather than blame, as we are part of the European Union. So the positive aspects of the European Union for citizens should be highlighted more, for instance by offering a "trip to Europe" as a counterpart to "rural school week" in means of political education in schools. Resulting from a lack of political will to bring the EU more into the (national) foreground, such as an EU-wide holiday on 9 May, the communication featuring the issues and achievements of the European Union is difficult.
All discussants agreed that the Council Presidency should not be treated like Mother's Day, an annual "obligatory event", but should be communicated permanently and in dialogue with the citizens.