Austrian Minister of Foreign Affairs Alexander Schallenberg sent a clear message regarding North Macedonia’s obligation to fully comply with the Prespa Agreement as part of its course towards EU integration, during a visit to Athens last week for bilateral talks with his Greek counterpart, George Gerapetritis.

Alexander Schallenberg, Austrian Minister of Foreign Affairs

Schallenberg spoke to the Athens daily “Ta Nea” about geopolitical crises, the outcome of the European Parliament elections, the upcoming US election, Greek Prime Minister’s Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ proposal for European defense as well as the time and the actions needed for the western Balkans’ further integration to the EU.

Gerpatritis and Schallenberg later answered reporters’ questions during a joint press conference at the foreign ministry in Athens.

What is your biggest concern over the situation in Ukraine and in the Middle East and what should the priorities be in order to prevent any further escalation and keep European citizens safe?

The ring of fire around Europe stretches from Russia’s aggression against Ukraine to Hamas’ brutal terrorist attack on Israel and towards the Sahel region. Our geostrategic objective must be to create a ring of stability in response to this ring of fire. We cannot afford further escalation, in the Middle East or elsewhere. If violence spirals out of control in Europe’s neighborhood, it will affect us all. For Austria, Greece is an important partner for securing our joint neighborhood.

Have you discussed with Greek Minister of Foreign Affairs George Gerapetritis about strengthening the bilateral relations between Greece and Austria? Which areas could be included in such a discussion?

I attach great importance to my visit and the meeting with my friend Giorgos, because in a time of multiple crises, Greece is in a crucial geostrategic position. Whether it is the crisis in the Middle East, the support for Ukraine, the fight against illegal migration or energy security. But also the Western Balkans is a key area for both Austria and Greece. We both know that without the Western Balkans states, the EU remains incomplete.

On migration, we need more realism and pragmatism. Both Greece and Austria are among the EU countries most affected by illegal migration. By securing Greek borders, the Greek border security and coast guard are also securing our common EU borders, hence Austrian borders.

In terms of trade relations, the overall trend is where we want it to be – up. One area where I see particular opportunities is tourism – after all, Greece and Austria may be medium-sized countries, but when it comes to culture and tourism, we are both superpowers!

Minister Schallenberg, what are your thoughts on the European election results?

The results of the European elections demonstrate a clear mandate for Europe. The pro-European factions retained their majority in the European Parliament and the EPP, as a centrist force, even increased its position as the largest party. The electoral gains on the fringes, be it on the far left or on the far right, remained below what many had expected.

What do you think about Greek Prime Minister’s proposal for the European defense?

Putin’s war of aggression has shattered the foundations of European security and dramatically changed the threat landscape. Consequently, Europeans are rethinking their defense needs, including Austria. In line with our military neutrality, we support ongoing EU initiatives to strengthen Europe’s defense capabilities. Austria can greatly benefit from joint procurement of air and missile defence systems and training with European partners. This is why we – like Greece – have joined the European Sky Shield Initiative. Further efforts in this area should complement, not duplicate, what we are already doing together as Sky Shield partners.

Should EU be worried about the result in the US presidential election in November?

The U.S. is one of the oldest democracies in the world. The EU will acknowledge the election results as the will of the American people. Austria has always maintained excellent bilateral relations with the U.S., regardless of the government or president in power. This will not change. Together with the US as one of our closes allies, we will continue to safeguard our fundamental values of freedom, democracy and the rule of law.

How long will it take for the western Balkan countries to become EU Member States and what else is needed to be done by them while they are in the EU accession process? Is it possible, for example, for North Macedonia to become EU Member State while they do not use in public their constitutional name?

More than 20 years ago in Thessaloniki, we promised EU membership to the western Balkan countries. It is high time to make this happen. Together with Greece as part of the Friends of the Western Balkans, we are helping our partners in the region to achieve this goal as quickly as possible. But we need to rethink the enlargement process, to move away from the binary thinking of ‘in or out’. I advocate for a gradual integration into EU policies, such as the internal market, on the way to full membership, so that citizens in the region more rapidly experience the benefits and do not lose faith.

There are clear conditions for North Macedonia to continue the process such as the constitutional change on minorities, and it is clear that international agreements must be fully respected. But the EU accession process should focus on adopting the EU acquis, bilateral issues should be dealt with separately. Let’s focus on a common, prosperous European future instead of remaining stuck in the past.

Foto: © BMEIA/ Michael Gruber