On 1 July, Austria took over the Presidency of the Council of the EU, amid, one could say, a very turbulent time for Europe. On the one hand, there is US President Trump, whose rhetoric and actions, such as the introduction of tariffs on steel and aluminium from the EU and other trading partners, are shaking the foundations of EU-US relations. On the other hand, the migration crisis and the rise of populism across the EU are threatening the unity of the EU itself. Then, of course, there is Brexit and the political uncertainty that is stemming from it, making both sides wonder what the future of EU-UK relations will look like.
These challenges are reflected in the list of priorities of the Austrian Presidency. While safeguarding the principle of subsidiarity, Austria plans to tackle major issues that require joint actions by all member states. The three priority areas are:
1) Security and the fight against illegal migration;
2) Securing prosperity and competitiveness through digitalisation;
3) Stability in the European neighbourhood – EU perspective of the Western Balkans/ South Eastern Europe.
The issue of illegal migration is probably the most pressing one. With thousands of migrants trying to enter Europe in hope of fleeing conflict or economic despair, populism in some EU member states has been on the rise. This is evidenced by the latest decision of the Italian authorities to block ships carrying migrants from docking in Italian ports. It ultimately led to a trade of insults between Rome and Paris, showing that EU unity on this matter is far from strong. It is, therefore, no surprise that this is Austria’s number one priority. Reforming the Common European Asylum System and ensuring efficient protection of the EU’s external borders will be important topics for discussion during the Austrian Presidency.
Yet, while Europe is dealing with the migration crisis and Brexit, the rest of the world is not sleeping. During his speech at the European Parliament, Austrian Chancellor Kurz mentioned that big American and Chinese internet companies are dominating on the world stage. This is why Austria wants to make sure that Europe can keep up with its rivals by fostering innovation and digitalisation. Securing prosperity and competitiveness without overregulation will, therefore, be an important priority. This also includes discussions on how to prevent tax competition and tax avoidance as well as how to tax the digital economy. Many agree that the Austrian Presidency will be crucial in determining the fate of the proposed Digital Services Tax which aims at taxing revenues of large internet companies. While some argue this is well overdue, others are afraid it might hurt EU competitiveness and job creation. However, one thing is sure: tough negotiations will follow in the coming months.
Another real challenge is the EU enlargement to the South Eastern European countries. Welcoming these countries to the EU is important not only because it will bring greater stability to the fragile region, but also because it would show that the EU is still attractive to third countries, even post-Brexit. However, with so many unresolved disputes and political tensions in the region, it is unlikely anything significant will happen during the Austrian Presidency. Although, the recent agreement between Macedonia and Greece over the former’s name, which is to be known as the Republic of North Macedonia going forward, certainly gives hope for progress in the years ahead.
It remains to be seen how much progress on these issues the current Presidency will be able to achieve in the following six months. Nonetheless, let’s hope that among all the uncertainties and challenges, common sense will prevail and that Europe will continue to protect, prosper and grow.