One of Karin Kneissl’s first interviews as Austria’s foreign minister this year was conducted in Arabic — an unexpected accomplishment for a nominee of the Freedom Party, one of Europe’s best-established far-right political movements and now in Austria’s freshly elected government.
The multilingual Kneissl is part of a careful balancing act in Vienna aimed at avoiding international tension over the power gained by the Freedom Party, which warned before October’s election of the dangers of Austria’s “Islamification” and demanded tougher controls on immigration.
Kneissl also speaks French, Hebrew, Italian, Hungarian and Spanish. She is learning Chinese. “I dream sometimes in Italian, sometimes in French. I still write my diary in French, as certain sentimental topics I reflect upon more easily in French,” she tells the Financial Times in an interview in Vienna.
Diplomacy is much more than confronting each other with policy papers.
Karin Kneissl, Austria’s foreign minister
What matters for the adept communicator is whether she can build the alliances needed to pursue the foreign policy goals of Sebastian Kurz, Austria’s 31-year-old chancellor. Reasserting Austria’s postwar neutrality, he wants to act as “bridge builder” between Western Europe and neighboring countries such as Hungary and Poland — where governments have clashed with the EU establishment — and toward Russia, whose president Vladimir Putin visited Vienna this week.
A former diplomat, academic and journalist — but not a Freedom Party member — Kneissl says her nomination by the party “was never a topic” at Brussels foreign ministers’ meetings.
She argues that she is reviving the practice of having an “independent” foreign minister, pioneered in the 1970s and early ’80s when Social Democratic Chancellor Bruno Kreisky was keen to stress Austria’s neutrality. Under the coalition deal, EU issues are handled by Kurz.
“Diplomacy is much more than confronting each other with policy papers,” she says. “It is all about creating a climate, an atmosphere in which you can discuss more challenging issues.”
However, her biggest advantage for Kurz might be that her appointment avoids potential confrontations with Austria’s Western allies. Austria is going to be firmly in the EU spotlight for the rest of 2018 as the country takes its turn to hold the bloc’s rotating presidency.
“A Freedom Party member as foreign minister would have created much more of a stir,” says Lothar Höbelt, a history professor at the University of Vienna. “On the potentially controversial, i.e., European issues, the chancellor takes the decisions, but when it is relations with the wider world, where Austria does not really matter, he has a stand-in in the foreign ministry.”
The appointment of Kneissl, who studied in Vienna, the Middle East and the U.S., and lectured in Europe and Lebanon after eight years in her country’s diplomatic service, was itself a diplomatic solution.
The Freedom Party won 26 percent in October’s vote, giving it strong hand in negotiations with Kurz’s People’s Party, which topped the poll with 31.5 percent. But Austria’s independent president, Alexander Van der Bellen, made clear he would not accept some prominent Freedom Party members as foreign minister. The party did secure the defense and interior ministries, giving it control over Austria’s security apparatus.
An early test for Kneissl, and for Austria’s ability to straddle East and West, came in March when the West’s tensions with Moscow escalated over the poisoning in the U.K. of former spy Sergei Skripal. Austria refused to join EU allies in expelling Russian diplomats.
We should not sit with this self-centered perception that we are now in the most wonderful atmosphere of globalization.
Still, Kneissl says she is a fan of Boris Johnson, the U.K. foreign secretary, for whom she has recommended reading on the Middle East. When Johnson speaks in meetings, “I am even more attentive and I think it is reciprocal,” Kneissl says.
She says she accepted the Freedom Party’s nomination because it was a chance to test her thinking as an academic. Her book Die Zersplitterte Welt (The Shattered World) was about failed states and the swing away from globalization — not a new phenomenon, she points out.
“In 1913 you could embark on a train in Berlin and get off in Baghdad.… You can’t do that now,” she says. “We should not sit with this self-centered perception that we are now in the most wonderful atmosphere of globalization — because we had that just before the First World War.”
Kneissl’s independence has created ripples even within her government. Kurz fiercely opposes negotiations on Turkey’s eventual membership in the EU, citing its human rights record. But Kneissl wants to patch up bilateral relations. One of her first trips as foreign minister was to Istanbul. Her Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu has visited Vienna “and we have already started opening up a number of interesting topics,” she says.
Josef Lentsch, director of Neos Lab, an opposition think tank, says: “In theory, her neutrality and status as an expert means she can do a lot. But because EU policy is in the hands of the chancellery, and Kneissl has already antagonized a lot of diplomats there, it looks rather different in practice.”
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