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Erhard Busek, former Vice-Chancellor of Austria: ‘In modern politics, I think a lot of idiotic things are happening.’

Erhard Busek is a noted Austrian politician who served as the Vice-Chancellor of the Republic of Austria from 1991 to 1995. He has studied law at the University of Vienna and served seven years as the Rector of the Salzburg University of Applied Sciences. Dr. Busek is a member of the Austrian Christian-conservative People’s Party (ÖVP) and throughout his career has been widely seen as one of the leaders of his party’s liberal wing.

While serving under Chancellor Franz Vranitzky, he argued in favour of recognizing the independence of Slovenia, which created tensions between Austria and other European and Western nations regarding the issue. Vranitzky and Busek led Austria into the European Union in 1995 as part of the enlargement of the EU when Austria, Finland and Sweden were acceded to the Union.

Dr. Erhard Busek has served in other positions in the Austrian government, as well, including the Minister for Education and Minister for Science and Research. He has been a Visiting Professor of the Practice of Public Policy Studies at Duke University and the Chairman of the European Forum Alpbach.

I had the chance to interview Dr. Erhard Busek and ask him some questions about Iran-Austria relations, the de-certification of the Iran nuclear deal by President Trump, Islamophobia in Europe, Brexit, the Syrian war and other issues. The following is the text of the interview.

I’d like to ask you about the current status of Iran-Austria relations. The former Austrian President Heinz Fischer and President Hassan Rouhani met a couple of times and it seems that currently the bilateral relations are somewhat positive and upward. What do you think about that?

I think it is so and I’m quite happy that the Austrian government is keeping a quite clear line on this horrible decision of Donald Trump and they’re trying to stick to the so-called Vienna treaty because I think it is the best step forward. Not everything is done but I think there is a good way to the future.

You talked about President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal. How do you think it will impact Iran-Austria relations and Iran-Europe relations generally?

I think hopefully the European Commission and the European Union will stick to the deal as they are doing now. I think they should improve relations with Iran and try to come to a closer dialogue to develop relations not only economically, but also politically.

Do you think that President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal unilaterally will create a significant division between the United States and Europe as well, because some European countries are eager to be engaged with Iran closely?

I think not only on the Iran nuclear treaty, but the behavior of Trump in general concerning trade relations is making problems. I think it’s not a very good way to the future regarding U.S.-Europe relations. I think what can be seen is that Trump wants to ruin relations which existed since the Second World War, which is for sure a pity and we will see how things are going on with the United States. Hopes are that there will be internal discussions within the United States and that the line of Donald Trump is not for the next time the general line of the United States.

How is his decision to pull out of the nuclear agreement with Iran viewed in Europe and in Austria? What do you think about public attitude towards the decision?

It’s seen very negatively by the media and public reaction showed that. It’s not really understood. I think that most of them have hopes concerning the relations between the Europe and Iran, and for sure Austria and Iran. I think that things might go in a positive direction for the future.

Let’s move on to other topics. What do you think about Europe’s fight against far-right parties’ fomenting of anti-Muslim sentiments and Islamophobia in the continent? Are you concerned about the surge of Islamophobia and anti-Muslim prejudice in Europe and in Austria specifically?

The real background of this development is the immigration issue. I think what was not really settled by Europeans is how to handle immigration. It is a challenge without any doubt and I think we have to learn to live with this and we have to decide what to do. The immigrants are trying to be integrated in the future while there is also a strategy that’s not so many of them are let in. I think we have to learn how to handle. That makes a very impressive development. The other point for sure is the political difficulties in the Near East and so on and so forth. The real problem is that Islamophobia is used by some political parties and some politicians to create tensions. I think there’s more Islamophobia without any background and knowledge about Islam and the realities. I think there needs to be contributions for better relations and a more rational discussion.

And are you particularly concerned that immigration, the inability of governments in Europe to handle immigration from the Muslim countries and the Middle East will significantly strain and undermine relations between these countries and their Muslim communities?

I think hopefully not and this very much depends on how we are doing this. I’m part of efforts here to create more understanding but also to create regulations. I think first the Muslim community and other religious communities have to follow some rules for sure internally which are set by the state, and Islam as a religion it’s quite okay. But to make a key statement, the real problem is for example, in Austria, during the last happenings not the Islamic community, but how the political side is using the Islamic community. There was one example concerning the congregational prayers which was used by the Turkish government for some campaigning which was not really understood. And I think this needs to be done in the mosque.

But given all of these, does the European Union have any general policy towards accepting the fact that there are Muslims who are contributing positively to the communities in Europe and there should be a middle ground, I mean some sort of reconciliation so that both Muslims and non-Muslims in Europe can live together peacefully and work together to contribute to the improvement of society, economy, sciences and academia? What do you think about this? Don’t you think that especially in central European countries, in Austria itself, in Germany for example, there is a tendency to vilify and ostracize the Muslim communities and drive them away from different walks of life?

I think there are some groups working in this direction which is very horrible and I think we have to do something against it. I think it’s not the general mood and I think we have seven hundred thousand Muslims living in Austria and I think only for small minorities there are problems created. I think sometimes things are happening which are generated by the media.

So let’s explore other issues. I was reading a report recently saying that Austria’s relations with Russia has worried the intelligence experts in the West because they don’t expect these close relations between Austria and Russia and they fear that Austria may relay sensitive intelligence information about the West to Russia. And also Russia has conventionally and traditionally been a competitor for the United States and still is an economic rival, a nuclear rival and a political rival. Do you think that Austria-Russia relations might be detrimental to the interests of the United States and the European community as well?

I think this is also a crisis which is artificially generated. The capacity of intelligence existing in Austria and the Austrian government is really limited; it’s not very important. I think what is sometimes not really understood by the Americans and some Westerns is that we are a NATO country and we don’t want to be involved in different tensions which are not ours. We are contributing to solving problems; for example, the Ukrainian situation is quite close to Austria because Ukraine is quite a close neighbor and traditionally by history we have a lot of links because parts of Ukraine were part of the Austrian-Hungarian monarchy. But it’s not so much political. I think it’s going in a direction partly influenced by commands of the media. I think so far the real background of this is that there is a big business with Russia and I think if it is possible it’s quite good. We are not involved in military affairs, we are not producing weapons and so on. I think we are keeping out of all of these.

Interesting to hear! And what do you think about the future of Austria’s relations with the United Kingdom in the aftermath of Brexit and the complete withdrawal of Britain from the European Union? I know that generally you have had very close relation with Britain. How do you think the future will change after Brexit is implemented fully and the United Kingdom is not a part of EU anymore?

It cannot be answered. It’s not quite clear in which way the United Kingdom is going to move after it leaves the European Union because a lot of questions about future relations between the United Kingdom and EU have not been answered.

What questions, for example?

Well, what is happening to the Europeans living in the United Kingdom; how are the real relations on the business side; what is happening concerning the banks and so on and so forth. I think the list of all kind of questions concerning changes in the relations of the United Kingdom and the European Union and also Austria is very long. I think we shall proceed to the next level more quickly as we are doing.

There is currently a very worrying and unsettling crisis unfolding in the Middle East, which is the Syrian war. What do you think is the solution to this ongoing crisis and how do you think the whole thing will be handled while the external parties and different role-players in the war are not willing to relent and willing to hold back their positions?

I think we should try to improve the situation in the direction of peace. I think here more has to be done than it is now. It’s mostly something that the United Nations should take care of because here nothing is coming out and the best would be if groups and others withdraw from Syria. I think they have to find a way out.

And do you think that world powers who are currently contributing to the continuation of this war will finally come to an agreement, while they rarely sit at the negotiation table to find a viable solution, to put an end to all of this mayhem and bloodshed?

I think they’re not trying their best to make an agreement until now. I think they are some negotiations but nothing is happening. The proliferation of weapons is happening from different sides and this is really a pity and it’s quite shameful.

And a final question. The United States government has recently decided to move its embassy to Jerusalem, and it stirred a big controversy and a big debate across the world. A number of countries agreed with the decision and a number of countries disagreed and at the same time there is this ongoing humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip. What do you think about this and the whole scenario that is unfolding in Palestine, in the Gaza Strip and the unexpected decision by the U.S president to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem?

In modern politics, I think a lot of idiotic things are happening. I think it has no importance whether there’s an embassy here or an embassy there. It’s not important if the people are not there or withdrawn and so on. It’s a very childish play which is happening. So I think we have to return to more rationality which is missing. These are odd things; I think with an embassy in Jerusalem or not an embassy in Jerusalem it’s quite the same for the common people. I think it has no importance. I think this is a very idiotic way to move forward and it has nothing to do with stability and peace.

So, do you believe that it was mostly a politically motivated decision rather than a decision with concrete benefits?

For sure. Who does it help? Nobody.