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Close neighbours in conversation

28.07.2013 - Interview
Foreign Ministers Michael Spindelegger (Austria, left) and Guido Westerwelle
Foreign Ministers Michael Spindelegger (Austria, left) and Guido Westerwelle© photothek / Hünerfauth

At the weekend, Foreign Minister Westerwelle and his Austrian counterpart Michael Spindelegger gave an interview to the Austrian daily “Kurier” (28 July), commenting on issues such as data protection and developments in the Arab world.

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KURIER: Have you already received satisfactory answers from your American partners about what the NSA has been spying on in Europe?

Guido Westerwelle: So far the answers haven’t been sufficient.

Michael Spindelegger: We’ve been briefed orally by the US Ambassador. That is not what we expect from our partners.

What would be the consequences if it turnedout, for example, that meetings in Brussels had actually been eavesdropped on?

Westerwelle:I would prefer not to speculate on that. However, we launched an international initiative together with some other countries in Europe aimed at better enshrining data protection as a human right. The relevant international agreements dating from the 1960s must be brought up to date.

How do you intend to convince the public that national intelligence services and governments really did know nothing about the dimension of the NSA’s activities?

Spindelegger:Apparently there were agreements to that effect, at least that’s what is said. We must find out if that is true. Because at the end of the day we need to know whether there was systematic cooperation. I cannot answer that question, I’m not aware of any such agreement. It seems however that our concept of freedom of communication differs from that of the American Administration.

Were you surprised by the scope of the cooperation between the US and Germany?

Spindelegger:We all want to pull in the same direction when it comes to fighting terrorism, but what has taken all of us by surprise is how intensively and systematically all data have been collected and processed by the NSA.

Westerwelle:Nobody is being naïve here. We all know that we need to take joint action against organised crime and terrorist attacks. Consequently, the responsible institutions need to share their knowledge. However, spying on friends cannot be justified by invoking security interests.

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It seems, however, that the British too were eavesdropping on European partners.

Spindelegger:We in Austria tend to say: “It’s clear that they eavesdrop on us anyway.” To that I say: no, that is not clear by any means. It’s something you can do when there are grounds for suspicion, but then it needs to be done based on the rule of law.

What do you think? Is Edward Snowden a traitor or a hero?

Westerwelle:It’s not up to me to say we need to leave it to independent courts.

Spindelegger:He disclosed something, but it’s not important whether that was a heroic act or not. At the end of the day, we have to come to grips with what he has disclosed.

What keeps Austria or Germany from granting him asylum?

Spindelegger:The rules laid down in our asylum law need to be respected.

Westerwelle:He sent a fax to the German Embassy in Moscow, and we came to the conclusion that the requirements for granting him asylum in Germany have not been met. For one thing, because he already enjoys resident status in Russia, and for another, because the USA is a parliamentary democracy with an independent judiciary.

Your State Secretary Lopatka said he understood why Edward Snowden had acted in this way because he had disclosed human rights violations.

Spindelegger:But that in itself is not a heroic act, and it’s not sufficient reason to grant him asylum in a state based on the rule of law.

While amajor cultural event is currently taking place in Salzburg, people are dying in war zones elsewhere. In Syria, 100,000 people are reported to have been killed already. Is a military solution not an option for you?

Westerwelle:I don’t believe that fewer people will die if we pursue a military solution by way of a proxy war. Austria and Germany share the view that a political solution is required for Syria. A military solution would not bring lasting peace. Michael Spindelegger and I have come out against lifting the arms embargo.

Spindelegger:The EU’s policy has always been not to intervene with military means in a conflict but to seek a political solution. We should give the envisaged Geneva II Conference, which ought to bring all political forces in Syria together, the chance to find a solution.

Westerwelle:The fact that Austria, with its soldiers stationed on the Golan Heights, reacted with particular sensitivity is something that I understand and support.

So it was the right decision to withdraw the Austrian UN soldiers from the Golan Heights?

Westerwelle:I’m not a teacher lecturing his pupils. Who am I to judge the Austrian government’s actions?

On Friday an official arrest warrant was issued against the toppled Egyptian President Morsi. Do you think the Egyptian military is still acting within the bounds of the law?

Westerwelle:We’re very concerned about current developments. We are calling for a return to constitutional order and for non violence. Peace and stable development will only be possible if all political forces cooperate. Selective justice would only aggravate the situation.

Spindelegger:What matters now is that a democratic process is launched as soon as possible and a parliament and a president elected. Confrontation in the street is not what we want to see and certainly not the right way to restore domestic peace in Egypt.

How do you assess the ArabSpring now, almost two and a half years after it began?

Spindelegger:Building a democracy takes time, it can’t be done all in one year. We may regret that, but we also have to show the necessary patience.

Westerwelle:I no longer use the term Arab Spring, we are now looking at Arab seasons.

What season are we in right now?

Westerwelle:In some countries it’s spring, in some, early summer, and in Syria the dead of winter. In Egypt, we are witnessing the first five minutes of a historic hour.

Mr Westerwelle, you’re for Turkey’s accession to the EU, and you, Mr Spindelegger, are against it.

Spindelegger:We would like to see a privileged partnership, but we haven’t been able to convince the rest of the EU. However, we did agree, on condition that the result of the negotiations is not a foregone conclusion. At the end of the process, we will put the result to a plebiscite. However, what has happened in Turkey recently filled us with deep concern because it is unworthy of a country that wants to join the European Union.

So Turkey is not yet ready for Europe?

Westerwelle:If we had to make the decision in July 2013, Turkey would not be ready, and the EU would not be able to handle another accession anyway. But no such decision is upcoming.

The interview was conducted together with the daily “Presse”. Reproduced by kind permission of “Kurier”.

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