Bettina Kirnbauer returned to Prague last year as Austria's ambassador after almost twenty years. She says that today’s Czech Republic is a thriving country, with overall progress visible in all areas. Related to this are the improved relations between Austria and the Czech Republic, which are really very close today. Her first year was largely impacted by the covid-19 pandemic. "But it showed, among other things, how good and stable our mutual relations are today," she points out.
How would you rate the first year of your tenure?
In this relatively short time as an ambassador in your beautiful country, I was able to learn and experience a lot through numerous encounters and experiences. There was also a constant up and down with the covid situation.
The pandemic has of course affected the relations between the two countries in many areas, particularly in travel restrictions such as border controls or even partial closures of the borders. But these events occurred all over Europe and around the world. This time was particularly difficult for everyone who makes their living from tourism. If there is anything positive about it at all, it was the realisation of how much we miss our neighbours, the people we suddenly couldn't meet anymore. We also realised how much we have got used to open borders in Europe and how important it is to have free travel and movement within the EU. Covid restrictions also showed how good and stable the relationships between our countries are. Among other things, we had to find solutions for cross-border commuters, and I dare say we managed to find a quick and easy way that was acceptable for everyone involved.
Covid-accelerated challenges and language competence
For Austria, the Czech Republic is the third most important trading partner in the EU. Austria, as the third most important direct investor in the Czech Republic, creates around 100,000 jobs here. Still, do you think there is unfulfilled potential in business or cultural relations between the two countries?
A very important common challenge is the transition to a sustainable, green economy. Major changes, accelerated by the pandemic, are emerging on the labour markets, and digitization is also an important challenge mainly in the SME sector.
Language skills are also important. Austrian SMEs are particularly looking for people with good German language skills in the Czech Republic. That is why there has been a joint campaign called Šprechtíme for over ten years, co-organised by the German and Austrian embassies, the Goethe-Institut, the Österreich-Institut and other organisations to encourage German language learning.
In your diplomatic career, you have previously worked in Prague, in 1998-2001. In your view, what has changed in Czechia the most since then? What has surprised you, and what has disappointed you?
Even a country that I think I know well surprises me again and again with new experiences, all positive ones – there is no room for disappointment at all. Czechia has changed a lot since then. It has been a member of the EU since 2004, there has been great progress in all areas, the country has flourished, and also relations between our two countries have improved a lot and are now very close. Solutions were found for issues that were still open at that time. Different points of view, for example on the issue of atomic energy, of course still exist, but we are able to have a factual debate about these.
Another important project is the joint history book called Neighbours: an Austro-Czech history, in which 27 historians from both countries deal with their history of the past two centuries. The book was initiated by both governments and represents a milestone in our mutual understanding.
Partnerships between regions and within science and education
Are there any cooperation initiatives at the level of specific regions of both countries?
There is very close cooperation between the Austrian federal states near the border (Lower Austria, Upper Austria and Vienna) and neighbouring Czech regions (South Bohemia, South Moravia and Vysočina). I should also mention the existing collaboration between the capitals Vienna and Prague, numerous partnerships between cities and municipalities and the EU's Interreg programme, which provides almost 100 million EUR for cross-border projects over a period of 7 years.
As a recent example of how well this cross-border cooperation works, I would like to mention the quick help provided by Austrian rescue teams after the devastating tornado in South Moravia. The rescue workers from Austria were among the first aid teams on site. This was made possible thanks to the agreement on cross-border cooperation in rescue service.
We should also introduce the AKTION Czech Republic – Austria programme to support bilateral cooperation in education and science in the tertiary sector. Can you give a bit more detail?
As neighbours, our countries are linked at all levels, and the AKTION Czech Republic – Austria programme has been helping expand our cooperation in the fields of science, research and education for years, in all disciplines.
Among other things, the projects finance scholarships for students and academics from both countries to carry out research projects, for scientific events such as symposia, conferences, field trips etc. In addition, summer language schools of German and Czech and summer courses in various scientific disciplines are also supported from the programme. The biggest focus is on projects which are subject of bilateral and regional interest in both countries.
Are the numbers of Czech tourists growing in Austria and vice versa?
It is important nowadays that tourism, which suffered a lot during the pandemic, is revived. Although the number of visitors to Austria has not yet reached the pre-crisis level, it is positive that it is possible to visit neighbouring countries again. Tourism between our two countries is a very important element in our relations, and not just from the economic point of view. It helps the people from both nations to get to know each other better. Personal encounters between people are always the most important form of bilateral relations in my opinion. Austria has a lot to offer and our Czech guests are always very welcome. They have long appreciated the beauty of Austria. You can find visitors from the Czech Republic not only on the ski slopes, but also on lakes, rivers or cycle paths all over the country. In July only, their number has increased by 27%.
What is your vision of where the mutual cooperation between our countries should head in the years to come?
Cross-border cooperation at all levels, in politics, administration, economy and culture, has become a matter of course, and personal contacts between people and family ties are also increasing. My idea is that Austria and the Czech Republic should continue to build their future in a common Europe. We should do that in close coordination and make the integration of our two countries so strong that it will become irreversible in the future.
Bettina Kirnbauer was interviewed by Daniel Libertin
Photos: Bettina Kirnbauer’s archive