Austria sees no alternative to border checks for now, says Schallenberg

Ljubljana – Visiting Slovenia as the first foreign official after the new government was sworn in, Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg said on Monday that Austria did not see any alternative to checks on what is its internal Schengen border with Slovenia. He discussed a number of issues with Slovenian Foreign Minister Tanja Fajon.

In light of the war in Ukraine and “a 120% increase in illegal border crossings in recent months”, there is no alternative to Austria’s continued border checks, Schallenberg said, adding that Austria would strive though to come up with a solution through dialogue to maintain the Schengen area and make the situation on the border the way it was prior to 2015.

Meanwhile, Fajon said that Slovenia saw no reason to maintain border controls. She informed Schallenberg of the planned removal of the fence on Slovenia’s border with Croatia, assuring him that Slovenia would continue to ensure adequate protection of its external Schengen border.

In 2015, at the peak of the refugee crisis, Austria introduced border checks on its internal Schengen borders with Slovenia and Hungary and has been extending this ever since. The latest six-month extension was in mid-May, with Austria citing the war in Ukraine as one of the reasons.

Fajon and Schallenberg reaffirmed the good cooperation between the two countries in various fields and stressed the importance of ethnic minorities.

Fajon said that before the visit she had met representatives of the Slovenian ethnic community in Austria, who, she said, lauded the positive developments on the Austrian side.

“We have agreed to work together, at federal level and along the border, to provide help to our national community,” she said as she expressed her support for continuation of the dialogue with the German-speaking community in Slovenia and efforts to strengthen their linguistic and cultural identity.

“Both communities need our help and protection,” said Schallenberg.

Asked whether Slovenia would work towards the notification of the Austrian State Treaty under the new government, Fajon replied that in dialogue with Austria the Slovenian side emphasised above all the implementation of Article 7 of the treaty, which guarantees the rights of the Slovenian community in Austria.

“The question of the status of the contracting party is not a subject of the dialogue with Austria, furthermore the situation in the world does not allow it at the moment,” she added.

Schallenberg said that Austria considered the treaty to be a limited international treaty, so Slovenia cannot join it. “Nevertheless, Austria is committed to respecting it and takes the commitments seriously,” he added.

Another issue on which the two countries do not share the same position is nuclear energy. Schallenberg reiterated Austria’s opposition to the nuclear power plant in Krško, but acknowledged that the exchange of information at expert level was going well.

“I know that giving up nuclear power is not on the Slovenian agenda, but I would like to see us take things forward in a way that would benefit both countries,” he said.

The ministers also discussed the situation in Ukraine and called for cooperation on projects to rebuild the country after the war and help people there.

Moreover, the pair called for the EU to do everything possible to implement the enlargement commitments made to Western Balkan countries.

“We’re both wholeheartedly committed to supporting the Western Balkans countries to get their membership as soon as possible, and we will devote close attention to putting them on the EU agenda,” Fajon said.

Schallenberg noted the geopolitical responsibility of the EU towards the region and the promises made to the region 19 years ago. “If we talk about Ukraine and Moldova, we must also talk about the Western Balkans”, he said, warning against creating first- and second-tier candidates for EU accession.

Schallenberg is the first foreign senior official to have visited Slovenia after the new government took office last week. He expressed his gratitude for having been able to visit Ljubljana so quickly, and Fajon stressed the symbolic importance of his visit.

He also met President Borut Pahor and was received by Robert Golob, the new prime minister. During their meeting, Golob called for Austria to lift their checks on the border with Slovenia as soon as possible.

Golob and Schallenberg talked about relations between the two countries and central European issues, with emphasis on the energy situation as a result of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, the prime minister’s office said.

The pair discussed the efforts to acquire alternative gas sources and assessed the potential for the expansion of the liquefied gas terminals in Croatia’s Krk and Italy’s Rovigo.

Schallenberg also extended Chancellor Karl Nehammer’s congratulations to Golob and his invitation for Golob to visit Austria.