Taming a wild century

Hanging in the office of the Ambassador of Austria, Michael Zimmermann, is a portrait of a thoughtful, cultured looking gentleman, clutching in his hands the notes of a speech.

It is Georg Franckenstein, the first Ambassador of the First Austrian Republic to London, who re-opened the doors of the Embassy after the Great War and served until he resigned in 1938, when Austria was annexed by Nazi Germany.

In one of Austria’s finest ambassadorial residences, dating back more than 150 years to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and replete with rich tapestries, objets d’art and grand paintings of emperors, empresses, archdukes (and the arch-diplomat Prince Metternich), this modest portrait is Ambassador Zimmermann’s favourite. “It was an easy choice,” he smiles. “Georg Franckenstein is the role model for all diplomats serving in difficult times… He represents Austrian resilience.”

After Anschluss Franckenstein never returned to his homeland, but was granted British citizenship and a knighthood by King George VI as a measure of the esteem in which the King held him.

“He had the most amazing story,” explains Ambassador Michael Zimmermann. “He was working for the Empire when it collapsed, then he served here as a diplomat for the fledgling Republic, and managed to get financial support to keep the Republic going because it was close to collapse. Despite that, he held amazing events here, he had royalty here, including the King.”

As Austria marks its centenary this year, the Ambassador has a personal reflection on what that means: “When I think about my grandparents, the number of currencies they had in their lifetimes, how many times they lost their savings, different anthems they had to sing, different uniforms they had to wear, different enemies they had to fight…it was a wild century.”

A core sense of cultural identity– unchanged for a millennium – sustained the Austrian peoples, he explains, through the dissolution of empire, occupation, war, famine and through decades as an outpost of the West. Now Austria is a prosperous member of the EU family with Vienna voted the “most liveable” city in the world.

Lessons from the Empire
When asked if today’s EU leaders could draw lessons from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Zimmerman gives a thoughtful answer: “In retrospect, some problems started in 1866 with the establishment of the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary. This led to the other nations starting to question why two nations of many were getting preferential treatment.”

The modern-day European Union is very different, he points out, as a bottom-up organisation in which fair treatment under the rules for all member states is a cornerstone. This perhaps goes some way to explain why Britain should not expect preferential treatment as it seeks to withdraw from the EU.

It fell to Austria, who took over the Presidency of the EU Council in July, to broker the final, toughest stages of the Brexit withdrawal agreement.

“It has been much more complex than anticipated,” admits Zimmermann. “The big surprise for everyone is that Brexit is not a simple technical step. It’s less like changing your mobile provider and more like a real divorce with all the emotional baggage.”

Austria, with its long history of empire and its experience as a frontier state between East and West, it has been the ideal bridge builder in this difficult process. With its cherished neutrality, which kept it secure during the Cold War, the Austrians have learned how to balance seemingly impossible political sensitivities.

Dealing with the In-laws
The Northern Ireland problem, with its complex history, is undoubtedly the hardest circle to square. Having served as Ambassador to Hungary prior to this post, Zimmermann understands that relations with neighbours can sometimes be delicate. “Do you know what the Hungarians call us Austrians? The in-laws!” he laughs. “It means we’re part of the same family but not blood related, yet with a 200km border and strong links we need to work together.”

It’s similar with Ireland and Britain, but perhaps even more complicated. Zimmermann travelled to Belfast to get a deeper understanding of the situation in Northern Ireland and the impact of Brexit and the “Irish backstop” on British-Irish relations. He remains hopeful that a practical solution is possible, based around existing practices.

“As a civil servant I see everything is workable!” he smiles. “But there is tremendous work to be done, much of it in boring details and that keeps the best minds in the country occupied… the British people wanted to cut bureaucracy by leaving the EU but my observation is that they are going to now need much more bureaucracy!”

But the Austrian Presidency has been about much more than Brexit. Migration continues to dominate debate in the run-up to the European elections next Spring. “Security is one of the themes that really occupies people’s minds in Europe,” says Zimmermann. As one of the countries which hosts one of the highest numbers of migrants in Europe, a fair system of burden sharing is urgently needed, says the Ambassador. “Although the concept of European borders is not new, their protection was left up to the individual member states and there is not a fair burden sharing within the EU. If the people of the Union get the impression that the Union is not doing enough to protect the borders then the EU will have a credibility problem.”

Europe’s economic competitiveness is another focus, particularly in the area of digitalisation where Europe lags behind East Asia. “We have a particular interest in this because as Austrians, we have few natural resources so we rely on technology and innovation,” explains Zimmermann.

Finally, Austria has brought to the Presidency its own regional slant, by focusing on the Western Balkans, with whom Austria has close historic and cultural ties. “Austria has an interest in stability in the Western Balkans and the European perspective for the countries. Even with the current problems, we should not stop looking ahead and developing the European Union further. We need a longer term vision and they need a longer term vision.”

Bilateral relations post Brexit
Once Austria has handed over the Presidency to Romania in January, the Ambassador looks forward to focusing on the bilateral relationship with the UK, which has always been important to Austria, he adds, although he admits things will change post-Brexit.

With Britain reaching out, contacts at head of government level may actually get easier, but other aspects are likely to get harder. People-to-people contacts will become more difficult, which may affect thriving academic and scientific ties which the two countries currently enjoy, he warns.

“If the Home Secretary wants to introduce a £30k [salary threshold] for Austrian visa applicants, that will affect the next generation of junior researchers. If the new UK immigration system is seen as a hassle they will go somewhere else.”

On culture, Zimmermann is determined to maintain and enhance the level of exchange. The Austrian Cultural Forum (where he served as Director from 1999-2004) will expand its programme of cutting edge events to push the boundaries of art, as Austrian artists have so often done in the past, such as Schiele and Klimt (who feature in a major exhibition at the Royal Academy commemorating the centenary of their deaths). “Active public support for arts is something which is an important part of our politics… This is not a propaganda institute; it asks big questions, political questions in a creative context.”

Harmonious diplomacy
But there will be plenty of room for Austria’s rich classical tradition too. “Music is part of our DNA – it’s not just PR. Music keeps Austria together, it’s hard to overestimate the role of music in Austrian identity and emotion,” adds Zimmermann, whose favourite composer is Schubert.

To share this love of music with the British public, he knows, as a former Head of Property Management at the Austrian Foreign Ministry, that he has one of Austria’s finest residences in which to showcase it. “This place is a stage, a tool. It’s unique and a symbol of continuity,” he enthuses. “I see it as an obligation to use it to its full potential.”

So with Ambassador Zimmermann en poste, music and dance will fill the Residence, as it always has since the days when Empress Sisi visited and Georg Franckenstein entertained the King.