50 Years of Friendship
Austria's ambassador to Kenya, H.E HARALD GUNTHER recalls the milestones of his country’s diplomatic relations with Nairobi as it marks its Jubilee Anniversary
DIPLOMAT EAST AFRICA: Your Excellency, please tell us about the state of relations between Austria and the East African countries you oversee.
H.E HARALD GUNTHER: The Austrian Embassy in Nairobi covers Kenya, Burundi, the Comoros, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Malawi, Rwanda, the Seychelles, Somalia, Tanzania, Zambia and the United Nations agencies of HABITAT and UNEP. With all these countries and organisations we have good, friendly relations and strive to expand our ties.
Q: Official ties between Austria and Kenya stretch far back to 1908, when Austria-Hungary established an Honorary Consulate in Mombasa. Please elaborate on this.
A: This was at the time of the Austrian-Hungarian Monarchy, which comprised then an area with about 60 million people. The trade potential with East Africa was seen as promising. But at the outset of World War I, the Consulate was closed down.
Q: You just commemorated 50 years of diplomatic relations with Kenya; please tell us about the highlights of these relations.
A: Our bilateral relations started with an early recognition of Kenya’s independence in 1964. A year later, we opened the Austrian Embassy in Nairobi. During the last 50 years we have steadily expanded our friendly bilateral relations in all fields.
Q: Kindly share with us the details of the areas of cooperation.
A: We have bilateral agreements with individual countries, for example in the air service sector, on double taxation avoidance or technical assistance. But the main agreements are in the framework of the European Union (EU), for instance, the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) between EU and East African Community (EAC) which was just recently renewed.
Q: How do you view the current economic situation in Kenya?
A: The economic growth rates of Kenya and the region are well beyond our own. Kenya is the strongest economy in the region. A lot of investments in big infrastructure projects are taking place. I think there is a lot of economic potential in the coming years.
Q: The Kenyan government has developed strategies to attract foreign investment to the country. Have any Austria investors taken advantage of the policy?
A: Last year an Austrian–Kenyan business forum took place. An Austrian delegation which was organised by the Austrian Economic Chamber visited Kenya. The aim was to have a closer look at business opportunities in Kenya and the East African region which has high economic growth rates. As a result, we can see new Austrian investments in the health and business sector. The Austrian Economic Chamber has also decided to open an office at the Embassy this year.
Q: What will be the focus of Austria’s engagement in Kenya and East Africa during your tenure?
A: As the Embassy is located in Nairobi, our focus is, of course, Kenya itself. But we are also striving to expand our ties with all the countries and organisations I mentioned at the beginning. I think the region we are covering is experiencing vibrant economic activity and that we will see more bilateral interest and development of stronger relations.
Q: What do you think of the East Africa Community (EAC) Integration efforts?
A: From the Austrian perspective, regional integration in Africa is a positive development, from which the countries of East Africa
An Austrian delegation which was organised by the Austrian Economic Chamber visited
The aim Kenya. was to have a closer look at business opportunities in Kenya and the East African region
as well as international partners in trade, business and tourism can benefit. Of course, it is up to the EAC and its member states to decide how far they want to take their aspirations of integration and how they can be implemented.
As a member of the EU for 20 years now, Austria has its own experience of being part of a greater community. The EU has been a very successful peace-project and economically, Austria has profited tremendously since its accession to the EU. From these points of view, Austria can only support the EAC’s integration efforts.
Q: Kindly tell us please about your priority areas in this respect.
A: The most institutionalised partnership we have with Africa is in the framework of the Strategic Partnership between the EU and the continent. It focuses on promoting political dialogue and concrete action in areas of joint interest between equal partners. The co-operation is especially expanded in the areas of peace and security, infrastructure and the development sector. East Africa is also a key region for Austria’s development cooperation.
Q: Your Excellency, what has been your experience so far in Kenya?
A: Very friendly and very welcoming! Having already travelled from Turkana to the Coast, I realised the enormous differences in geography but also the standards of living in the country. I think Kenya is a lively country in different areas from economics to arts and has great potential for the future.
Q: You have served in Algiers, Tokyo, Los Angeles, Washington, Brussels (EU), studied in Italy and have travelled to many other places. How is your posting in Nairobi different from them?
A: This is my first posting in Eastern Africa. In that respect, I find it very good for my experience to learn about all the specific features, geographical diversity and challenges of the region I am working in now.
Q: What do you think Austria can learn from Kenya and vice versa?
A: In Austria we say sometimes
that we are complaining on a very high level – meaning that although many people enjoy a high standard of living they complain that it could be better. In Kenya, I can see so many people who have much less than many Austrians and still enjoy life.
Q: Is there one experience, person, or an event in Kenya that has influenced any of your policies and how so?
A: I try to understand Kenya and the region by all the daily experiences I encounter. Personally, I enjoy reading the books by Kenyan writers such as N’gugi wa Thiongo or the writings of politicians like the First President Jomo Kenyatta as well as historical books on the region which will help me to understand this country better.
Q: What are Austria’s strong points as a country?
A: Austria is a politically and economically stable country in the heart of Europe. It has an advanced modern economy with predominately small and medium-sized but very successful enterprises. Austria is also a prime tourism location and proud of its environmentally conscious population.
Within the international community, Austria is a strong supporter of human rights, disarmament and peace.
Q: Austria is a country of great cultural and historical traditions. How does your government fight xenophobia and discrimination?
A: Austria, a country at the very heart of Europe, has been a crossing point for many different cultures for centuries. Religious tolerance has been a key principle already during the AustroHungarian monarchy and Islam has been recognised as an official religion in Austria as early as 1912.
My Ministry is called Ministry for Europe, Integration and Foreign Affairs. You can see that integration has a central position. About 18 per cent of the Austrian population or about 1.5 million out of 8.5 million people have a migration background–meaning that they either immigrated to Austria or are born in Austria by foreign-born parents. It is the conviction of the Austrian government that a strong integration policy is the best means to miti- gate xenophobia and discrimination. Let me also mention at this point that Austria is proud to host the Eurovision Song Contest in Vienna this year, which will be entitled “Building Bridges.”
Q: Austria has one of the lowest unemployment rates in Europe. It also has the lowest youth unemployment rates. What lessons can we learn from your experience?
A: Yes, even in Europe Austria has one of the lowest youth uonemployment rates. After the outbreak of the recent financial and economic crisis, many European countries gave a closer look to the Austrian model. It seems that especially the combination of vocational training in enterprises and school education at the same time – the so called dual system - prepares many young people well for their professional life. They acquire the tools to deal with lifelong learning which is necessary in modern professional life. But Austria has a long tradition in this respect and it must be said that what works for one country might not necessarily work the same way for other countries.
Q: Are there any cultural relations with Kenya?
A: Austria has quite a vibrant cultural presence in Kenya. In the past years, the Embassy has organised a range of events – classical concerts, jazz concerts, film festivals and exhibitions. We regularly participate at the EU film festival in Kenya to showcase Austrian movies. Austrian film has positioned itself at the very centre of current European filmmaking, having won two Academy Awards for best non-English movie in the past years. Aside from that, Austria offers a variety of scholarships to Kenyan students, including in the performing arts, every year
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