Austria’s long serving Social Democrat head of government was in Prague Thursday for his second meeting with Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka in just over two months. The meetings are a sign that Prague wants to elevate relations with Vienna to a much higher level.
Czech-Austrian relations have often been prickly. Austria was the core of the sprawling Habsburg Empire with the then Bohemia and Moravia an industrially important but not always very happy outpost of empire. Even in the first decade of Czechoslovak independence, a power grab by the remnants of the Habsburg monarchy was still the main focus Prague’s state security apparatus.
The end of the Cold War improved relations but these were also soured by Austria’s aversion to nuclear energy and Prague’s embrace of it, as well as suspicions that cheap labour from former Communist countries would undermine the advanced Austria social model. The glue of common NATO membership was also lacking given Austria’s designation as a neutral country in the aftermath of the Second World War.
Relations have improved but are still undermined by poor transport links between the two neighbours. There is still no motorway link between the Czech Republic and Austrian border. The fastest trains between Prague and Vienna take around four-and-a-half hours for an around 400 kilometre trip. Now though Prague sees Austria as a neighbour with whom good relations should be developed and cultivated further.
This is how Czech prime minister introduced Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann during a lightning visit by the latter to Prague: “I had an opportunity to meet with the Chancellor in Vienna in June. I am very glad that just one month later in July it has been possible to schedule this visit to Prague. I think this is a clear signal that we have been able to shift and intensify the dialogue between the Czech Republic and Austria.”
Bilateral meetings between Czech ministers of foreign affairs, transport, and agriculture have already taken place with their Austrian counterparts in recent weeks. More are planned between ministers for industry, the environment, and interior.
Prime minister Sobotka stressed that improving transport links across the border is now one of the highest priorities of the government.
Thursday’s talks between Sobotka and Chancellor Faymann also covered the future composition of the European Commission. Here, Prague and Vienna could be at odds with Czech Commission candidate Věra Jourová and Johannes Hahn both know to be chasing the regional development dossier. Sobotka glossed over the differences and instead highlighted how the two Social Democrat leaders were seeking to push the centre-left themes of employment and training that they want Brussels to give more priority to.
And it’s the wider foreign and EU aspect that could see the Prague-Vienna axis deepening the most. Regular three-way meetings of government heads of both countries plus Slovakia are now planned to take place. The first should take place before the Spring.
And deputy minister for foreign affairs Petr Drulák described in an interview last month how stepped up cooperation with Austria, Slovenia, and Croatia could help Czechs shape relations and developments in the Western Balkans, a traditional priority for Prague.