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Today in Austria: A roundup of the latest news on Monday

Every weekday, The Local brings you an English-language summary of the news you need to know in Austria.

A man has Ukrainian national colours on the cheeks during a demonstration against the Russian invasion of Ukraine in Vienna
There were further protests against the Russian invasion of Ukraine in Vienna over the weekend. (Photo by ALEX HALADA / AFP)

Austrian and Russian embassies in Twitter spat

On Saturday the Russian Foreign Ministry in Vienna tweeted that it sharply condemned what it described as “anti-Russian rhetoric” by Austria’s Chancellor Karl Nehammer and Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg.

The Russian Foreign Ministry used several social media channels to say the Austrian leaders had compromised their official policy of neutrality by condemning Russian actions in Ukraine.

The Austrian Foreign Ministry responded on Twitter that Austria remains militarily neutral, but will not be neutral when it comes to violations of international law.

The Russian Embassy also sent an angry tweet after its frontage was covered in red paint by a protestor who drove away from the scene on a motorbike. The embassy described the act as “barbaric” and described it as “vandalism”.

Austria seeks energy solution in the United Arab Emirates

Austria’s Green Minister of Energy Leonore Gewessler has been in the Middle East with Chancellor Karl Nehammer to attempt to buy gas supplies. Minister Elisabeth Köstinger (ÖVP) has also signed a declaration of intent to buy green hydrogen from the United Arab Emirates (UAE). 

According to broadcaster ORF, neither hydrogen nor LNG (liquefied natural gas) will be coming to Austria from the Gulf Emirates any time soon. “One should not expect miracles,” said Chancellor Karl Nehammer (ÖVP) to journalists in Abu Dhabi. 

Energy Minister Leonore Gewessler (Greens) told reporters that 80 percent of Austria’s gas imports come from Russia.

She said: “These are quantities that cannot be replaced within three weeks or three months.” At present, Russia is continuing to deliver gas to Austria as contractually agreed, the Austrian multinational oil, gas and petrochemical company OMV boss Alfred Stern said.

READ MORE: How Austria could be impacted by the war in Ukraine

Austrian oil, gas and petrochemical company OMV reconsiders links with Russia

However, on Saturday, OMV said it no longer wants to invest in Russia and will reconsider its participation in the Russian Yuzhno Russkoye natural gas field.

 OMV has written off its accounts receivable of almost one billion euros from the pipeline company Nord Stream 2, but has not yet completely given up hope of getting at least part of the money back, broadcaster ORF reports.

Austria’s neutrality questioned 

The former President of Austria’s National Council, Andreas Khol, has called on Austria to abandon its neutrality and join NATO. 

Writing in the Kleine Zeitung on Sunday he said: “A neutral or non-aligned state remains alone when it is attacked”. The ÖVP party’s military spokesman Friedrich Ofenauer also said Austria’s neutrality and its design must be “seriously discussed”.

EXPLAINED: The history behind Austria’s neutrality

Opposition parties call for VAT cut on fuel

The Austrian left wing SPÖ political party, which is in opposition to the government, have called for a temporary reduction on VAT on electricity and gas and a one-off payment of €300 for lower income households to help with soaring energy prices.

SPÖ energy spokesman Alois Schroll said the combined measure would give lower income households relief of up to €500 per household, broadcaster ORF reports. The right wing FPÖ leader Herbert Kickl also called for a VAT cut on fuel. 

READ MORE: How to save money on fuel costs in Austria

Austria finds thousands of beds for Ukrainian refugees fleeing conflict

Austria continues to offer help to Ukrainians fleeing the conflict. The City of Vienna has increased the number of emergency shelters from 730 to 1,250 places.

Thanks to the Nachbarschaftsquartieraktion (neighbourhood action) campaign of the Federal Agency for Care and Support Services (BBU), 12,000 places are now available in around 3,000 neighbourhoods, the Interior Ministry reported on Sunday. Private individuals can contact [email protected] if they can offer accommodation.

Caritas Vienna has also set up an e-mail address at [email protected]. This is for people who are able to make empty properties, apartments and rooms available to refugees from Ukraine for at least six months.

The Ukrainian community in Vienna has started a website in three languages – German, Ukrainian and English, where you can offer housing. They are also looking for support, such as drivers, interpreters/translators and  psychological support.

READ MORE: How Austria is preparing to accept Ukrainian refugees

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Today in Austria: A roundup of the latest news on Friday

Austria needs to 'wake up' in terms of neutrality, kindergarten headscarf ban overturned and more news on Friday.

Today in Austria: A roundup of the latest news on Friday

Former foreign minister says Austria needs to examine its security policy 

The former Austrian ÖVP Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik has given a speech calling for Austria to look again at its security policy in the light of the debate over neutrality. “Austrian security policy has been dormant for almost a quarter of a century. We cannot afford to sleep for decades,” said Plassnik, according to broadcaster ORF, speaking at the Medienzentrum Ausseerland conference in Grundlsee organized by the Association of Foreign Press.

She said it was time for an update of the security policy, which is now ten years old, and to carry out a “careful, impartial and EU-compliant current risk analysis”. Plassnik suggested an “options report” should be carried out in 2022. This has been attempted before in 1998, but failed because Austria’s SPÖ party did not want to examine NATO membership at the time.

Following the decision of Finland and Sweden to join NATO, 23 EU countries now belong to the North Atlantic Defense Alliance. Only Ireland, Malta, Cyprus and Austria remain outside.

Plassnik called for debate, saying Austria was a “stowaway” in terms of security policy, in which its neighbors, the NATO members, paid the insurance policy. She added while Austrians may “carry neutrality in their hearts” it was important not to lose their heads. 

READ MORE: ‘No country is an island’: Is it time for Austria to abandon its neutrality policy?

No more headscarf ban in Austrian kindergartens

The headscarf ban in Austria’s kindergartens has been repealed. The measure will no longer be included in the new 15a agreement between the federal and state governments, broadcaster ORF reports. A law banning headscarves in Austrian schools, introduced under the previous ÖVP-FPÖ coalition government was overturned previously because it was found not to be compatible with Austria’s federal constitution. However, state laws mean in kindergartens, the ban is still in force, except in Salzburg and Tyrol. The constitutional court said in a statement that these laws were probably also unconstitutional

 A new 15a agreement is currently being negotiated between the federal and state governments, as the current regulation expires at the end of August. The details will be revealed later today (Friday). It is expected the government will announce payments of a  “kindergarten billion” distributed over the next five years. This will mean Austria’s federal states will receive money to expand their offer in the compulsory kindergarten year before school, and to give better language support. The agreement is already drawing criticism for not including enough quality criteria around group sizes or care. 

Virologist calms fears over monkey pox in Austria

The virologist Norbert Nowotny has sought to reassure people in Austria over the recent outbreaks of monkey pox which have been seen around the globe, in an interview with Puls 24

So far there have been no cases in Austria, but the virologist said it was possible there would be one or two imported cases. For people with a healthy immune system monkey pox was “no big deal” he said. However in immunocompromised people, the infection can be more severe.

Gewessler calls for Austria to adapt “circular economy”

Leonore Gewessler, Austria’s Green Minister for the Environment is working on a strategy for a circular economy, which involves sharing, leasing, reusing, repairing and recycling existing materials and products rather than buying new ones. She said repairs were an important factor to allow Austria to become climate-neutral by 2050 and operate sustainably. In order for long-lasting devices and repairs to be better established on the market, many other coordinated measures are needed in addition to the new repair bonus – as is the case for the entire strategy itself, which could be completed by June.

READ MORE: Repair bonus: How to get money back when electrical items break in Austria

Law changes to give more support to displaced people from Ukraine

Austria’s laws will change to give more support for people displaced from Ukraine, despite the ‘no’ votes of the FPÖ. Ukrainians have now been included in an Integration Act, giving them access to German and orientation courses. It should become easier for Ukrainians to enter the labour market, and have their educational qualifications and professional qualifications recognised, broadcaster ORF reports.

European parliament votes in favour of sanctions against Austria’s former foreign minister

The European Parliament voted by a large majority in favor of sanctions against politicians and Europeans who draw large amounts of money from Russia on Thursday, naming Austria’s  former FPÖ Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl along with Germany’s ex-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. 

The text also mentioned Austria’s former Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel (ÖVP), noting he had “recently resigned” from his office in a Russian company in contrast to politicians such as Kneissl, broadcaster ORF reports.

Payments for Russian gas can be made in roubles, according to ‘EU circles’ 

According to information from EU Commission circles, gas importers such as Austria are also allowed to open a rouble account with the Russian Gazprombank as long as they pay their bills in the agreed currencies, euros or dollars, to another account. Commission officials clarified on Thursday that this would be in line with EU sanctions. The exchange of western currencies into roubles would then have to be carried out via the second account on the Russian side.

The commission recommended states should not set up rouble accounts if possible, but this recommendation has no legal consequences, broadcaster ORF reports. 

At the end of April, Austria’s ÖVP Chancellor, Karl Nehammer, said that it was “fake news from Russian propaganda” that states such as Austria were willing to pay for the gas in roubles and insisted Austria’s energy company, OMV, would continue to pay for gas deliveries from Russia in euros. The Polish politician and former EU Council President Donald Tusk then accused Austria and Germany of having entered the “rouble zone”.

 The Russian energy company Gazprom has halted its gas  supplies to Poland and Bulgaria since they refused to pay for their gas in roubles.