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

Taxes on second homes, Austria border patrols, reassurances made about Russian gas supplies and more news from Austria on Wednesday.

A horse and carriage in Vienna
It's going to be sunny and warm today. (Photo by JOE KLAMAR / AFP)

Reassurances by Energy Minister over Russian gas supplies to Austria

Austria’s Energy Minister  Leonore Gewessler (Greens) has made assurances that natural gas is still being supplied to Austria by Russia, after the country cut off gas supplies to Poland and  Bulgaria. Speaking to the Ö1 morning journal programme, she said the main supply routes were operating “without restrictions”, and said there were no signs that Russia planned to stop gas to Austria. Austria uses different supply routes (via Nord Stream and Ukraine) to Bulgaria and Poland, which uses the Yamal pipeline, she said.

However, she also warned that Austria must end its dependence on Russian gas as quickly as possible. “Vladimir Putin also wages war with energy supplies”, she said.

Austria is one of the most dependent countries in the EU on Russian gas supplies.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: How reliant is Austria on Russia for energy?

Styria passes law allowing taxes on second homes and empty properties

The Styrian state parliament has passed a controversial levy on second homes and vacant homes with the votes of the ÖVP, SPÖ and Greens. The new law means that anyone with a second home or a property lying empty in Styria will have to pay up to ten euros per square metre per year in the future. Erwin Dirnberger, President of the Association of Municipalities and MP for the ÖVP, said the levy was “important and justified” and said the aim of this levy meant that existing living space would be put to use before new homes were built, broadcaster ORF reports. It will be up to the municipalities to decide if they want to introduce the tax. 

Network of forgotten tunnels runs under Vienna

There is a huge network of tunnels connecting up to 30 vaults and “bomb-proof” bunkers up to four floors below the pavements of Vienna. The Krone newspaper reports some of these forgotten bunkers date from World War II, while others are much older, and have existed for 2000 years. According to the newspaper, some vaults are up to four or five metres high. Servus TV is due to screen a TV programme on this secret underground network on Wednesday (April 27) at 18:05.

A compensation fund for victims of Nazis in Austria has finally been closed

A fund designed for victims of National Socialism in Austria has finally been dissolved, having paid out a total of around 215 million US dollars to around 25,000 people. The fund, based in Vienna, had fulfilled its tasks in full, according to a press release

The Compensation Fund for Victims of National Socialism was set up in 2001 following the Washington Agreement between Austria and the United States of America. The fund acknowledged moral responsibility for loss of property suffered by victims of the Nazi party in Austria. People who had been personally affected by the Nazis confiscating their families’ assets were entitled to apply.

Border controls in Austria come under scrutiny

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) has ruled that Austrian border controls introduced during the refugee crisis in 2015 may not be compatible with Union law, specifically with the Schengen Borders Code and the right of free movement for EU citizens. According to the judgment issued on Tuesday, Austria needed to have demonstrated that there was a serious threat to its public order in order to keep extending the border controls for more than two years, broadcaster ORF reports.

ORF said that as the ECJ ruled, an EU country in the Schengen area may only introduce such controls for a maximum of six months in the event of a serious threat to its public order or internal security. After that, proof of a new serious threat is needed. Austria does not seem to have proven this since 2017, the court found. 

Interior Minister Gerhard Karner (ÖVP) emphasized that Austria would continue to rely on border controls “if necessary”, saying Austria is the second most country in Europe affected per capita by illegal immigration.The Provincial Administrative Court of Styria must now examine the judgement of the ECJ before proceeding

A case was brought to court after an EU citizen refused to present a document at the Slovenian-Austrian border when entering Austria in August and November 2019. This resulted in a fine of 36 euros.

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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.