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TODAY IN AUSTRIA

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

Confusion over rouble payments for Russian oil, Parliament re-opening delayed, and more news on Friday.

The Austrian Parliament Building
Austria's Parliament Building(PHOTO BY JOE KLAMAR / AFP)

Struggle for Austria’s OMV energy company to pay for Russian gas without breaking EU sanctions

The Austrian  oil, gas and petrochemical company OMV has responded to a media report in the Financial Times  that it wants to open a rouble account with Gazprombank in Switzerland to pay for gas deliveries from Russia. An OMV company spokesman told the Reuters news agency that the company was working on a solution which would comply with the EU’s sanctions. 

A European Commission spokesman said on Thursday that if companies pay in euros for Russian gas, they would not be in breach of the sanctions. However, it would become a breach of sanctions if companies were obliged to open a second account in roubles and if the payment were complete only when payment had been converted into roubles, Reuters reported. 

As the Local reported on Wednesday, Austria’s Chancellor Karl Nehammer took to Twitter to deny allegations made by the Russian state-owned news agency TASS that Austria had agreed to pay for natural gas supplies in roubles.

However, Donald Tusk, the President of the European People’s Party tweeted on the same day that he had heard Austria, Hungary and Germany were willing to take this step.

READ MORE: How Austria plans to secure enough energy for next winter

Return to Parliament delayed until January 2023

The opening of  Vienna’s historic parliament building on Vienna’s Ringstrasse has been further delayed until January of next year. An opening ceremony planned by National Council President Wolfgang Sobotka (ÖVP) for this year’s national holiday in October has had to be canceled due to acoustic problems in the newly designed plenary hall, he said in an interview with the Kurier newspaper. A rehearsal carried out before re-opening revealed the renovated glass dome was making every word uttered echo three times – a problem also initially experienced at the German Bundestag. Now the carpet is to be removed again and soundproofing put in place on the ceiling and floor. Parliament will not have to pay for the work.

 The costs for the renovation of the more than 140-year-old building have already soared to 420 million euros – 70 million euros more than originally planned. The renovation was delayed by more than two years due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Calls for headscarf ban in Austria’s kindergartens to be overturned

Federal states in Austria are calling for a headscarf ban in kindergartens to be overturned. Austria’s former ÖVP-FPÖ government coalition attempted to ban headscarves in kindergartens  in 2018  and a few months later also in elementary schools. The ban on headscarves in schools was repealed by the Constitutional Court (VfGH) at the end of 2020, but not in kindergartens. The Constitutional Court argued that it contradicts the requirement of the state’s religious and ideological neutrality since it is aimed exclusively at Muslims.

The negotiators for the federal government – including the ÖVP-led ministries for finance, family and education as well as the Federal Chancellery – are sticking to the headscarf ban, broadcaster ORF reported. There has been no official statement from Integration Minister Susanne Raab (ÖVP). Attempts are now being made to find a solution at state level. The Green party, which is also in the coalition government with the ÖVP has called the headscarf ban “absurd”. 

Interior Ministry denies accusations of racism

Austria’s Interior Ministry has been accused of racism, after Cobra officers searched a house for drugs in Lower Austria, and entered a bathroom where a 13-year-old was in the shower. A 24-year-old who was in bed, had her blankets pulled off her by officers. The house search in Groß-Enzersdorf (Gänserndorf district) was one of 11 house searches aimed at tackling drug dealing. No drugs were found at the address. Two people in the house were from South Africa and said they suspected there was a racist background to the search. However, the Ministry responded that ​​the search was carried out on the basis of an order from the Vienna public prosecutor’s office at various locations and had absolutely no connection with people’s ethnic origins, broadcaster ORF reports.

Cycling is booming in Lower Austria

More than half of tourists visiting Lower Austria are there on cycling holidays. Bike riding has boomed thanks to the Covid pandemic, but even before 2020, around 252 million euros were generated though cycle tourism in Lower Austria annually. Michael Showerer, Managing Director of Niederösterreich-Werbung, told broadcaster ORF  that Lower Austria will offer more public transport networks to cyclists this year, as well as more rental and repair stations, shuttle services and guides. The Danube Cycle Path was the busiest bike route last year, with 1.1 million tourist bike rides between April 1st and September 30th, 2021. Other heavily frequented cycle paths are the EuroVelo 9 in the Weinviertel, the Kamp-Thaya-March route, the Traisental cycle path and the Triesting-Gölsental cycle path.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How Austria is making life easier for cyclists and pedestrians

Hopes it will become easier for skilled third country nationals to work in Austria

Austria’s government has been looking at ways to make it easier for skilled workers from third countries to access the labour market. This means people from European countries that are not members of the EU or the European Economic Area (EEA).

There are currently 24,000 job vacancies in Austria and business experts say they want foreign skilled workers to have easier access to the Austrian labor market.

READ ALSO: How Austria is making it easier for non-EU workers to get residence permits

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TODAY IN AUSTRIA

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.

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