‘Modi’s visit a good starting point to upgrade India-Austria relations’

INTERVIEW / Katharina Wieser, Austrian ambassador

Austrian ambassador Katharina Wieser | Kritajna Naik Austrian ambassador Katharina Wieser | Kritajna Naik

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Austria , bolstering the 75 year old diplomatic ties, places New Delhi as a global partner and important strategic ally for European nations who are looking at diversifying their political engagements and business partnerships in a changing geopolitical landscape. Speaking exclusively to THE WEEK, Austrian ambassador Katharina Wieser says the focus on India is getting bigger with the growing need of European countries for alternative supply chain routes, economic opportunities and political engagement.

Q. Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Vienna marks 75 years of India-Austria diplomatic ties. How has the relationship progressed?

I think it's been a very good journey. We got off to a good start and have enjoyed stable and friendly relations throughout the years. There has been an added dynamic in the past years, with an increased exchange at many levels of our multifaceted partnership. Our foreign ministers have met many times in the past two years, and the Austrian Minister of Labour and Economy, accompanied by a large business delegation, visited India in February 2024. We are honoured that the visit of Hon’ble Prime Minister Modi to Austria is taking place on the occasion of our celebration of 75 years of diplomatic relations. It is a confirmation of the friendly partnership we have, and a good starting point for a further upgrade of our relations. Indeed it is 41 years since an Indian Prime Minister last visited Austria, and 40 years since an Austrian Federal Chancellor visited India, so let’s seize this opportunity and take our excellent relations to another level. There has been an intensification of the outreach of India to the world, and we are glad that Austria is also playing a part in that. It is really important to meet regularly and talk about bilateral, regional and global concerns.

Q. What are the focus areas of exchange at the moment?

A particular focus is definitely on economic and business relations. Around 150 subsidiaries of Austrian companies are already engaged in India, and very happy to be here. Our bilateral trade volume is nearly € 3 bn, and investments nearly € 2 bn. Recent high-level visits were accompanied by large business delegations, displaying the intensification of exchange and the interest in further engagement. There have been several business missions, including start-up missions, going both ways in the past years. During the visit of the Austrian Minister of Labour and Economy Martin Kocher in February, a bilateral start-up bridge was launched between India and Austria, and as a direct outcome around 35 Indian companies with 55 representatives participated in the ViennaUP, a start-up festival in Vienna, Austria, in June. So there's a dynamic in that area that we want to develop further in view of the importance of fostering innovation and entrepreneurship. Starting from the visit of PM Modi in Austria and the high-level business forum that was addressed by PM Modi and Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer in the framework of the visit, we shall look to developing a future-oriented sustainable economy and technology partnership.

Today, there are common concerns around climate change which we have to tackle together. Austria is a high tech country with a lot of expertise to offer in the green, sustainable and renewables sector. Austrian companies are already engaged in this field in India, for example in the field of mobility and smart city development, renewable energy, biofuel and the circular economy. By further collaborating in this sector we can jointly make the transition to more sustainable economies.

Austrian ambassador Katharina Wieser | Kritajna Naik Austrian ambassador Katharina Wieser | Kritajna Naik

Q. How do you see people-to-people exchange increasing in coming years?

An important area of cooperation is an intensification of people-to-people exchange, enabling student mobility, exchange of researchers and academics as well as skilled labor migration to address existing labour shortages in Austria. In an important development, the two foreign ministers last year signed a bilateral Migration and Mobility Partnership Agreement, which entered into force at the beginning of September 2023. It covers two important areas of cooperation, one being the prevention of illegal migration, a policy priority for Austria. The other area of cooperation is to enable productive and future-oriented exchanges at the academic and professional level. Being at different stages of our economic development it makes sense to use our respective strengths and opportunities, such as enabling skilled labour exchange through recruitment of highly skilled professionals in India.

At the moment, there are around 1000 Indian students studying at universities in Austria, and there is interest in accommodating more. Several Austrian universities have been visiting India in recent months to meet with counterparts and to establish direct relations. Having studied in Austria and learnt the language could be another pathway of becoming part of the skilled labor force.

And quite apart from skilled labour migration, Austria with its beautiful nature and cities that combine history and modernity is a well-known and sought-after tourist destination. In 2023, around 136,000 Indian tourists visited Austria, and we look forward to welcoming more. Also vice versa, Austrian tourists find India a fascinating country to visit. That is the kind of people-to-people contact that will increase the knowledge and understanding between our two countries.

Q. What are the growing opportunities for the Indian diaspora?

The Indian diaspora in Austria is not very huge (between 11,000 and 31,000), but it is growing. Over the years, we have for example had migration from Kerala to the Austrian health sector, with many Keralites working in Austrian hospitals and as care givers. It is a sector that is still very much in need of an expanded workforce. Another sector has been the field of IT and engineering, where there is a very well educated Indian workforce, and Austrian companies in need of such skilled workers. Some very successful matchings have been made, and we hope to continue this exchange.

Q. Talking of global challenges and partnerships, what is the focus?

One defining element of Austrian foreign policy is that we are a neutral country, located right at the center, in the heart of Europe. Our geopolitical, geographical location and our constitutional setup as a neutral country is also the backdrop to a particular emphasis on multilateral cooperation. As you know, Vienna is headquarters to many international organizations, amongst them one of the headquarters of the UN. Being a neutral country has always meant that we are militarily neutral, but we have never been politically neutral.

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