Austria takes over European Union presidency


Austria moved into the driver's seat of the European Union today pledging to give it new momentum after what Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel called "a terrible year" that eroded public trust in the 25-nation bloc.

As EU president for the next six months, Austria will aim mainly to help restore growth in western Europe, get a sceptical European Parliament to ratify the bloc's hard-won 2007-13 budget and try to salvage its moribund draft constitution.

Austria will also guide a decision on whether Romania and Bulgaria should join the EU in 2007 or later, and handle European Commission proposals to open accession talks with Croatia, a move it welcomes, and Turkey, one it does not.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said in an interview published today he was puzzled why less than a third of Austrians were saying in polls that joining the EU in 1995 was good for them, even though they had become its third wealthiest nation since then.

Mr Barroso said one of Vienna's key tasks would be advancing a Commission move to make the EU the world's most competitive economy by 2010. A March summit on the issue, he said, "must be successful so EU citizens see that our new orientation is really effective rather than mere talk".

But Mr Schuessel has focused on parts of the plan calling for more spending on infrastructure and research while keeping a wide berth from a drive for economic liberalisation, fearing Austrian jobs will be lost to cheaper competitors.

Diplomats anticipate no substantive progress on big EU issues before 2007, when new French and Dutch governments will have been elected and bloc power Germany has the presidency.