Central European Time Zone UTC+01:00
Capital City Vienna
National Day October 26
THE DAY I GO to meet Austria’s new Ambassador Michael Zimmermann, Vienna was once again named the world’s most liveable city. Is he surprised? “Absolutely not. Sometimes it can be quite difficult to convince our diplomats to move when they’re posted abroad!” he exclaims. He arrived in London on 1 August. His wife remains in Brussels, where she is Austria’s Ambassador to Belgium and Nato.
The Ambassador returns to London after a stint as Director of the Austrian Cultural Institute from 1999 to 2004. He’s observed “the amazing new real estate developments that have emerged, but you can also still find original buildings, pubs and shops that have been here for decades. London has always been a city of contrasts.” An aviation enthusiast, he explains that he’s “always raising [his] head when [he] sees a plane, and of course, London is fantastic for that.”
Mr Zimmermann explains that the Austrian Foreign Ministry has a policy of training generalists: “people who can be posted anywhere at short notice and can manage the tasks required of them. Likewise,” he continues, “I’m a generalist / all-rounder, and have had an interesting career of moving around and changing departments.” He spent the 1980s and the 90s completing postings in Toyko and Tehran, where he was Deputy Head of Mission, and then as Chief of Cabinet to the State Secretary in the Foreign Ministry.
As Austria’s Ambassador to Hungary (2009-14), his work was varied dealing with issues as diverse as tractor driving licences to environmental considerations concerning water and air quality. He spent much of his time managing neighbourly relations. “Austria has eight neighbouring countries. Those relationships are important on an economic and emotional level and require constant management and dialogue.” These various postings provided a wealth of valuable experience for Mr Zimmermann’s role as Director General for Management at the MFA before coming to London. “I’ve learnt a lot of valuable lessons.”
Potentially the most horrifying event of Mr Zimmermann’s career (to date) came as Chief of the Foreign Minister’s cabinet. “The 2004 Boxing Day tsunami caught us completely unaware. Those were some tough days – IT wasn’t as developed as it is now, so it took too long to find out what the situation was,” he recalls. “On a more positive note, it’s meant we have massively improved and increased our Bürgerservice for Austrian citizens since then. With telephone apps, these have come a long way.”
As Ambassador in the UK, Bürgerservice comes up again: “securing the rights of Austrian citizens is high on our agenda.” Then there’s supporting business and economic interests. “The UK is an important trading partner for Austria. Our business concerns have grown to include cross border investment, supply chains and joint ventures. Austrian companies are very active in the UK and vice-versa. For example, if you buy a new electric Jaguar, it will be manufactured in Austria,” he exclaims.
He says he has his work cut out for him to advance the British public and media’s understanding of Austria. “Historically we are in a difficult position, as Austria and the UK have not been comrades in arms in any conflict since 1815. This has obviously changed since we joined the EU, but before that, we were not Allies for 200 years, and we have to overcome that.” He believes this can be done by continuing various cultural projects – “Of course, Austrian culture is held in very high esteem in the UK.”
The Ambassador acknowledges the challenges of Austria’s responsibilities in the holocaust. “Many Austrian refugees came to the UK – we still have an important second-generation refugee community here, and we continue to actively cooperate with Jewish institutions.”
Post-Brexit, Mr Zimmermann looks forward to “a re-emergence of bilateral diplomacy between the two countries – especially from the UK side. Suddenly Austria has become an interesting partner for the UK, which it hasn’t been for a long time. The work of diplomats will be more important than ever.” In terms of the gloomy Brexit financial forecasts, he says “My hope is that it will be like Y2K: everyone was anxious, but the actual damage was limited.”
Of course, Austria currently has the challenging task of the Presidency of the Council of the EU, which he says involves three major tasks: “firstly, protecting EU external borders. Unfortunately, this has become a major topic that we strongly want to advance. Secondly, keeping the EU internationally competitive on the global scene. The loss of the UK is major damage for Europe. And finally, we should highlight that we still think that the EU’s enlargement– especially towards south east Europe – is an important target.”
Diplomat speaks to the Austrian Ambassador about the Embassy’s 150 Years at 18 Belgrave Square, London SW1