Arranging a ceremony in Atlanta to honor Detlev Ruenger, Germany‘s new consul general for the Southeast, with a highly prestigious Grand Decoration of Honour in Silver and Sash, was the first order of business that Austria‘s new ambassador to the United States found on his desk in Washington when he assumed his post on Jan. 28. The letter was from his president Heinz Fischer so he knew that he needed to make the arrangements as soon as possible.
Since Atlanta has had Austrian Honorary Consul-General Ferdinand Seefried here for 27 years, Ambassador Wolfgang Waldner was able to make the arrangements quickly, including a reception to be held at the Seefried home in Buckhead on the evening of March 29.
Although both diplomats have had important foreign service careers the two men did not know each other personally – surprising, since Mr. Ruenger had served as Germany’s ambassador to Austria from 2012-15 following his three years as his country’s ambassador to Norway.
While Mr. Ruenger was posted to Vienna, Mr. Waldner was serving in Carinthia, Austria’s southernmost state overseeing a large portfolio of art and culture, economic affairs, tourism, as well as agricultural and forestry affairs in the region.
But there is no questioning his knowledge of Vienna.
From 1991-2011, he served as the director of the Museums Quarttier Wien, one of the largest art and culture complexes in the world that dates back to 1713 when Emperor Charles VI commissioned the building as an imperial stable complex and promotes itself as “the playground for culture seekers.”
Under Mr. Waldner’s direction, 2.5 million visitors came to the center annually a number that has grown to more than 3 million in recent years. While the center is home to a range of installations from large art museums such as the Leopold Museum and the MUMOK (Museum of Modern Art Ludwig Foundation Vienna), it also has contemporary exhibition spaces and hosts numerous festivals and modern dance performances. Last year, it held a festival of Austrian electronic music.
During an interview with Global Atlanta, Mr. Waldner said that he regretted not having seen the Habsburg Splendor exhibition from Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum when it was at the High Museum, but he heard from the former ambassador Hans Peter Manz that it had had a successful run there.
This was his second visit to Atlanta, having come once when he served as director of the Austrian Cultural Institute in New York, an exceptional architectural feat of 23 stories squeezed into a restricted space between buildings on either side.
Mr. Weldner’s formal remarks at the Seefried home focused on the close ties binding Austria and Germany, though he did indicate that the two on occasion may be separated by “a common language” despite their strong artistic, cultural and economic ties,with Germany representing Austria’s most important trading partner and an important source of tourism.
The reception was another indication of the importance that the Austrian government’s efforts to maintain amicable ties and to recognize Mr. Ruenger’s contributions when he was ambassador in Vienna.
Mr. Waldner said that since his arrival in Washington as ambassador, he has been encouraged to get out of town into the U.S heartland as often as possible, an added motivation to come to Atlanta.
During the Global Atlanta interview, however, he said that aside from formal occasions such as the one honoring Mr. Ruenger, his main preoccupation has dealt with Europe’s migration issues, adding that in all of his meetings with either U.S. or Austrian politicians and officials, their conversations nowadays all deal with migration, refugee and security issues.
In response to the question: Is the U.S. doing enough?, he quickly pointed to the announcement made on the previous day, March 28, that the U.S. would provide $20 million to support efforts of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and others, specifically with reference to Greece, the Balkans and extending to Western Turkey as well.
The funding is aimed at the increasing monitoring, registering and identifying new arrivals and providing information about legal ways to enter Europe.
The ambassador also underscored, however, the burden that countries like Austria are enduring with the influx and transit of foreigners amounting to 650,000 immigrants and refugees last year, with 89,000 seeking asylum. On a per capita basis, this number would be equal to the U.S. processing 3.4 million asylum seekers in a year.
In accordance with international law, each asylum seeker is to be reviewed closely to distinguish whether the individual is an immigrant looking for a better life or a political refugee fearing for the loss of his or her life.
He estimates that 30 to 40 percent of the asylum seekers will be able to remain in Austria, but acknowledged the difficulties in making these determinations because many have no documents and their histories have to be verified through a variety of means, such as identifying their dialects, which requires a wide variety of linguistic specialists.
He referred to the agreement reached on March 18 between the European Union and Turkey as setting guidelines for the migration crisis due to the millions that flooded into Europe last year, including the March 20 deadline that all new migrants crossing from Turkey to the Greek islands are to be returned to Turkey, and that for every Syrian who is returned, another Syrian is to be resettled in the EU.
While the agreement has been successful in reducing the flow into Europe, according to the ambassador, the problem is far from over and in time is apt to be exacerbated by an enormous number of migrants expected through new routes into Europe from the Middle East and estimates of 20 to 30 million migrants from Africa.
Aside from explaining Europe’s challenges, he said that he looks forward to further promoting economic ties between Austria and the U.S., collaborating on international efforts to counter terrorism, and increasing the visibility of undergoing research and innovation taking place in his country.