Interview with H.E. Mr. Herbert Pichler, Ambassador of Austria to Finland

H.E. Mr. Herbert Pichler, Ambassador of Austria to Finland has previously served as Deputy Head of Asia Pacific Department and Deputy Head of Mission of the Austrian Embassy in Tokyo, Japan among other positions.

Today, we are privileged to speak with His Excellency Herbert Pichler, the Ambassador of Austria to Finland. With extensive experience in diplomacy and a deep understanding of international relations, Ambassador Pichler offers valuable insights into Austria's role in global affairs. In this interview we explore pivotal topics shaping diplomatic relations and European geopolitics through his seasoned perspective.

What kind of impact has the current geopolitical situation had on Austria?

The ongoing crises in our neighborhood forming a ring of fire around Europe create numerous major challenges for all European countries. Austria is very export-oriented and among the most important foreign investors in South-Eastern Europe and the Black Sea region. The conflicts in the Middle East as well as in the Caucasus region have caused instability in the immediate neighborhood of the EU, and the unprovoked and illegal Russian war of aggression against Ukraine is taking place in Europe itself. This war has huge regional and global implications. It affects not only the European security architecture including the comprehensive concept of security that we developed in the framework of the OSCE, but also our whole international and multilateral system. One can remain militarily neutral, but one cannot remain neutral in the face of massive violations of international law, war crimes, human rights abuses and even crimes against humanity. For Austria, the struggle for accountability for serious crimes is and will remain a top priority. “Might does not make right”: Austria resolutely condemns this breach of international law and supports the European sanctions placed on Russia and Belarus. Ever since Putin’s brutal war of aggression against Ukraine began, Austria has stood shoulder to shoulder with the people of Ukraine and offered political, financial and humanitarian assistance. Austria will continue to do so, together with Finland and her other European partners. Altogether, over 100.000 displaced persons from Ukraine have come to Austria since February 2022. Currently, still approximately 70.000 Ukrainians stay in Austria. Austria has also offered extensive humanitarian assistance and financial help to Ukraine, so far over EUR 230 million. Additional humanitarian support is provided in-kind and via Austrian provinces and municipalities. We also have significantly increased our humanitarian and development assistance to Moldova, which is a long-standing partner in our bilateral development co-operation.

What kind of opportunities do you see both in general, and specifically in R&D, for cooperation between Finnish and Austrian companies?

Very much like Finland, Austria has always scored very well in international quality of life and environment rankings, and both countries benefit from a highly educated, professional work force. Both Austria and Finland are rated among the most livable countries in the world. The similar profiles of our two countries facilitate cooperation between Finnish and Austrian companies. Austria is very much interested in Finnish digitalization solutions, as Finland is a role model especially in the field of medicine and social services. There is potential for increased cooperation, though. When it comes to R&D Austria has improved in recent years and is now ranked among the frontrunners in Europe. Fortunately, Austrian companies tend to invest heavily in R&D. Over 3.000 Austrian companies are active in research, development, and innovation. Out of these, 400 are ranked among global technology and/or market leaders in their respective segments. For Finnish companies looking to find reliable, experienced partners, these companies might offer excellent opportunities for cooperation. As Austria has greatly improved the economic environment for start-ups and as Finland is well-known for its very start-up-friendly environment, the start-up segment offers great opportunities as well. Of course, much of the bilateral trade still takes place in the context of traditional sectors, such as machinery and other industrial production. Last but not least, I would like to mention that Austria and Finland have very similar positions regarding the value of the forest industry, both for the environment and for the economy. The forest industry employs many people and generates considerable tax revenue for the state. Within the EU, there is close coordination on sustainable forestry.

Purchasing power, cost of energy, lack of work force – how have Austrian companies tackled these challenges?

Austria remains one of the most stable countries of Europe, and had a GPD per capita of EUR 49.553 in 2022 – compared to EUR 38.210 ten years earlier. The past few years have been, of course, quite challenging – not only for Austria but for the entire world. As for energy, Austria is actively working on reducing its dependence on fossil fuels. This will have a positive effect on employment, as more domestically produced green energy also means more jobs. During the recent difficulties caused by high energy costs, the government reacted quickly by for example offering financial support for smaller companies hit by the rising cost of energy, as well as to households. Numerous mechanisms were put in place to prevent excessive fluctuations in energy costs. Altogether, Austria has invested over EUR 30 billion to ease the situation caused by the high cost of energy. Thankfully, the end of the COVID pandemic has put the tourism sector back on track again which is important for Austria. According to Austrian experts, 2024 should be a bridge year between the somewhat difficult year 2023 and the return to growth in 2025.

How have Austrian companies followed requirements of corporate responsibility – a very important theme today?

That’s a very good question. Corporate responsibility is certainly a crucially important topic, and I am happy to say that in this context you might call Austria as a whole a hidden champion. Austria is one of the leading countries in Europe when it comes to corporate social responsibility and sustainability. The European Commission ranked Austria the second most sustainable country in Europe in its 2020 report – second only to Finland! On a general level, Austria has very high standards for environmental protection, and a high level of social equality. The Austrian economic model fosters cooperation between the government, employers, and employees, in the framework of the so-called social partnership, which is further strengthening the already existing high level of social solidarity. Additionally, numerous cooperation programs between municipalities and private companies have contributed to the establishment of environmental management best practices across the country, and Austria maintains an effective grants system for investment in sustainable practices. Austrian companies take corporate responsibility very seriously, and often willingly go beyond what is legally mandatory. The number of member companies of respACT, Austria’s Business council for sustainable development, keeps growing, and already reached 400.

Is Austria the ideal test market of companies before entering the German market, and an ideal bridgehead to the whole Danube region?

Due to the location in the heart of Europe, Austria offers an obvious geographical advantage for any company seeking to invest in Central Europe. Furthermore, Austria has one of the best road networks, first-class rail infrastructure, and excellent waterway connections. From Vienna airport, within the radius of a one-hour flight, you can reach over 100 million consumers. Currently, over 400 international companies operate out of Austria, which certainly tells us something about Austria’s business environment. Additionally to being an ideal test market for German-speaking Europe, Austria also offers a great environment and support infrastructure for foreign investment. In recent years, Austria has worked on expanding educational pathways, attracting even more foreign experts/qualified workforce than before. Austrian expertise can offer an invaluable asset to any company wishing to expand.

What would you like to tell about Austria to Finnish people?

I would like to highlight the unique character of the various regions of Austria. While many tourists have seen Vienna, Salzburg, or the Alps, and these are all wonderful places for shorter or longer holidays, there is a lot to see and to do beyond that, be it wine-growing regions, former Imperial summer residences, castles and monasteries, small villages nestled in the mountains, outdoor activities, like cycling and hiking tours, and so on. Let’s not forget the Austrian culinary landscape, offering something for every taste, the sweets being most people’s favorites. Besides the traditional and well-known cultural heritage, Austria offers a diversity of very contemporary and vibrant events, like design or architecture exhibits or modern dance festivals. We are a country that, fortunately, the younger and older generation equally enjoy. While the winter season is still all about skiing and winter sports, spring starts early in Austria and outdoor festivals have become increasingly popular and offer unforgettable experiences for lovers of music, cinema, opera, and dance. Taking the time to get to know the multifaceted charms of Austria will for sure lead to wonderful memories.

Article is originally published on the site of Finland Chamber od Commerce