The Doctor of Diplomacy

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Austria’s new CG in Hong Kong, looks to supercede the curse of quiet competence to build a name for Austria that reflects its achievements.

Dr Claudia Reinprecht Consul General of Austria to Hong Kong Interview

Some countries act on foreign and domestic policy that gets them attention for all the wrong reasons: War-mongering, protectionism, discrimination, oppression of media, over-incarceration and much much more. When Diplomat sat down with the Consul General of Austria, having done the research, they were ready to discuss Austria’s headline policy on…not very much.

Austria is unfortunately, particularly here Asia, invisible.

The new Consul General, Dr Claudia Reinprecht, aims to change that. She’s going to have a challenge given the modern Austrian way. Many know the country for its historical giants. Genius thinkers founded and continue to inspire the Austrian School of Economics. Composers are revered almost 400 years after their heyday. Patisserie traditions and Lippizaner horses carry tradition into the modern era. What, however, has Austria done lately?

Dr Reinprecht herself seems to personify this modern Austria. Low-key, earnest, and unassuming, she speaks eagerly of what her country has achieved while struggling to sound promotional – it doesn’t come naturally. Like her countrymen that have found understated success in Hong Kong, you never see them coming. Legendary names in the Hong Kong community, like Sohmen, Arculli, Shaw, and Yat Sui have influence and subtle Austrian roots.

Likewise, modern Austrian handiwork is everywhere if you know where to look for it. The Tsing Ma bridge: Austrian architects. Austrian cranes and Ocean Parks’ cable cars grace our skylines. The long-standing, sole Austrian restaurant of yore, Mozart Stub’n, is gone, but the chefs continue to ply their trade. Dr Reinprecht believes that she can bring direct solutions to Hong Kong’s most pressing issues on the environment and housing.

Manage, massage, moderate

In her relatively short career, she has worked in 6 of the 7 general-directorates within the Federal Ministry for Europe, Integration and Foreign Affairs. In the past 5 years, she was a special advisor to the Minister of Foreign Affairs. Human rights, international justice and home affairs including terrorism, economic relations, EU policy with Eastern Europe and Central Asia (including Ukraine) – it has all been part of her portfolio.

In another country, this might have involved dashing from one issue to another, self-importantly dealing with crisis after crisis. Not in Austria. “95% of all issues run their usual course and can be dealt with on a technical level.” Much of the work is in identifying problems before they arise, managing them with foresight to wrestle them into the world of negotiation before they become a problem. Dr Reinprecht also stressed time and time again the importance of working within the EU framework to have a voice in determining policy at the multilateral level.

As a human rights lawyer familiar with Brussels (a previous posting), she fits well into the Eurocrat milieu. This doesn’t mean she accepts it without question. An apt student of history, she has noticed that the role of the diplomat in a multilateral scenario is, in a sense, diminished.

She notes that the ministry of foreign affairs in a unitary state rules supreme as the ultimate gatekeeper to engaging the nation. In the advent of the multinational and supranational era, she notes that counterparts from other Ministries are frequently taking the lead, whether in Brussels, New York or elsewhere on matters of environment, health, finance and more. She compares this to nations not part of the EU – “Their standing is so different. A diplomat is still very much a gatekeeper.”

Austria Foreign Policy: Betting on youth

Not given to grand gestures, Austria specialises in some unusual areas. Cultural Foreign Policy has been elevated beyond the usual event management to have a special place in their approach to international affairs. Many places are self-styled meeting places of East and West – Hong Kong, Istanbul, Budapest and, of course, Vienna. It depends somewhat on your ‘East’ and your ‘West’ but as the heart of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, Austria can make a special claim. It was the first European country/empire to make Islam a nationally recognised religion (in 1914) and still has imams embedded in the military to attend to the spiritual concerns of Islamic soldiers. The government’s leadership in Inter-Religious Dialogue springs from Austria’s geographical position now and when its territory stretched to include modern day Transylvania, Galicia and Bosnia.

“not accepting who I am … could obviously impair my ability to be a good diplomat for my country.”

The new ‘boss’ is only likely to strengthen this trend. At 27 years old, he has assumed not only the mantle of Europe’s youngest Minister of Foreign Affairs, but asked the portfolio be expanded to include ‘integration.’ His full title is His Excellency, Mr Sebastian Kurz, Federal Minister for Europe, Integration and Foreign Affairs. His first move reflecting the rashness of youth: Beginning the process to introduce a Central Planning Unit. More seriously, Austria has taken moves in recent days to denounce the Russian occupation of Crimea and seized the assets of 18 high-ranking figures associated with the regime of deposed President Yanukovych.

Human Rights

Another area where Minister Kurz has recently taken a stand against Russia is in the area of rights of LGBTI persons. As recently as Feb 25th, after Austria’s 7th place total medal showing at Sochi, Minister Kurz’s office issued a strong statement directly decrying the policies of Nigeria, Uganda and Russia on this front. While Austria has sometimes moved forward on their own, and sometimes been pushed by European courts, it currently offers full benefits for all same sex-couples in the diplomatic corps.

The timing of the introduction of the Registered Partnership status for samesex couples was fortuitous for the Dr Reinprecht who recently arrived in Hong Kong with her partner and son (and their Flat-Coated Retriever). Similar to France’s PACS ( pacte civil de solidarité), it is only available to same-sex couples and was ratified in 2009. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs had offered full benefits to partners for years before that, including pensions and insurance. Many host countries, including China, still do not recognise same-sex marriage, requiring partners to come to Hong Kong under a tourist, work or study visa.

The Consular Corps Spouses are reportedly more welcoming of spouses, who participate fully in activities. In Hong Kong, Diplomat has as of yet to hear a report of marital status being an issue for an accredited diplomat in their work, even if their partners do not get the same treatment, visa-wise.

For Dr Reinprecht, only 3 months on the job here, it hasn’t been a problem. She is sensitive to being able to perform. “It is an issue. I wonder, ‘Will it influence the way I do my job?’ My job is meeting a lot of people. If people don’t want to meet me, because they shun me, because they’re not accepting who I am or accepting my partnership, then this could obviously impair my ability to be a good diplomat for my country.” That being said, it seems the boss has her back.

First European country/empire to make Islam a nationally recognised religion (in 1914) and still has imams embedded in the military

Dr Reinprecht and her partners in the independent Austrian Trade Commission, ofttimes in partnership with EU counterparts, have something to bring to Hong Kong. Vienna consistently rates as the most livable city in the world. It has Europe’s lowest youth unemployment, and some innovative solutions to public housing and waste management – big issues for Hong Kong.

With Hong Kong LegCo members touring the EU this week examining waste-to-energy solutions, they would have done well to visit Austria (not this trip – UK, Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden). The former Secretary for the Environment, Edward Yau, visited the famous Spittelau Incinerator in 2011. Renowned and controversial artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser was commissioned to make the incinerator into art.

Says Dr Reinprecht: “Make it nice, make it beautiful, and people will want to come – want to see it!” She will have a chance to bring her recently earned MBA, completed on scholarship while on maternity leave, to bear promoting Austrian business. She’ll need all her marketing moves to raise the profile of Austria, but with a strong community, relevant solutions for Hong Kong and a little cultural flair, four years should be enough to do it.

Dr Claudia Reinprecht

Career highlights

  • 2013 Arrives in Hong Kong
  • 2009 – 2013 Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Dr Michael Spindelegger. (Current Vice Chancellor
    and Finance Minister).
  • 2012 Graduated LIMAK (Linz) with an MBA
  • 2007/8 Amman, Jordan
  • 2004 – Joins the Foreign Service.
  • 2003 – Dr of Law, University of Salzburg
  • 2002 Refugee work in Austria and London (UK)
  • 1996/7 University of Salamanca (law)
  • 1993 – Starts Masters at University of Salzburg
  • Born in Vienna, raised in rural Salzburg.
  • Fluent English, German, French, Spanish.