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On 2-3 July BGIPU hosted a small cross party delegation from Austria. Reinhold Lopatka of the People’s Party led the delegation and was accompanied by Andreas Schieder of the Social Democrats and Martin Graf of the Freedom Party. The visit was well-timed to start on the second day of Austria’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union as well as in the year of their centenary celebrations.
Monday morning began with an excellent overview of the Westminster System by Matthew Hamlyn, Clerk of the Overseas Office and a tour of the Palace of Westminster to learn more about the UK Parliament, its proceedings and history. This was followed by a meeting with the The Rt Hon Hilary Benn MP, the Chair of the Committee on Exiting the European Union, who gave a very useful overview of the current state of the Brexit process in the UK and the key scenarios moving forward. The Austrian delegation noted that although of great interest to them and indeed the focus of the visit to Westminster, Brexit was not debated or discussed a great deal in Austria – where the main political debate focused on immigration issues. The delegation highlighted recent OECD figures which showed very high impacts of migration on Austria, taking more migrants per capita than Germany or Sweden, despite misconceptions that Austria was a transit country.
Lunch that day was hosted by BGIPU Executive Committee Member Lord Dholakia and included a lively and informative discussion on Brexit with Members of the House of Lords and House of Commons. The afternoon programme began with a meeting with Chris Leslie MP and Marcus Fysh MP of the International Trade Committee and the UK trade outlook post-Brexit and the challenges and opportunities the UK would have taking forward its own trade negotiations. The last meeting of the day was with the Clerk of the House of Commons, Sir David Natzler, himself part-Austrian, prior to a very well-attended welcome event in the IPU Room hosted by Nigel Evans MP, Chair of the BGIPU, including Sir Peter Bottomley MP, Chair of the Austria APPG.
Tuesday morning began with a meeting with Greg Hands MP (until recently a Minister in the Department of International Trade) who was able to give an update on the Government’s Brexit position and clear plan moving forward as had been reflected in the Prime Minister’s Florence speech. This was followed by a meeting with Stephen Gethins MP, a member of the Austrian APPG, who began by explaining that the SNP was a pro-EU and pro-immigration party with discussion focused on Brexit and issues around Scottish independence.
The last meeting of the morning was with the International Relations Committee in the Lords chaired by Lord Howell. The discussion once again focused on Brexit - with the delegation recalling that some 60% of the Austrian population and all party leaders supporting EU membership – and migration, following news that morning that Angela Merkel was strengthening border security between Germany and Austria. The delegation ended by highlighting that an unexpected positive outcome of Brexit was that Vienna had been enjoying much more communication with the UK since the referendum in 2016 than previously.
After lunch, hosted by Lord Anderson in Peers dining room, the delegation were able to observe a European Scrutiny Committee Evidence session where George Hollingbery MP, the newly appointed Minister of State for Trade Policy and Crawford Falconer, Chief Trade Negotiation Adviser and Second Permanent Secretary for the Department for International Trade on Trade Policy, gave evidence as part of the committee’s inquiry on EU Withdrawal.
Following that, the delegation met Rt Hon Sir Lindsay Hoyle MP beginning by asking him about his role as Chairman of Ways and Means (a title the delegation very much enjoyed and wanted to adopt in their Parliament!) while the rest of the meeting was spent discussing Parliament’s role in Brexit and when further debates and votes were scheduled to take place in the autumn.
The last meeting of the visit was an extremely well attended question and answer session with the House or Lords EU Select Committee chaired by Lord Boswell, which again focussed on Brexit and Austria’s priorities for their EU Council presidency.
This was a very timely opportunity early in the EU Presidency of Austria (the last full Presidency in which the UK will be an EU member), for a senior cross-party group of Austrian parliamentarians to see in snapshot the state of the UK’s Brexit process moving forward and hear a wide variety of perspectives on the likely end state for a post-Brexit Britain. It was equally useful for UK members to hear about the key issues and challenges being experienced by Austria including the socio-economic impacts and political changes being created by migration pressures on Europe. The visit provided an important opportunity for inter-parliamentary exchanges to bolster bilateral relations on many common issues and discuss developments in our respective countries.