LISD hosted a lunch seminar, "Kissinger’s Request and the Future of EU Foreign Policy," on Tuesday, December 1, 2009 at Prospect House on the Princeton University Campus. The featured speaker was H.E. Dr. Ursula Plassnik, former Foreign Minister of Austria. The lunch seminar was part of Plassnik's week-long practitioner's visit to LISD. It was co-sponsored with the Woodrow Wilson School and the Program in Contemporary European Politics and Society.
Born May 23, 1956 in Klagenfurt, Kärnten, Austria, Ursula Plassnik studied law at Vienna University while working as a research assistant at the Institute of Roman Law, studying ancient history of law. She obtained a post graduate degree in law from the College of Europe, Bruges, Belgium. Ever since, European affairs have been her key interest as well as her personal political trademark.
Plassnik joined the Austrian Foreign Service in 1980. Her various assignments in multilateral diplomacy (Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe – Helsinki Process, Council of Europe, European Free Trade Association, European Union, and United Nations) gave her extensive insight into forging consensus on international platforms. Representing a medium sized neutral European country in the heart of the continent proved an interesting challenge, in particular on security and human rights questions during the Helsinki process. .
Despite her lack of background in party or local politics, Plassnik entered the Austrian domestic political scene as chief of staff of the then Foreign Minister and later Prime Minister (Federal Chancellor) Wolfgang Schüssel. She held this post for a total of seven years (1997 – 2004) and acquired a broad experience in team building and management, organizing political campaigns, designing and implementing political strategies and top level coaching. In 2000, the sanctions against Austria were a considerable stress test for Plassnik’s pro-European attitude.
After a brief tenure as Austrian ambassador to Switzerland in 2004, Plassnik served as Foreign Minister in the center-right government of Federal Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel from October 20, 2004 until January 11, 2007. The December 2004 tsunami presented a hitherto unknown challenge for the Austrian Foreign Service. Other cases of consular crisis management were the Lebanon war in 2006 and the high-jacking of two Austrian tourists by Al Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb in 2008. Plassnik successfully led Austria’s campaign for a UN/SC seat in 2008 and managed Austria’s term of the EU-Presidency in 2006 chairing and steering the EU Foreign ministers’ meetings. Her clear emphasis was on the integration of the Balkans into the EU. In terms of neighborhood policy, Plassnik developed a mechanism for starting membership negotiations with Croatia in 2005. She left a distinct mark on the European political parquet by insisting on the EU’s absorption capacity with regard to Turkey; a position opposed by all 26 EU partners in 2005, it is now part of the European mainstream in 2009.
Plassnik joined the Austrian Conservative party when she became a government minister in 2004. After her party lost the national elections in September 2006, Plassnik stayed on as a Foreign Minister in the new center-left coalition led by Federal Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer. Internationally, she left an imprint in engaging in the dialogue of religions and cultures, in particular with the Muslim world. In this context, her specific attention is dedicated to women, youth and civil society. In 2005, she organized a conference in Vienna on “Islam in a pluralistic world” with Hamid Karzai, Jalal Talabani, Shirin Ebadi, Mohamed Khatami and others participating. A milestone in her work with women was the Vienna conference on “Women Leaders in the Middle East” in May 2007 with the participation of Tzipi Livni, Condoleeza Rice, Hanan Ashrawi, President of the UN-GA Sheika Haya al Khalifa and several female government ministers from Arab countries.
Plassnik declined to serve another term as Foreign Minister after the September 2008 national elections as the coalition agreement concluded by Social Democrats and Conservatives failed to comply with what she considered to be the necessary standards on key questions of EU policy. Since Dec 2, 2008 Plassnik is a member of the Austrian Parliament and continues to work in the Austrian Foreign Service as a special envoy for international women’s networks. Recently she served on the senior advisory board of the Independent International Fact Finding Commission on Georgia led by Ambassador Heidi Tagliavini.
On November 4, 2009, Plassnik received the Officer's Cross of the French legion d'honneur, bestowed by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, for her work for the EU and for her friendship with France.