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German chancellor visits Vienna as Austria assumes EU's presidency
Updated: 2006-01-01 19:39

German Chancellor Angela Merkel made her first foreign visit of the new year to Austria, which assumed the presidency of the European Union on Sunday, with a pledge to make the continent a "strong and reliable partner in the world."

Merkel was attending the Vienna Philharmonic's traditional New Year's Day concert _ a tribute to Mozart, whose 250th birthday is being celebrated all year in Austria _ in the ornate Golden Salon of the Austrian capital's elegant Musikverein hall.

She was accompanied at the concert by her notoriously publicity-shy husband, Joachim Sauer, who rarely appears in public with Merkel and caused a stir by showing up Sunday. Sauer sat in the second row, behind Merkel and Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel, and next to Schuessel's wife, Krista.

Sauer, 56, a researcher in quantum chemistry, stayed home when Merkel was sworn in as chancellor on November 22, and he has stayed in the shadows for so long, he has earned the nickname "phantom of the opera."

Also attending were Austrian President Heinz Fischer; Slovenia's prime minister, Janez Jansa; and Guenther Verheugen, vice president of the European Commission. The leaders were to hold informal talks afterward over lunch at Vienna's Albertina museum.

Austria's six-month EU presidency will focus on improving everyday concerns such as jobs and economic growth while "boosting citizens' confidence in the European project," Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik said Sunday in a New Year's message.

"Europe should be a strong and reliable partner in the world," she said. "Our goal is to create a common zone of peace, security and prosperity for our neighbors in Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean region."

"We want to give Europe an extra dose of vitamins," Plassnik added.

Schuessel, in his own New Year's declaration, called for "a new momentum for Europe."

"Above all, Austria would like to use its presidency to bring Europe to the people," he said. "We need to take concrete steps to keep the idea of a common and diverse Europe alive."

Fischer told Austrian television that his country's EU leadership "isn't Austria's chance to steer and arrange Europe the way it wants."

"All member countries have to work together to do their homework, correct their mistakes and develop confidence," he said, alluding to recent surveys that show public support for the EU at an all-time low.

Fischer also urged EU leaders to ease joblessness among young people, which he said would be an extraordinarily valuable step toward restoring confidence in this Europe." Unemployment is running at about 8.5 percent across the 25-nation bloc, which is still recovering from an economic slowdown that started in 2004.

Austria's presidency follows Britain's, which was marred by a bitter battle over the EU's 2007-13 budget.

It comes just six years after the EU slapped Austria with diplomatic sanctions in 2000 for bringing the anti-immigration Freedom Party into the alpine republic's conservative coalition government.

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