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The schizophrenic relationship between Vienna and Brussels

Submitted by on 30 Nov 2010 – 17:15

By Axel Reiserer, UK and Ireland correspondent for the Austrian daily Die Presse

On 12 June 1994, Austria voted overwhelmingly in favour of joining the European Union. In a referendum, which attracted a massive turnout of 82.3 per cent, no less than 66.64 per cent of the voters said “yes” to the government’s proposition to become a member of the EU on the basis of the accession treaty negotiated over several years.

These talks had not always been easy and had offered an indication of what was to become even more visible and pertinent after EU accession: because of its geographical position at the heart of Europe, its history as a Central European power (and often beyond), its condition as a country firmly rooted in the West with a parliamentary democracy and a market economy and – last, but not least – its affluence, Austria could have been expected to be a perfect match for the European Union.

Consequently, membership was supported by virtually all major political parties with the exception of the far right Freedom Party but also churches, trade unions, employers’ associations and media. Critically, the government succeeded in winning the support of the populist, right-wing, mass-circulation tabloid “Kronen Zeitung”, which in return benefited handsomely from expensive (and extensive) government advertising campaigns.

However, the euphoria of 12 June 1994 quickly faded. With membership came new obligations such as the need for the country’s heavily-subsidised agricultural sector to adapt to EU rules, pressure on the local economy to withstand increased competition and the fiscal burden to pay Austria’s membership fees.

This disquiet did not disappear but rather increase over the years in a grotesque disconnect between the country’s objective state and its subjective condition. As Austria benefited more than any other country in Western Europe from the fall of the Iron Curtain and the subsequent EU-accession of its East European neighbours, the approval ratings for the EU in Austria fell into an abyss. For a large – and rising – part of the population Brussels became synonymous with all evils, not matter whether perceived or real: open borders, the euro and the EU constitutional debate.

As Austria succumbed to the global financial crisis in 2008, the country was on track to achieving a unique feast by simultaneously being the richest (behind Luxembourg) and most disgruntled EU member at the same time. The crisis, temporarily, changed this. The EU gained some recognition as a protective shield and witnessing the meltdown of currencies like the Hungarian forint, Austrians suddenly began to appreciate the euro in their pockets.

But with the worst of the crisis over, the attitude towards Europe again is taking a turn for the worse: in the Vienna municipal elections on 10 October the far right Freedom Party won more then 27 per cent of the vote. The anti-EU party was campaigning on one single issue: immigration. The party is strictly opposed to the EU accession of Turkey and consciously exploits the fears and concerns of voters.

Given Austria’s affluence and the benefits EU enlargement has brought for the country, the big question is why anti-EU sentiment is so strong in the country. There are several reasons which, taken together, can serve as an (incomplete) explanation.

(1) When preparing Austria for EU membership, the authorities had not been entirely honest with the voters: while the population was led to believe that a land if milk and honey was waiting, membership actually came at a substantial price which still is acutely felt by the population.

(2) An informal coalition emerged between the Freedom Party and the “Kronen Zeitung”, with both claiming to speak on behalf of the powerless, the losers of EU accession, those who feel threatened by immigration – the classical populist, right-wing, anti-foreigners campaign which we find in many countries of continental Europe and which traditionally defines the EU as its bogey man.

(3) The lack, unwillingness and failure of much of the political class to pro-actively, and with a positive connotation, promote Austria’s membership in the EU. Hardly ever has an elected Austrian official withstood the temptation to blame Brussels for any kind of issue (while shamelessly taking credit for any success achieved together with the EU).

15 years after joining the European Union Austria thus remains an uneasy member. Among the political class as well as among the electorate the realisation that “they” in Brussels today actually means “us” in Austria is still very limited. As the former Austrian EU Commissioner Franz Fischler put it: “We joined the EU 15 years ago, but we haven’t arrived yet.”