Austria’s EU Regrets

Between Europeanization And National Identity

Austrians tend to feel less European than the average EU-citizen, according to a recent Eurobarometer study measuring public opinion across the EU. While support for the European Union has grown in most countries, it has declined in Austria.

With support far below average, the report states, Austria can now be considered the most Euro-skeptical country after the United Kingdom.

The change has been dramatic: In the accession referendum of 1994, 66.6% of the voters expressed their wish to join the European Union. Today, however, only 34% of Austrians think membership can be considered a positive development. This percentage stands in sharp contrast to the 52% of Europeans generally in favor of  EU membership.

“EU policies are not tangible. We have hardly any idea what is going on in Brussels. Austria is a very rich country and thus I do not think it needs to be member of the EU. We pay a lot more than we get back from the Union and, therefore, it becomes harder and harder to live from our income that was converted from the Schilling without taking the increase of payments into account,” observes Josef Daniel, a retired economics professor, in October. Among other things, Austrians are very patriotic: 95% of Austrians feel strongly connected to their homeland, while only 63% also report feeling “European,” just below the EU average of 68%. And even when they feel European, they are less proud of it that they used to be, down to 54% from 61% in 2004.

“Public opinion in the EU fluctuates a lot depending on the economic situation of a country, the geopolitical situation, and the personal situation of those polled,” said Joseph Hennon, European Commission spokesperson for Communication and institutional relations, in mid- November, suggesting that a later poll could well show a significant change.

Austria joined the EU relatively late, in 1995, 37 years after its main trading partners Germany and Italy, as well as France, Belgium, The Netherlands, and Luxemburg, had signed the Treaty of Rome establishing the European Economic Community (EEC) – a reality generally ascribed to Austria’s traditional neutrality, says political scientist Anton Pelinka. While neutrality had originally served as a tool to gain independence from the occupying powers (the United States, Great Britain, France, and particularly the Soviet Union) it later became part of Austrian identity, seen as a way to abstain from armed conflicts.

Permanent neutrality, influenced by the Swiss model of statehood, was declared in 1955 and was defined as remaining aloof not only from Western military cooperation, but also in that of Western European economic integration, the Austrian constitution states.

With the Cold War, Austria’s geopolitical situation at the “front-line” between the East/Warsaw Pact and the West/NATO made joining any alliance or union undesirably as it was influenced by both major blocks. Since all EEC members were also members of NATO, Austria had no ambitions of joining until the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The driving force behind contemporary Euro-skepticism is the Freedom Party (FPÖ), which opposed EU membership from the time of the application in July 1989. While the two parties in government, the Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) and the People’s Party (ÖVP) initiated the accession process, the Green Party and FPÖ – at the left and right – were concerned about neutrality and opposed membership.

The FPÖ even launched two popular initiatives to leave the union, but received little support from the voters. The FPÖ’s xenophobic attitudes brought a warning by the Helsinki Federation of Human Rights, following its coalition with the Peoples’ Party in 2000, along with sanctions by the other EU member states, lifted two months later because of long-term inefficiency.

Party affiliation has always been a crucial determinant of Austrian opinion towards the EU. In the 1994 referendum, people voted along party lines, with 73% of SPÖ and 62% of ÖVP voters in favor of EU membership, while voters of the Green Party and the FPÖ opposed.

In addition, gender, education, and age also appear to determine Euro-skepticism, with highly-educated young men the most pro-European – a marked change from the 1994 referendum, when older citizens were more in favor of the EU than the young. This corresponds to today’s party programs. The Green Party, with a young and relatively highly-educated base, has become increasingly pro- EU, while the FPÖ – whose membership is also young, is less well educated, predominantly male and blue collar – has become the most Euro-sceptic party in Austria.

“The idea behind the European Union is very good, but I am not in favor of how policies are carried out,” says Clemens Heindl, an automation engineer. “I feel neither involved in the European Union policy making, nor do I have the impression that the campaign to inform European citizens about the working procedures of the EU reaches my little town in county Salzburg.”

In this context, a 2006 European Commission study showed Austrians interest in being more involved in EU politics in Brussels. The EU is neither democratic nor efficient, interviewees complained. They preferred an EU president directly elected by the citizens, and more transparency in the complex political machinery of the EU.

“To improve public opinion in the member states, we have developed a communication strategy, which includes going local, reconnecting EU policy makers, and engaging more with people,” explained Hennon.

So while about half of the Austrian population does not feel European at present, this picture is expected to change drastically over the next decade, as bonds of communication, business, education and culture deepen across the Union, perhaps at last fulfilling Victor Hugo’s goal of a “United States of Europe.”

However, as this and other studies show, it could take a long time.

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