Mountains to Climb

By Luther, Kurt Richard; Sherrington, Philippa | The World Today, December 2005 | Go to article overview

Mountains to Climb


Luther, Kurt Richard, Sherrington, Philippa, The World Today


January sees Austria take over the rotating European Union Presidency, an irony to many given its recent steadfast opposition to opening membership talks with Turkey which it must now push forward. Vienna faces domestic political problems and considerable scepticism about the European project, a recipe for a difficult time in charge.

FOR THE AUSTRIAN GOVERNMENT, THE FORTHCOMING Presidency of the European Union (EU) is much more troublesome than when it first played this role in 1998, just three years after joining. Not only is the government's domestic position far from secure, but expectations are running high on the back of a lack-lustre British performance and there is much pressure on Vienna to revive EU fortunes.

The government has hinted it will reignite the EU Draft Constitution debate, despite its rejection by France and Holland in June, and has already adopted the slogan Europe 4 people people 4 Europe. Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik, stated in September: 'We are undergoing a crisis of confidence in the EU. Our priority aim will therefore be to strengthen public confidence in the EU. Better and more ample information is not enough; the way in which we make European policy must become more visible and comprehensive again'.

The handling of Turkey's negotiations for accession will undoubtedly grip media and public attention, given Austria's sceptical view of Turkish membership. The government secured several concessions in October before the go-ahead was given for Turkey, in particular that Croatia could also begin negotiations. Vienna's isolation on the Turkish issue may be lessened by the more sceptical line adopted by Germany's new grand coalition.

Austria's stance on enlargement, in part coloured by domestic opinion and electoral politics, is somewhat contradictory. It insisted Croatia be given the green light, and yet officials refer to doubts about the ability of the EU to enlarge further, and the financial implications for existing member states of doing so.

Austria also promises a distinctly regional focus, with specific emphasis on economic and political stability in the Balkans. It has applied itself to securing Croatia's EU future and plans a conference on the Balkans for March. Ministers have stated that the Balkans, and particularly the western Balkans will continue to be a priority. However, this strategy will, in part, be determined by the broader questions of EU enlargement.

Vienna remains a net contributor to the Union budget and has a five percent rate of unemployment, high by its standards. Most economists agree the economy has benefited considerably from Union membership and from eastern enlargement in particular. Strong ties with the economies of eastern neighbours have helped it weather the recent economic slowdown and are responsible for significant export growth.

GROWING SCEPTICISM

Yet the Eurobarometer poll taken in May and June shows Austrians second only to the British in their negative evaluation of the impact of EU membership. Only 37 percent believe their country benefits from membership - compared to 36 percent of British respondents and to 54 percent EU-wide. The majority believes the EU impacts negatively on Austrian inflation and immigration and some 43 percent associate the Union with wasting money and increased crime, with 36 percent saying it promotes unemployment. Almost sixty percent of Austrians oppose and only thirty percent support further enlargement. A mere ten percent back Turkish membership - lower than in any other EU country.

It is perhaps unsurprising that the opposition parties, the Social Democrats and Greens, have become more critical of the EU. In the former, this reflects the fact that for the first time in thirty years the party has been in opposition since 2000. Both oppose what they see as the Union's excessively neo-liberal orientation, arguing instead for a more 'social' Europe that protects workers. …

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