Back 3 - Next 

The Austrian paradox

Innsbruck. Photo: Alan Grant

Austrian behaviour often puzzles observers of the enlargement process. It is one of the wealthiest countries in the world (4th among EU members in per capita terms). Its economy has prospered since it joined the EU in 1995. With 4.2 percent it has one of the lowest unemployment rates in Europe. As The Economist wrote recently:

"Austrians love to complain, but when it comes to their economy even they admit that they are currently grumbling at a high level." (Economist, 24 November 2007)

Austria has reaped tremendous economic benefits from EU enlargement. Austrian business has rushed to embrace the new member states in Central Europe. Austrians are the number one investors in both Romania and Bulgaria, and leading players right across the Western Balkans.

It therefore seems to be perversely against their own self-interest for the Austrian public to be so firmly opposed to enlargement. However, many different opinion polls show that Austrians are firmly against the accession of any country except Croatia - indeed, more so than any other European country. Sixty-two percent of Austrians oppose Macedonia, 73 percent oppose Albania, 59 percent oppose Bosnia-Herzegovina and 65 percent oppose Serbia (in 2006 still Serbia-Montenegro). In each case, this is the European record!

In Favour of Macedonian accession (Eurobarometer, 2006

Austria

32 %

Luxembourg

36 %

Germany

40 %

France

53 %

Cyprus

58 %

Netherlands

64 %

Denmark

66 %

Sweden

71 %

Slovenia

74 %

In Bosnia, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Croatia and Romania Austria is the main foreign investor.

Country

Ranking of
foreign investors

Share of total FDI stock
in the country (%)

Bosnia

1.

35

Bulgaria

1.

34

Slovenia

1.

29

Croatia

1.

20

Romania

1-2.

18

Serbia

4.

11

Montenegro

4.

9

Albania

6.

2

Macedonia

8.

3

Austrian FDI stock in SEE 2005 (source: WIIW)

Needless to say, the Austrian public is also more adamantly opposed to Turkish accession than any other EU member state. According to the most recent Eurobarometer survey (addressing the question of accession of individual countries) from late 2006, support for Turkish accession has fallen to just 5 percent. Just how remarkable this is becomes obvious when one looks at it in a comparative European perspective: 24 percent of Greeks supported Turkish accession in 2006. That is five times more support than in Austria.

In Favour of Turkish Accession (Eurobarometer, 2006)

Austria

5 %

Germany

16 %

Luxembourg

17 %

Cyprus

19 %

France

22 %

Poland

40 %

Portugal

40 %

Slovenia

43 %

Sweden

46 %

Austria's political leadership has responded to these polls by becoming Europe's most outspoken opponents of Turkish accession - to the surprise of many, including the Turkish government.

In December 2004, Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schussel first promised to hold a referendum before any Turkish accession. At the EU foreign ministers meeting in November 2005, Austrian foreign minister Ursula Plassnik delayed the opening of accession negotiations with Turkey for a day by insisting that negotiations should be on something other than full membership. For this, she was celebrated in the Austrian popular press. Opposition to Turkey has also played a role in a number of recent Austrian election campaigns. The current chancellor, Social-Democrat Alfred Gusenbauer, continues to argue for an Austrian referendum on Turkish accession.

What is an outsider to make of Austrian opposition to enlargement? Austria was a prominent champion of Central European enlargement in 2004. The Austrian parliament was almost unanimous in its support for the accession of Bulgaria and Romania in 2007. And today, Austrian politicians regularly repeat that they are in favour of all Balkan countries joining the EU. While there was no more popular support for the accession of Bulgaria and Romania in 2002 than there was for Turkey, the accession of Bulgaria never became a political issue. It is also unlikely that current polls will affect Austrian policy towards the Western Balkans.

It is above all the choices made by Austria's politicians that dictate the agenda. Austria's "pro-European coalition", which lasted from Austria's own accession in 1994 through two rounds of eastward expansion in 2004 and 2007, has broken apart over Turkey.

 Back 3 - Next