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Austria and the Western Balkans

Salzburg
Salzburg. Photo: Alan Grant

Today, public opinion polls concerning Western Balkan enlargement are little more encouraging. In early 2007, only 28 percent of Austrians supported further enlargement of the EU. Across the enlarged EU, support was 49 percent. (Eurobarometer 2007).

However, the pro-enlargement coalition among the main political players has remained solid. On 7 April 2003, then foreign minister Ferrero-Waldner explained the Austrian position, highlighting its support for Croatia.

"The goal is the accession of Romania and Bulgaria on 1 January 2007… Croatia… enjoys the full support of Austria, because its attempts… to approach Europe are not only in the interest of Austria, but serve the sustained stability of our whole continent."

On 19 October 2004, she repeated:

"it would be favourable from an Austrian perspective to start accession negotiations with Croatia early next year. This would also be an incentive for other South-Eastern European countries to continue their reforms."

In early 2006, the Austrian EU presidency reaffirmed the "European perspective for the Western Balkans". Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik stressed:

"Three years ago in Thessaloniki, a clear accession perspective was opened for the countries in the region. Today we are sending a joint signal confirming this perspective, a signal of encouragement and of joint political will. The goal is Union membership for the countries of the Western Balkans."

The influence of the Austrian elite in shaping public opinion is most obvious in the case of Croatia. From 2000 onwards, the Austrian government was steadfast in its support of Croatia. Yet initially, this was not a popular policy. Opinion polls from 2002 showed opposition for Croatian accession was almost as large as for Turkey.  Yet by 2005, the weight of opinion had completely reversed, with a solid majority supporting Croatia, combined with a hardening of opposition for Turkey.

Eurobarometer polls 2002-2005
 

2002

2005

Croatian accession    

-         in favour

-         opposed

34%

51%

55%

40%

     
Turkish accession    

-         in favour

-         opposed

32%

53%

10%

80%

By 2005, Austrian politicians from all political parties were lobbying for Croatia. In January 2005, Paul Rubig (a member of the European Parliament for the OVP) said that "especially Croatia is very close to us and I think standards are already more or less fulfilled." In the same discussion, Maria Berger, SPO delegation leader in the EP, declared: "I say yes to Croatia, that one begins (to negotiate) here, and yes to an accession of Bulgaria and Romania as soon as they fulfil all criteria. I think that has a significantly higher priority… than the accession of Turkey." Later, she underlined that "Croatia is for sure a genuinely European country." In October 2005, the Austrian government successfully lobbied the EU to begin accession negotiations with Croatia.

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