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Austria and the Turkish Referendum

The Turkish question, as seen from Austria

, by Guillaume Amigues

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

Which country is the most likely to stand in the way of a Turkish entry into the EU? Cyprus? Greece? Not even close: Austria.

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Which country is the most likely to stand in the way of a Turkish entry into the EU? Cyprus? Greece? Not even close: Austria.

A European Stability Initiative analysis depicts a not-so-hypothetical 2015 Austrian referendum over the Turkish membership, and the disastrous “clash of civilizations” caused by the 95% “nein” result. Thousands of foreign correspondents describe the last blast in the EU-Turkey relationship with striking headlines such as “Vienna 1683 – Vienna 2015” or “Turkey stopped at the gates of Vienna”…

The central question in this very enlightening study available in English, Turkish and German is the one you might be asking yourself: why Austria?

Austria is by far the least enthusiastic EU member toward this membership

It is actually quite simple. Austria is by far the least enthusiastic EU member toward this membership with 5% support only. When we take a closer look, this is not very surprising: Austrians always disapproved of EU enlargements since their country joined it in 1995, even if historically pro-European coalitions did support the latest memberships, and the public opinion eventually accepted them more or less grudgingly after lengthy political debates: Ende gut, alles gut.

That was before 2004, when Turkey was still almost a candidate like any other – such as Croatia for example: both countries’ memberships positively rallied around two thirds of Austrian voters in 2002. Three years later, however, these figures had declined to 55% for Croatia and 10% for Turkey. So, what happened in 2004?

The social-democratic party SPÖ –at the time in the opposition- criticized the ÖVP (conservatives) – FPÖ (far right) coalition for going soft on Turkey and allowing it to progress toward the adhesion. Feeling uneasy as he was cornered on his very own xenophobic turf, chancellor Schüssel (ÖVP) solved the question by promising a referendum before any Turkish entry. And so all of the country’s political parties were relieved as the Turkish membership stopped being an issue.

Considering the lack of information about Turkey in Austria, the power of the populist and Europhobic boulevard newspaper Neue Kronen Zeitung and the absence of political debate, no wonder the Austrian support for a Turkish membership dropped to a mere 5% in 2006. In a shaky political context, no party really dared address the issue. This vicious circle explains the fact that the ESI does not expect any positive evolution of the Austrian public mind about the Turkish membership in coming years, which makes its clash scenario plausible.

This lesson about the negative sides of referenda and the need for political courage reaches far beyond the borders of Austria. In France, a similar evolution is foreseeable, especially considering the lack of political debate over the issue since President Sarkozy promised to let the French vote about a possible Turkish entry into the EU.

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Image: Vienna in 1529 (source : Wikipedia commons)

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