Austria as a strong supporter of the EU Constitution? Austrians in favour of deeper integration of the European Union? A laugh and a half for every Europhile observer of our country in the “heart of Europe”. According to latest Eurobarometer polls, Austrians are, after the Brits (of course), the most Euro-sceptic Nation among all Member states. And a survey conducted by the “Austrian Society for European Policy” (ÖGfE) showed that 46% of Austrians did not consider a European Constitution as ‘necessary’, against 35% who did. Another clear indicator of the overall resentment of Austrians against meddling, by the European Union, of what is perceived as Austrian usage and sovereignty.
The decision of Austria’s centre-right government to ratify the European constitution without a referendum - a legally sound solution - found the silent support of all parties in the Austrian parliament, whereas many representatives of Austrian civil society, predominantly opposing the constitution for one and another reasons, insist on a referendum. Apart from these grass-roots movements, the generally Euro-sceptic population, although predominantly in favour of a referendum, did not protest against official Austria’s position.
As most other EU countries, Austria lacked a genuinely broad and well informed open discussion on the EU constitution carried by the mass media. In an environment of a weakly developed civil society, and an ever-growing (non-political) infotainment circus replacing politics, the remaining media attention and political discussion rather focused on domestic events like the discussion of a new Austrian constitution, and on the EU level on the question of Turkey. Thus marginalised, the topic of the question of ratification never led to a generalised discussion, with the result that official politics and civil society lead two separated discourses in one country, with most of the Austrian public watching in disinterest.
Austria’s Federal Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel had supported a single EU-wide referendum. As this did not materialize, he would only agree to a referendum in Austria if all other member states decided to do so as well.
The Austrian President, Heinz Fischer, concluded the ratification process by signing the ratification document. Interestingly, in an additional note to the document, he wrote down a personal comment as to the ratification, and to the European Constitution ’in order to satisfy the justified call for transparency’. Fischer points out that by the nature of things, the EU constitutional treaty resulting from a compromise, it would not completly satisfy everyone involved. The constitution was however a ’reasonable compromise’, which brings substantial improvements as compared to the present situation. He mentioned in particular the binding catalogue of fundamental rights, more power for the European Parliament, a simplification of decisionary processes, and the possibility of a European popular referendum. Commenting on the situation after the negative referenda in France and the Netherlands, the Austrian president said that these must lead to a process of re-orientation of European policies in several areas, in particular strengthening its social dimension. If only he was heard...