Now Austria’s political inertia is fuelling its euroscepticism

#CriticalThinking

Picture of Alexander Klimburg
Alexander Klimburg

Programme Director at The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies

Austria could long be counted on as a euro-enthusiast, but no longer. Last December’s Eurobarometer showed that Austria is one of the EU’s most Eurosceptic countries, even though over 66% voted in 1994 to join the EU. Over one-third (36%) of the people polled now have a “negative” view of the EU, more than the UK’s 32% and surpassed only by Greece and Cyprus. Yet at the same time, Austrians rank at the top (73%) in terms of “feeling European as citizens”. How can we make sense of this apparent contradiction?

Austria’s mainstream parties, along with the Greens and the liberal Neos in supporting roles, generally represent themselves as the chief line of defense towards the growing euroscepticism. But there’s also a view that they may be contributing to Austria’s declining confidence in Europe. There is a perception that the “Grand Coalition” in which the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats have largely shared power over the last 60 years is introspective, overly preoccupied with internal factions and suffering from dwindling electoral support for both parties. The Christian Democrats replaced their leader in the autumn of last year, and there are signs that Chancellor Werner Faymann, the Social Democrat’s leader, could before long see his leadership challenged, especially if local elections scheduled this year go badly. Austrian politics, never the most nimble of beasts, has looked particularly slow-moving as of late.

This inertia is being mirrored by Austria’s “masterly inactivity” in Brussels. On most topics, the Vienna government often appears to have no official position, or develop it only very late. This is especially true on issues of particular public interest for many Austrians, such as on data retention, the TTIP trans-Atlantic free trade agreement, or even smoking in public places. Austrian politicians often seem be hoping that all the tough decisions will be made in Brussels – which of course also then gets the blame.

This culture of displacement of responsibility is certainly not only an Austrian phenomenon. It is a European trend and perhaps one of the greatest threats to the European project, as longer-term it can only have only one possible outcome.  It can, however, be reversed. Some Austrian MEPs have been among those that advocating a new European democratic convention as one of the many necessary steps to help create a more open and diverse European polity.  This make a lot of sense. For Austrians already feel European. They just want more say what happens within it.

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