I wanted to start this blog already a while ago because I believe that the EU debates in the member states are worthwhile to be accessible to a wider audience, in Brussels and elsewhere. This English language blog is about the Austria in the EU. My first post provides some background on the radical change of the Austrian Social Democrats towards EU affairs last week.
Some observers in Brussels first thought it was a joke when they heard the announcement of Austrian chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer that the country will hold a referendum on any amendment to the Lisbon treaty that requires ratification or on any new treaty.
Background: the new SPÖ leader
Alfred Gusenbauer, recently increasingly under attack from within his party, is still the number one in Austria. But since two weeks he is joined by Werner Faymann, currently minister for transport, innovation and technology, as new SPÖ leader.
Faymann will very likely be the new number one of the SPÖ in case of early elections. And Faymann has good contacts to Austria’s “yellow press”, namely Kronen Zeitung, “Österreich” and the free city newspaper “heute.
Faymann’s relation to the Kronen Zeitung is crucial in understanding the recent announcement of the SPÖ to hold a referendum about future EU treaties. It was in a letter to the publisher of the “Kronen Zeitung” that Gusenbauer and Faymann made public their change of mind about EU affairs. The move was not coordinated within the party.
The power of the Kronen Zeitung
What is the ratio behind this move? The Kronen Zeitung is – with 43% (!) market share – by far Austria’s most influential newspaper and its publisher, Hans Dichand, is known to have a strong political agenda. Dichand has been campagning for months in his paper for a referendum on the EU treaty and the Gusenbauser-Faymann-Kronen Zeitung deal could win the SPÖ the needed support from the newspaper in early elections, maybe in autumn this year.
Will the SPÖ strategy work?
The questions that remain now:
- Will the ÖVP, which are now – together with the Greens – the only clear pro-European party in Austria, dare to break the coalition with the SPÖ on a sensitive topic like EU affairs?
- Will voters vote for an SPÖ which is so obviously opportunistic when there are parties with a more constant anti-EU attitude like the FPÖ?
- And will the SPÖ ever soon have the chance to correct the ad-hoc decision by its leaders in case the Gusenbauer-Faymann-Kronen Zeitung deal doesn’t lead to victory in next elections?
There is nothing wrong on beeing critical about the EU or the Lisbon Treaty. But saying that you care about public opinion on the EU and at the same time building up an an election campaign on a anti-EU decision is nothing but a purely populist move. Gusenbauser knows that it’s a non-decision as no new treaty or amendment to the lisbon treaty is planned any time soon.