Euroblog Austria

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.

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  1. It’s time for the European citizens now!
    While a referendum in general is a valuable, precious means to make the citizens’ political will. But this will should be placed on the right level and into the right contexts.
    Local worries must be addressed in local referenda, regional ones in regional referenda and national concerns should be subject to national referenda. What logic can we deduct from this?
    That EU related concerns, fears and angers must be subject to an all-European, union-wide referendum. Otherwise we will continuously have to face, that inner-political impacts and biases decide the EU. And we will get to face, that smallest electorates, like that of Malta with about 300.000 voters can bring the EU of the 500 million people to a never-ending blockade. And: US and “Chindia” will appreciate it!
    Here is the chance to vote as a European in a pan-European referendum: vote for European Citizens Rights, vote for EU-Participation Rights – go to!

  2. In the first question you ask whether the ÖVP will break up the coalition with the SPÖ and also state that the only pro European parties are the ÖVP and the Greens.

    Yes, the ÖVP may end the coalition. I believe they have every right to do so as the SPÖ clearly broke with the traditional Austrian consensus on being pro EU (ÖVP-SPÖ-Greens).

    However, the SPÖ is not anti-EU. Quite on the contrary it is still pro EU. What has changed is that the SPÖ has realised that its chances of winning the next election are rather low. This might change now because they have the chance of winning back support from former voters who switched to the FPÖ (and the BZÖ) over the European issue. Writing to the Kronen Zeitung just epitomises what Faymann and Gusenbauers intentions are: regaining votes from the populists by being populist themselves.

    The SPÖ strategy will not work. People who are anti-EU will preferably vote FPÖ and traditional pro European Social Democrats will have to think twice before voting for the SPÖ. This PR coup d’état (or coup the media) has brought up many questions within the coalition and especially within the SPÖ itself as politicians and party members alike were not consulted about this move and only found out as it was too late.

    The SPÖ’s stance on Europe has not changed. Its strategy for winning disenfranchised voters has. This strategy will – I strongly believe – backfire and at the end of the day (after the next election) the SPÖ will be again be a pro European party. The only difference is that it will be an opposition party.

  3. Fabian, thanks for the interesting additional thoughts

    Corina, the current opinion polls predict the following voting results should there be elections now: ÖVP 33 % – SPÖ 28 % – FPÖ 20 % – Greens 15 % – BZÖ 3 %

    Likely new coalitions (apart from the existing ÖVP-SPÖ one): ÖVP-Greens, ÖVP-BZÖ, SPÖ-Greens, SPÖ-FPÖ (although Faymann ruled out the last one yesterday)

  4. it is not a radical change at all, since the austrian socialists have always been critical towards the eu, even more that the greens… remember the discussions in the early 90ties… however, it has to be decided if a future conservative-green government might prepare austria to be a part of a small but powerful core europe led by germany and france…

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