Austrian parties moving away from EU, but Austrians turning more positive towards EU

Austrian Institute of International Affairs
General remarks regarding the presence of EU and EU related topics in Austria as well as comments on relevant issues: Since the new Austrian coalition government between the Austrian Social Democrat Party (SPÖ) and the conservative Austrian Peoples Party (ÖVP) came into power in December 2008 (after the early elections held in September 2008) there has been a general change regarding the evaluation of the importance of the European Union. Austria’s Chancellor Werner Faymann had announced back in June 2008 – when he was Minister for Traffic, Innovation and Technology – to submit all EU treaties in the future to a national referendum, this was interpreted as a genuflection to the largest and therefore most powerful – populist – newspaper “Kronenzeitung”.[1] The problem with this announcement was that it undermined the government’s original pro-European position and the coalition treaty. Eventually this decision signified that a newspaper somehow ordained a political party a position that seemed opportune to them. To complete this information it also should be said, that the “Kronenzeitung” waged a campaign against the decision of the Austrian government to send troops to the mission in Chad. This of course did not only cause the ending of the coalition government under Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer, but also caused a split within the Social Democrats. This is also the reason why former Minister for European and International Affairs Ursula Plassnik, renounced to continue her work under new Chancellor Werner Faymann and left her post to Michael Spindelegger. During the election campaign Werner Faymann also emphasised national issues and left mostly everything related to the EU behind.
With all this in mind, and adding the fact that the average Austrian newspaper reader sticks to the newspaper “Kronenzeitung” and is highly EU sceptical, as well as highlighting the importance of national politics and international occurrences, there is a permanent neglect in covering EU topics. There might be an article on meetings, conferences etc., but if the issue does not concern Austria directly or its interests, it’s nearly impossible to find any comments or opinions.
Nevertheless Austria’s EU scepticism has decreased in the last six to twelve months by several percent points. Austria left the last place to become the fourth-last in row, but is still under the EU-27 average. Reasons for this rather better result can be found in the EU’s performance during the conflict between Georgia and Russia, which was mainly perceived as positive, and the steps taken by the European Union to alleviate the effects of the world wide financial and economical crisis.
A study conducted by the “Gallup Institute” among 1,003 Austrian’s between October and November 2008, had also other surprising outcomes. 47 percent of Austrians say that EU membership is a positive thing for Austria, this means an increase of 11 percent, also 45 percent of Austrians see the EU as a good protection against the negative effects of globalisation (meaning a plus of 15 percent!). However, regarding the EU enlargement, that did take place over the last years, it is still not approved by 67 percent, although the Austrian economy and therefore also the Austrian labour market have profited far more than other European countries. But it has been communicated poorly to the domestic population, Richard Kühnel, the representative of the EU-Commission in Austria sees here a huge lack of communication between the industry and the people.[2]
An article published in the Austrian newspaper “Der Standard” last December made a very interesting observation in the Austrian political landscape, which underlines what has been already observed: The developments over the last months have shown very clearly that Austrian politics and politicians have started to look more inward. This means that they do not longer look at what is going on in Europe and outside the Austrian border, instead they have been turning more and more away from the EU and seem to be more focused on national politics than anything else. This development can be observed not only among the governing parties, but also among the opposition. A diplomat who preferred to stay anonymous said that this development was fretting.[3]

[1] See: “Government Crisis”, in: Institut für Europäische Politik (Ed.): EU-27 Watch, No. 7, September 2008, Berlin, p. 254, available at: (last access: 17 February 2009).

[2] “EU – Skepsis: ‘Österreich hat die rote Laterne abgegeben’”, Die Presse, 21 January 2009, available at: (last access: 17 February 2009).

[3] “Österreichs EU-Kurs vor einer Zeitenwende”, Der Standard, 2 December 2008, available at: (last access: 17 February 2009).