At the gates of Vienna?
It is our conviction that a referendum on Turkey would be a mistake. This is not because there is no need for a thorough debate on the advantages and disadvantages, costs and benefits of Turkish accession. On the contrary - it is a fact that, if Austria proceeds with a referendum, a serious debate will be the first casualty.
What is striking about other debates on EU enlargement over the past decade has been the capacity of Austria's politicians to lead public opinion. When it came to Austria's own accession in 1995, and to the last two rounds of eastward expansion, Austria's leadership acted on its convictions, despite initially negative opinion polls. In all three cases, there was intense debate across business associations, trade unions, academic institutions and of course the media. Public opinion responded to this debate - witness the sharp shift in public attitudes towards Croatia.
In the case of Turkey, the dynamic has been quite the reverse. Since 2004, Austrian politicians have avoided any serious debate on the merits of Turkish accession. Chancellor Wolfgang Schussel, in a guest commentary in the Kronen Zeitung in October 2004, called for an "honest, unmasked analysis on the impact of Turkish accession to the EU", complaining there had "not yet been enough material to answer questions of immigration, the labour market, costs, the results on regional funds, or agriculture." However, the government has not commissioned any studies on the impact of Turkish enlargement on Austria or the EU. Instead, politicians have played on popular fears and prejudices, absolving themselves of responsibility for the decision by pushing the issue off to a referendum. Public opinion has therefore hardened against Turkish accession.
With support for Turkish accession now at an extraordinary low level of 5 percent, a vicious circle has set in, with Austrian politicians unwilling to address the issue for fear of making themselves easy targets for their political opponents. Austria is therefore set on a course that leads inexorably towards a failed referendum and the international notoriety that will accompany it. If the Turks are once again defeated at the gates of Vienna, Austria may find itself treated less kindly by historians.
But this is not the only possible outcome. The alternative is for Austrian opinion makers in politics, business, academia and the media to begin looking seriously at the question of what impact Turkish accession would have on the EU and on Austria. Given the benefits Austrian business has reaped from transition in Eastern Europe, they should investigate whether a prosperous Turkey might open up new markets. When the far right conjures up the clash of civilisations, they should assess this on its merits with a dispassionate look at how contemporary Turkey is changing, on issues like freedom of expression and the status of women and ethnic minorities. And if it emerges that there are Austrian interests that need to be protected, they should assess whether there are other strategies available than a blunt rejection at a referendum.
By having the courage to address the issues on their merits, and creating a political space for an open debate, Austria's politicians may find once again that they can help to shape public opinion into a more enlightened view of Austria's interests.