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Inn valley, near Schwaz. Photo: Alan Grant

Is a referendum on Turkey's EU membership where current Austrian politics is taking us? The leaders of Austria's two largest political parties have often promised such a referendum. The right-wing opposition and much of the press have demanded it as well. Given current trends in public opinion and recent election campaigns by the Freedom Party, the scenario outlined above is entirely plausible, even likely.

In this paper, we examine the history of Austrian attitudes towards Turkey's EU candidacy. Looking back over opinion polls of the past decade reveals a surprising finding: until 2002, there was very little difference between Austrian views towards Turkey and any other EU candidate. The current public mood does not have its roots in the distant past. Rather, it is a reflection of the recent behaviour of the Austrian political elite, and the direction in which they have chosen to take the public debate.

The turning point in this regard was 2004, and the decision by the SPO (Austrian Social Democrats), at the time in opposition, to attack both the Freedom Party (then led by Jorg Haider) and the OVP (Austrian People's Party) for 'going soft' on Turkey by failing to block the opening of accession talks. This was followed in December 2004 by the decision of the OVP chancellor to promise a referendum.

Until then, all the major political players had supported a sober discussion of the pros and cons for Austria of each individual enlargement decision. With these two steps, that consensus was destroyed. A new, cross-party consensus emerged in favour of deferring any serious debate in favour of an eventual referendum.

Since then, Austrian politicians have made little effort to explain their position on Turkey to the public. There were no visits by Austrian ministers to Ankara or Istanbul in 2006 or 2007. Austrian institutions have produced little serious research (compared to the Netherlands, Sweden or Germany) about contemporary Turkey. Nor has there been much exchange in other fields, from culture to academia, despite a new and very active Turkish ambassador in Vienna. This contrasts sharply with Austrian behaviour towards other accession countries, such as Hungary, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria.

The weaker the public debate on Turkey, the more likely it will end up with a referendum on Turkish accession at some point between 2014 and 2020, and the more likely that the proposal will receive a hostile reaction from the Austrian public.

For some, this may not be a cause for concern. But even Austrians who are opposed to Turkish accession should feel serious discomfort at the prospect of deciding such a question by referendum. If there is to be a referendum in Austria on Turkish accession, how about referenda on other accession candidates? Should Austrians also vote on Albania and Bosnia-Herzegovina? A referendum would offer a global platform to the Austrian (and European) far right. It would leave Austria isolated within Europe and individually responsible for a major snub to the Muslim world.

In effect, Austria will have placed itself at the frontlines of a global clash of civilisations. But is a clash of civilisations really necessary, and do Austrians wish to be at the heart of it? It is to open this debate that this analysis has been put forward.

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