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Looking back: debating Central European enlargement

Vienna - Maria-Theresien Platz. Photo: Alan Grant

When accession talks with Central European countries begun in 1997, no country was more directly affected by enlargement than Austria, which shared 1,259 kilometres of border with four of the applicants. Public concern about the impact on Austria was therefore hardly surprising. Indeed, from 1996 to 2000, the polls revealed a rising fear. Soon Austria, together with Germany and France, ranged last or second-last in the EU15 in its support of enlargement.

In one survey, 47 percent of Austrian entrepreneurs opposed enlargement. In another, 62 percent of Austrians feared that enlargement would affect their personal safety. In November 1999, only 31 percent supported Slovak and Polish accession.

This was both encouraged and exploited by the Freedom Party of Jorg Haider: having forged its political reputation by attacking the EU itself, it now turned against the enlargement process. Between 1996 and 1999, the FPÖ introduced 20 motions against enlargement in parliament. As a political move, it appeared to work. The party's share of the vote rose from 5 percent in the late 1980s to 27 percent in 1999. Meanwhile, Austrian support for enlargement reached an all-time low in 1999.

The Freedom Party also called for popular referenda on enlargement. Jorg Haider explained:

"The Austrian government commits treason against Austrian interests if it does not veto Eastern EU enlargement in Brussels. No government acts like this; only an occupying power… This project should be stopped immediately." (Lugmayr, p. 147)

Ironically, however, it was the FPO's electoral success that brought a change in tune. When elections in 1999 brought the FPO into government as a coalition partner with the People's Party, the latter made support for the EU and its enlargement a condition of forming a joint government. From 2000, the FPO completely changed its position.

"The FPO will support the accession process of our neighbours. We are ready to support this integration process… It makes sense to accept Turkey as an accession candidate." (Lugmayr, page 155)

From that point until the 2006 elections, no Austrian party campaigned against the eastward expansion of the EU.

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