EU president explores art of the possible

  • 2006-02-15
  • By Ben Nimmo
RIGA - Politics, according to the great German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, is the art of the possible. In the European Union, where every member has the right of veto and where national economic crises are increasingly being blamed on the union itself, Austria has the unenviable task of trying to find if any political deals are possible at all.

Austria currently holds the six-month rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union. As such, one of its tasks is to lead the union's debate on internal matters. At present, that means that Vienna is dealing with such headaches as the European Constitutional Treaty, the opening of accession negotiations with Turkey, the opening of EU labor markets to the new member states, and the fate of the Lisbon Agenda for economic growth.

Given that French and Dutch voters shot down the Constitutional Treaty last spring, the Austrian electorate is strongly against Turkey's accession, Austria has already vowed to keep its labor market closed until at least 2009, and the Lisbon Agenda, which aimed to make the EU the world's most competitive economy by 2010, now looks like the worst joke since U.K. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain announced "Peace for our time" in 1938, it would be easy to assume that the debate is doomed to failure.


Vienna, of course, presents the case differently. According to the presidency's official program, Austria aspires to "pay special attention to completing the internal market, renew the EU's basis of competitiveness and strengthen social cohesion," among other things. In practical terms, according to Austrian Ambassador to Latvia Dr. Wernfried Koffler, this means that the first three months of the presidency will focus on "putting jobs and growth at the center," and the latter three will address "larger issues concerning the future of the EU," such as the Constitutional Treaty, the EU's role on the world stage, and the question of how the Union can win the confidence of its citizens.

The last goal is particularly ironic, because according to the latest Eurobarometer opinion poll, "Only 32 percent of Austrians see gains in EU membership, 25 percent say EU membership is 'a bad thing,' and 39 percent are indifferent. This lukewarm balance sheet means Austria scores lowest within the EU." The same poll revealed that the emotion most often associated with the EU was anxiety, while among the phrases it conjured up most often were "more crime," "unemployment" and "waste of money." Clearly, if Austria wants to sell the EU to the everyday citizen, it had better start at home.

Cold turkey

This is not the only issue on which the Austrian EU presidency seems to conflict with the Austrian electorate. Another is Turkey. The Austrian Hapsburg Empire fought a series of wars against the Ottoman Empire in the 16th and 17th centuries, and as Dr. Koffler admits, "This has left a subconscious historic trace in the Austrian mind." Historical suspicion is compounded by the fear that Turkey's accession will lead to a flood of cheap workers taking Austrian jobs, an allegation frequently made by far-right politicians. All this has its political effect: during the debate on whether to offer the Muslim giant membership negotiations last autumn, only a night-long round of talks stopped Austria from blocking the process.

This attitude is hardly likely to make accession negotiations easy. According to Dr. Koffler, the presidency has "made it very clear that we will pursue the process of Turkey's future in the EU in a very objective manner, with the criteria that Turkish membership should be contingent on the EU's capacity to absorb it, the financial burden should be equally shared by EU member states, the negotiations should be open-ended, and the accession process should be supported by the EU's citizens." Given that recent French opinion polls show that a majority of the electorate oppose Turkey's entry, and that President Chirac has already promised a referendum on the issue, the last clause seems more calculated to antagonize Ankara than to lead to constructive dialogue.

Paradox as usual

The opening of domestic labor markets is another major source of tension between the presidency and the Austrian electorate. One of the presidency's goals is to implement "the right of all citizens to move and reside freely" across the EU. On Feb. 8, the European Commission published a report highlighting the positive effect of migrant workers on those economies which had opened their labor markets. By that time, however, Austria's government had already voted to continue restricting 'new' EU citizens' access to its labor market, and according to the BBC, Austria's EU Commissioner even tried to have the report watered down. For the presidency to trumpet its pro-reform agenda while voting against reform at home seems, at the very least, paradoxical.

However, as Dr. Koffler comments, "I wouldn't call this a paradox: it's a normal situation in EU affairs. Austria has a very particular geographical situation which other countries don't, and the sentiments of the population in this area need taking into account. It's a question of persuasion, of acquainting them with the advantages of a liberalized labor market, and the commission report is very timely in this respect." In fact, while the Austrian government is trying to move the EU in the right direction, it's also trying to move its own people, with information supplied by the EU. It's a lot for a small country to take on.

It's far too early to say which direction Austria's presidency will take. On the one hand, there is a real risk that domestic pressure will lead the Austrian government to stall on the major issues, such as Turkey and the free movement of labor. But on the other hand, the fact that the current presidency is such a Euroskeptic, Turkoskeptic, labor-protectionist country is also grounds for hope.

As a member state, Austria has the right to veto other countries' suggestions, but as president it has to make suggestions itself, and it will be under severe pressure to find compromises. Indeed, Austria has always been one of the countries most likely to veto EU proposals on Turkey and labor reform. That danger is now removed, and while its proposals are highly unlikely to cause much delight in the Baltic capitals or Ankara, they are equally unlikely to cause a veto from Paris or Amsterdam. Vienna's task is not to find out what is best for the EU, but what is possible. It now has 19 weeks to explore the art of the possible in Europe. It should be an interesting time.