Dominik Draxler obtained his Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science from the University of Vienna in 2015. His thesis dealt with the question whether Germany could be considered a potential hegemon in Europe in light of the Eurozone crisis, and the resulting austerity measures essentially influenced by German foreign policy. Dominik is currently enrolled in his final year at the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna, pursuing a Master’s Degree in Advanced International Studies.
Britain’s decision to leave the European Union has had ramifications for the entire continent. As this phenomenon, which came to be known as “Brexit” unfolded EU leaders attempting to maintain the Union’s status quo suddenly saw themselves confronted with an issue threatening the very unity of the EU itself. In addition to large migratory shocks putting pressure on individual member states, and the long lasting effects of a still ongoing economic crisis within the EU, Brexit clearly demonstrated the possibility of a member state to abandon the European integration project. Growing resentment among Europe’s citizens over the EU’s inability to deal with these crises in a unified manner, combined with the demonstration from the British side that leaving the Union is indeed possible, has given experts reason to believe that “Brexit” can not only be seen as a purely British phenomenon.
According to a paper prepared by the German Finance Ministry in June 2016, Austria is one of the candidates most feared to pursue a similar goal as Britain. By Britain’s surprising decision in June to leave the EU, and by a protracted presidential election between the far-right and the far-left, a competition between the EU’s firmest supporters and critics, fears over an “Öxit” (Auxit in its English version) have perhaps become more vocal than ever before. However, the question of how serious these sentiments of leaving the European Union really are within Austrian society will be the object of this article.
Perhaps the most vocal reasons for this growing EU-resentment within Austria are security issues and the stagnating economic situation. With around 70% of the country’s foreign trade being accounted to trade with other EU member states, Austria has been one of the biggest profiteers from EU membership. Despite this overall economic growth throughout several years of membership, Austria was not left untouched by the global financial crisis. “Unemployment began to rise and is now about 9.4%, bank troubles have abounded, and those who felt their jobs were threatened began to look around for a scapegoat – and began to blame the EU for all their woes.”
The situation is similar when it comes to the issue of immigration. Since becoming the Second Republic, Austria has shown on various occasions its willingness to take in vast numbers of refugees. Such was demonstrated during the Hungarian uprising of 1956, the Prague Spring of 1968, and during the Balkan war of 1995. Each time, Austria had opened its borders and shown a welcoming attitude towards these refugees fleeing from war. In August 2015, when hundreds of volunteers waited at Austrian train stations in order to aid incoming refugees destined for Germany and Sweden, those arriving were once more welcomed into the country, but “a general feeling of unease was only too apparent”. As the number of refugees arriving in Austria rose, so did many Austrians’ concerns over Angela Merkel’s open-door policy. Indeed, fears increased over the country’s ability to successfully integrate those who did not chose to proceed to other countries. By the end of 2015, nearly 90.000 people had applied for asylum in Austria.
The European Union’s inability to tackle these economic frustrations, and to equally distribute the refugee burden among member states has furthered resentment towards the EU, and played into the hands of far-right populist parties all over Europe. In Austria, this anti-EU and immigration agenda is pushed forward by the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ). After successfully challenging the results of this year’s presidential elections in front of Austria’s constitutional court, they have the opportunity to nominate Western Europe’s first far-right head of state. Now with the country facing presidential re-elections in December, and after the shock of Brexit, fears of Austria’s very own “Öxit” have never been more present in the peoples’ mindset.
Although, how likely are chances that a country with such economic ties to Brussels and its fellow member states could follow Britain’s example? Even before the “Brexit” referendum in June this year, critical voices in Austria became vocal when a non-partisan citizens committee raised a (legally non-binding) referendum in June 2015, demanding that the government exits the European Union. With 261,159 citizens entitled to vote supporting this referendum, it clearly passed the 100,000 signature barrier, and therefore had to be discussed in Parliament. The result of these talks, however, rather represented a defeat to EU-critics as not even the FPÖ voted in favor of this referendum. Instead, they drew an accession of Turkey to the EU as a red line in this matter.
After the British referendum, fears over Austria following Britain’s example circulated throughout the Union. According to a research-survey conducted by the online market research institute “meinungsraum.at” on June 29. 2016, 45% of surveyed Austrians stated that they would see their country in a favorable position without EU membership. What is especially interesting about these numbers are the differences between the various voter groups. While only 24% of SPÖ (Social Democrats) voters, 33% of ÖVP (Austrian People’s Party) voters, 17% of NEOS (The New Austria and Liberal Forum) voters, and 12% of Grüne (The Greens) voters believe in a favorable situation arising from abandoning EU membership, 82% of FPÖ voters shared this view.
It is difficult though to determine how representative this number is for Austria’s resentment towards the EU. Just a week after “meinungsraum.at” conducted its survey on Austria’s opinion on EU membership, the Austrian Society for European Politics (Österreichische Gesellschaft für Europapolitik – ÖGfE) conducted a survey of its own on July 8. 2016, revealing different numbers. The latter describes a picture of merely 23% of surveyed Austrians favoring a withdrawal from EU membership in contrast to 61% stating they wish to remain a part of it. Much more interesting though, is the shift in responses given compared to a survey the ÖGfE conducted in early May 2016, before the Brexit referendum. This shift depicts a drop in numbers of 8% of respondents who answered that they would rather see Austria leave the EU, while those undecided on the matter increased by 7%. Advocates of further membership remained with an increase of 1% at nearly the same level. According to ÖGfE Secretary-General Paul Schmidt, the political and economic uncertainties over Britain’s future after its decision to leave the EU have significantly affected public opinion in Austria.
It has also affected the ongoing Austrian presidential election of which Brexit has become a contentious point of debate. This drop in numbers of people favoring a withdrawal from EU membership might also explain why FPÖ presidential candidate Norbert Hofer has decided not to promote the option of an “Öxit” in his campaign. Instead, he once more confirmed the FPÖ’s firm resistance on a possible accession of Turkey to the European Union, and on efforts by Brussels to further centralize the EU. Only then, Hofer said, would he deem it necessary to hold a referendum in Austria on the country’s further relations with the EU.
However, opposing political players such as Alexander Van der Bellen, Hofer’s opponent in this year’s long-lasting presidential race, and Austrian entrepreneur Hans Peter Haselsteiner, reacted critically to the FPÖ’s supposed change of heart. Van der Bellen declared this shift to be due to the party’s EU-critical remarks and its constant desire to withdraw from EU membership not credible. He even stated that if elected president, he would not accept any politician striving for such a goal of disuniting the European Union . Haselsteiner then again decided to launch an active anti-FPÖ advertising campaign, warning citizens of the alleged danger of an “Öxit” to follow if Hofer is elected president.
We have seen that the European Union’s poor performance in dealing with these pan-European issues has created an atmosphere of skepticism towards the EU within Austrian society, and talks on the country perhaps one day following Britain’s example have found their way into the political sphere. However, despite the Brexit referendum possibly having fuelled discussions on this subject, surveys show that it has shaped public opinion in Austria in quite the opposite direction, raising hopes that an “Öxit” will always simply remain a “what if.” Indeed, as the 51 surveys conducted by the ÖGfE since 1995 showed that those in support of EU membership outweighed that of their opponents, it seems unlikely that Austria will be the next country to leave the EU. However, this shall not detract attention from the fact that Brussels and member state governments have a lot of work ahead of them in tackling economic despair, migratory shocks, and the uprising of far-right populist parties across Europe. Only by combining efforts and striving for the same goal will the European Union be able to overcome these difficult times, and once more stand for an ideal of welfare, justice, and security.
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