The Austrian general election campaign is reaching its climax and Europe has been at the heart of the debate. Eurosceptics and Europhiles across the political spectrum are battling over which direction their country should take. As the contest came to a head Euronews reporter Hans Vond der Brelie travelled to Klagenfurt, capital of the Carinthia region and birthplace of the Austrian Foreign Affairs Minister, Ursula Plassnik. She is a member of the conservative People’s Party and is staunchly pro-European. For the growing number of Eurosceptics in the Social Democrats, and nationalists who want Austria out of the EU, Plassnik has become a lightning rod for criticism. She is frequently the target of attacks in populist newspapers.
euronews: “We’ve travelled across Austria on our journey here and everywhere we’ve seen posters calling for true representation of the people. “No EU traitors” the far right say. They are targeting you and other members of the government. How do you react to this reproach?”
Ursula Plassnik: “It’s a reproach coming from several directions — one which was formulated long before this current electoral campaign. It comes from an influential part of the Austrian mass media, a daily which claims to be read be half the population. It’s not just a vehicle for Eurosceptic opinions, but firmly Europhobic opinions. This paper has built up a political campaign against the Lisbon Treaty, claiming there are suspect elements and that Austria is being betrayed. It’s a real political campaign.”
EN: “But 30 percent of Austrians share these europhobic views!”
UP: “Look, we’re in the 21st century…nobody wants to ban a debate on European questions. But there are those who would transform a eurosceptic atmosphere into underyling, or even overt, europhobia. To do that in Austria, there’s a clear and simple method — I’m talking about a referendum, there are calls for a referendum. It’s very popular and those who want one are supported on many sides.”
EN: “And why not have a referendum? There’s nothing sinister about a referendum: the people simply vote. Why not vote on big changes to the European Union, on the big EU issues? That’s the demand of the Social Democrats leader Mr Faymann Why are you against it?”
UP: “I’m not, in general, against referenda, though I would ask for respect for the Austrian constitution, which allows and envisages referenda in very few cases. To call for a referendum on future changes to the EU contract — because that’s at the heart of the issue — is not a way to cure euroscepticism. It could be applied to other specific cases. You cannot slow down global warming with a referendum, for example. The referendum method will not resolve today’s problems. And now, for the first time in the Austrian parliament, we have a sort of informal coalition of three parties using the mass media. — which plays a big role in this story. Together they have a majority in the Austrian parliament. The Social Democrats, the Freedom Party and Haider’s new party. They’re proposing a change to the federal constitution of Austria. They want all fundamental changes to the EU to be put to a compulsory popular vote. So, we’re no longer in the domain of tactical manouevres to exploit an anti-EU atmosphere in order to get votes. We’ve now entered the realm of serious political discussion on the matter. So, I really don’t want to see any anti-European or europhobic majority in the Austrian parliament after these elections.”
EN: “What specific consequences would there be? What would happen if the constitution was changed to allow for a referendum on general EU questions? Give us one or two examples.”
UP: “The formula being put forward by the three parties is: a referendum in cases of “fundamental changes” to the contractual bases of the European Union. That means in cases of a state wanting to join. The next candidate knocking at the door is Croatia. That, effectively, is a “fundamental change”, as the EU would go from 27 to 28 member states. So, that’s one concrete example. Maybe it’s not the first, because we can’t exclude, after the Irish referendum, that we would change one or two details of the Lisbon treaty. I don’t want that. And the EU doesn’t want that. However, we can’t exclude it now. If Austria were change its constitution such a formulation would require a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty.”
EN: “A lot of people all over the EU are saying: we’ve expanded the Union too fast and too far. We need to put enlargement on hold. Why are you still in favour of further enlargement.”
UP: “I am someone who fights for a strong Austria in a united Europe. The EU is project of peace. And that means, for me at least, that our generation welcomes, step by step and in line with strict criteria, all of the Balkan countries into the EU. From my point of view it’s not legally correct or politically wise to say now, because of the Irish referendum, that we have to stop enlargement, that we must reject Croatia. It is not legally tenable and it would be political folly.
EN: “We’re here in Corinthia. It’s your region, you were born here. It’s also the fiefdom of Jorg Haider. On what basis did you campaign here? How did you try to explain to people here that the EU also has benefits for them?”
UP: “With my Slovenian colleague Foreign Affairs Minister Dimitri Ruppel, I was at the Karawanken tunnel for the opening of borders under the Schengen agreement. It was a quantam leap in relations with our neighbours, because this border remains anchored in the memory of many people as one which was extremely difficult to cross. Today we can live together, work together, exchange ideals. We live together in a new Europe, the Slovenes and the Austrians. On the two sides of the Karawanken tunnel we use the same money. The Austrian economy, and particularly the economy of this region has benefited from the opening of the markets of southeastern Europe. People need to be reminded of that.”