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New Focus on Europe

After Kreisky's departure from the political scene in 1983, Austrian foreign policy became more focused on European matters and less on global issues. This shift was caused partly by the increase in tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, as United States diplomacy under President Ronald Reagan became more confrontational. In this climate, Austria's room to pursue a foreign policy of mediation was more constricted. Concern that the country faced exclusion from the increasing political and economic integration of Europe being pursued by the European Community (EC) was another factor that came to exert strong influence on Austrian diplomacy. The traditional concept of Austrian neutrality had held that membership in the EC was not possible or desirable, even though the EC was not a military alliance. The idea of ceding even limited areas of political and economic sovereignty to a supranational organization was seen as incompatible with neutrality.

As an alternative to the EC, Austria had joined with Britain, Denmark, Norway, Portugal, Sweden, and Switzerland to form the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) in 1960. EFTA was restricted to facilitating trade among its members and did not involve the ceding of sovereign powers. Austria also negotiated a special economic arrangement with the EC in 1972 that allowed for the duty-free exchange of industrial manufactured goods.

By the mid-1980s, the opinion of Austria's political elites had changed in favor of seriously considering the advantages and disadvantages of EC membership. Many argued that Austria could not expect to guarantee its economic future if it remained outside the EC. Two-thirds of Austria's trade was with members of the EC, with the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) by far its largest trading partner. There was also a fear that the country could become isolated within Europe as ideological barriers between East and West were lowered.

A long period of debate among the major parties over EC membership began in 1987, and the cabinet established a working group to examine the issue. It gradually became clear that, despite some misgivings over the expected impact of EC membership in certain areas, the two major parties, the ÍVP and SPÍ, favored applying for entry. The trade unions had some concerns about EC membership's diminishing their strong bargaining powers in the Austrian system of social partnership, but they, too, generally favored joining (see Social Partnership , ch. 3). There was also widespread concern that the high volume of highway traffic passing through Austria en route to West Germany and Italy was damaging the country's environment (see Ecological Concerns , ch. 2). Many Austrians believed that their country's environmental laws were stricter than those of the EC. The priority of protecting the environment led the Green deputies in parliament to oppose joining the EC.

Within the two major parties, there was little concern over the neutrality issue, and government leaders pointed out that although the EC might someday add a military dimension to its structure, for the foreseeable future it would remain primarily an economic union with aspirations of developing greater political unity. The new climate of glasnost in the Soviet Union ushered in by Mikhail Gorbachev led Austrian leaders to expect no objection from Moscow to an Austrian decision to seek EC membership, and this expectation proved true.

The government reached an internal consensus in favor of applying for membership in June 1989, and the following month, Foreign Minister Alois Mock delivered the application to the EC Commission in Brussels. Chancellor Vranitzky emphasized to his countrymen that during the upcoming negotiations with Brussels his government would seek clear understandings on the maintenance of environmental standards and the preservation of Austria's advanced social welfare system. Vranitzky also asserted that the issue of limiting the volume of motor vehicle traffic passing through Austrian territory would be handled separately from the application to join the EC. Austria's application met with a chilly reception from some quarters in Europe, especially from a few politicians who argued that the admission of a neutral country could hinder efforts at coordinating the foreign policies of the EC's members. However, the momentous events of late 1989 and 1990--the freeing of Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Poland from Soviet domination and there unification of Germany--made it clear to all observers that Austrian neutrality would take on a new dimension and might even be jettisoned altogether. The disintegration of the communist system in the Soviet Union in late 1991 further reinforced the impression that neutrality was of little relevance in the new Europe.

In August 1991, after an examination of the Austrian application, the EC issued an initial assessment that was predominantly favorable. By late 1993, negotiations between Austria and the European Union (EU), the organization's name as of November 1993, were continuing over the terms of membership. Most observers expected that the EU and Austria would be able to reach an agreement on Austrian entry and that the country would join the EU in January 1995. The main issues involved limiting international road traffic through Alpine regions because of environmental concerns, subsidies for Alpine farming, and foreign ownership of residences in some parts of Austria. A less certain matter was whether the Austrian government could convince a majority of Austrians to support EU membership. The question of joining the EU will be voted on in a popular referendum because any governmental action that changes the constitution must pass this test. Many opinion polls taken in the early 1990s showed Austrians evenly divided over the merits of joining the EU. In order to ensure approval by the electorate, the Austrian government will have to gain significant concessions from the EU in the negotiations and mount an effective public relations campaign in favor of a yes vote.

Data as of December 1993

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