"Welcome to Vienna, Austria"

Union washed up on an island of bliss

Only 21% of Austrians intend to vote this June 7th. Europe, with its open borders, leaves its timorous citizens longing for the days when this "small, beautiful, prosperous" land was "an enclosed garden plot", argues Barbara Coudenhove-Kalergi.

Published on 26 May 2009 at 16:58
"Welcome to Vienna, Austria"

A foreign fellow-journalist asks: Why are such a disproportionate number of Austrians against the EU, though the country has benefited so much from being part of the Union? And why do such a disproportionate number of Austrians vote for far-right parties? In the run-up to the EU elections over the next few weeks, plenty of foreign observers are bound to ask the same questions. Here is a stab at an answer.

The past few decades have quite unhinged Austrians. After World War II, they had for all intents and purposes bid farewell to world history, the most recent chapters of which clearly hadn’t done them much good. The First Republic comprised the leftovers of a multinational empire that had fallen apart in World War I. Later they had half volens, half nolens joined the German Reich, which also ended in defeat. The upshot: Austrians holed up in their small, beautiful, prosperous land. Under the bell jar of neutrality they felt safe and secure from the trials and tribulations of the outside world. They retreated to an island of bliss.

But one day world history returned. Accession to the European Union opened up the country to the West, with all the concomitants of globalisation and competition. The fall of the Iron Curtain opened it up to the East. Immigrants came – in droves. Austria was no longer an island of bliss. Now as then, many perceive the EU not as a bigger homeland, but as a sort of occupying power, and their Eastern neighbours, including the Turks, as enemies, as a menace. Basically, they yearn for the good old days when Austria was an enclosed garden plot.

The right-wing parties heed the groundswell. Simple answers to complicated questions never miss the mark. In our case: the root of all our present evils is the foreigners, for one thing, and the EU, for another. If it weren’t for them, we’d be sitting pretty again on our blissful island. The governing parties are to blame for this state of affairs inasmuch as they have never taken a consistent stance opposing these appallingly oversimplified slogans. The black-and-blue coalition [i.e. conservative (ÖVP) and far-right (FPÖ – the late Jörg Haider’s party) once and for all made xenophobia, racism and aggressive provincialism socially acceptable. There isn’t much time left before the European elections. Now would be the last chance for some straight talking. Otherwise we shouldn’t be amazed if, after June 7, Austria, in the eyes of our neighbours, becomes something like the European Kärnten, the conservative southernmost state that was Haider’s former fiefdom.

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