1. The Eastern Neighbours and Russia
A special relationship
The Austrian view on future relations with Russia is determined by two factors: on the one hand the country wants to uphold its special relationship with Russia. On the other hand, Austria, traditionally oriented towards German politics, has to apply the EU sanctions against Russia. Today the Austro-Russian relationship is based on strong economic ties, especially in the energy sector and tourism. Austrian exports to Russia amounted to 3.1 billion Euros in 2014, but this constitutes a decrease of 8 percent from 2013. The main export goods are technical equipment and machines, food, pharmaceuticals, and paper. Around 500 Austrian companies work in Russia, and Austrian banks (Raiffeisen International, Bank Austria) are comparatively overexposed in Russia. In contrast, Austria imports mainly gas and oil from Russia: in 2014 a sum worth 2.3 billion Euros, which represents a decrease of 28 percent from 2013’s figures. The Austrian gas hub Baumgarten is an important European distribution hub and features prominently in the recent plans of circumventing Russian gas transports through Ukraine. The Austrian mineral oil and gas company OMV, as one of the major players on the European market, is particularly interested in maintaining strong economic ties with Russia irrespective of pipeline routes. While the government, a coalition between the two biggest parties (with 103 out of a total of 183 seats in the parliament), the Social Democratic Party (52 seats) and the Austrian People’s Party (49 seats), tries to steer a path between adhering to the EU sanctions and upholding what it sees as a special relationship, the opposition is split between the right-wing Freedom Party (38 seats) who wants to end all sanctions against Russia immediately and the Greens Party (24 seats) who endorse the full application of the sanctions and support for the export businesses that are allegedly affected by them. In general, it is believed that the sanctions will not contribute to normalizing EU-Russia relations. Thus, the Austrian government argues for dialogue.
- Austrian Federal Ministry of Science, Research and Economics: Austrian external trade.
Partnership: in need of improved effectiveness
Concerning Ukraine, the government is in full support of the European policies towards it and frequently refers to the Ukraine being effectively a neighbouring country. The Austrian population, with a differentiation between the western and the eastern part, is in general sceptical of its eastern neighbours. This is partly due to the populism of the right-wing Freedom Party (supported by the largest tabloid paper the Kronen Zeitung) blaming rising unemployment and security issues on the open borders towards the east and the recent turn of Hungarian politics towards a more authoritarian form of government. The events in Ukraine are seen as a reflection of the weak government structures in the countries of the Eastern Partnership. Those countries are seen as high-risk investment opportunities but not as future candidates for EU membership. In general, doubts about the effectiveness of the partnership mechanisms are wide-spread, especially in the business community.
Another failed EU foreign policy
The Eastern Partnership Summit in Riga did not draw a lot of public attention. While the government emphasized the importance of the partnership at a very general level, thus following the Joint Declaration of the summit, the opposition criticized its lacklustre stance towards Russia. Again the opposition was split between the Green Party and the small liberal party of The New Austria (NEOS) and the right-wing Freedom Party, which once again made a case for understanding the Russian side. Greens and Liberals expressed their wish for a staunch sanction policy towards Russia. The Austrian government also made it clear that the accession of Ukraine is not on the agenda at all. In the public the Summit was hardly discussed; when it was discussed the Council’s murky joint declaration was regarded as another instance of Europe’s failing common foreign policy.
Upholding the myth of neutrality
Austria’s security strategy is embedded within the UN, the EU, the OSCE, the Council of Europe, and in its partnerships with NATO (Partnership for Peace member since 1995; member of the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council since 1997). The question of joint European armed forces was not discussed widely in Austria due to the country’s neutral status. This status is seen as one of the pillars of Austrian identity and therefore is not openly questioned or discussed. However, the 2015 political program of the conservative Austrian People’s Party, for example, envisages a common European army as a long-term goal. Since this has been part of the conservative agenda for several years already, this cannot be regarded as a reaction to the crisis in the Ukraine. Furthermore, Austria’s involvement with NATO crisis operations and training exercises reveals a gap between official statements about the importance of neutrality and the practice on the ground. By virtue of Article 23j of its Constitutional Law, Austria fully participates in the Common Foreign and Security Policy of the European Union. NATO is the most important organization in the Euro-Atlantic context, and is the predominant security forum for those 22 EU member states which are also members of NATO. Austria has, for almost two decades, been participating, as a partner to NATO, in the alliance’s security activities in many ways. A high value is placed on international cooperation and participation in crisis management missions by the EU, NATO, and UN. The Austrian Federal Armed Forces are currently contributing to military operations in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Mali and the Central African Republic as well as to the civilian missions in Georgia and the DR Congo. With 300 plus troops Austria provides more than half the troop strength of operation EUFOR Althea in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Austrian policemen and diplomats are taking part in Common Security and Defence Policy-missions in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Georgia, Palestine and Libya.
2. EU Enlargement
No to enlargement
The Austrian position towards further enlargement of the EU can indeed be called sceptical. Within the wake of the Ukraine-Russia crisis, the Austrian government has emphasized many times that membership promises towards the Ukraine should not be made. A rather different picture emerges with respect to enlargement in the West Balkans, towards which the government seems to be more open. The primary goal of Austrian foreign policy is to support the transformation of the Western Balkans area into a zone of stability. From the Austrian perspective there is only one option for the Western Balkans: a full European integration of the region. In late August 2015, a high-level international conference, the 2015 Western Balkans Summit, will take place in Vienna. The population as such is against any enlargement. The Greek crisis has deepened this skepticism that was certainly furthered by the populist right-wing party. Security and employment are the major issues frequently cited to defend a no-enlargement policy.
No to Turkey, a conditional yes to the Western Balkans
With respect to Turkey, two thirds of the Austrian population does not support Turkish membership in the EU. Cultural differences, the tight domestic job market, and- since the Syrian war and its resulting migration waves- security issues are frequently quoted. When the Turkish President Recep Erdoğan visited Vienna in June 2014, the polarization of supporters and opponents of the current Turkish government became visible. It triggered a lively debate about all the issues relating to Turkey: migration, language, EU-membership, Islam, and values. Turkish citizens are not the largest group of migrants, however. About 160,000 Germans, 114,000 Turks and 112,000 Serbs live in Austria. All together there are 280,000 people with Turkish roots in Austria (with at least one parent being Turkish citizen); 115,000 of those are Austrian citizens. In summer 2015 a new Turkish electoral list announced its intention to run in the October 2015 Viennese regional elections.
This EU-28 Watch is part of the a project called ‘Eastern Neighbours and Russia: Close links with EU citizens’ (ENURC) in collaboration with TEPSA (Trans European Policy Studies Association). The project focuses on developing EU citizens’ understanding of the topic of the Eastern Neighbourhood and Russia and aims at encouraging their interest and involvement in this policy which has an impact on their daily lives.
The EU-28 Watch project is mapping out the discourses on these issues in European policies all over Europe. Research institutes from all 28 member states are invited to give overviews on the discourses in their respective countries.
This survey was conducted on the basis of a questionnaire that has been elaborated in March 2015. Most of the reports were delivered in June 2015. This issue and all previous issues are available on the recently relaunched EU-28 Watch website: www.eu-28watch.org.
The EU-28 Watch No. 11 receives significant funding from the Otto Wolff-Foundation, Cologne, in the framework of the ‘Dialog Europa der Otto Wolff-Stiftung’, and financial support from the European Commission. The European Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained therein.