Where to for the Austrian EU Presidency?

Article published on Jan. 6, 2006
Article published on Jan. 6, 2006

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

On 1 January 2006, Austria took over the chair of the EU. It appears that the direction of further EU expansion is already set: it is looking towards the Balkans, rather than to Turkey.

Austria is currently governed by a centre-right coalition. Its Federal Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel took over the reins of the EU on New Year’s Day, just a few days after the EU’s onerous budget crisis was resolved. However, three important – and no less problematic – themes remain: the EU expansion policy, the EU constitution and the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Many now wonder what Austria will choose to focus on in terms of EU enlargement in this, its second EU presidency since 1998. In particular, it will be interesting to see what role the Balkans will play.

In a guest editorial for the Austrian newspaper Die Presse in the middle of last year, Schuessel announced his vision for the Austrian presidency of the EU. He pointed out five political areas where he sees a need for action: primacy for growth and jobs; fairness for rural areas; a fair distribution of payments into the EU coffers; the debate on the future of Europe and, above all, the question “What kind of Europe do we want?”

Hidden beneath these conventional headings is a political tinderbox. For behind the latter question lurks the proposal for open-ended EU entry negotiations with Turkey and the question about Europe’s borders. Regarding the focus of his presidency, Schuessel told the Neue Zuercher Zeitung in November 2005 that “EU expansion is our top priority.” By “expansion”, however, Schuessel means, primarily, expansion towards the Balkans.

Schuessel reinforced this point in a speech at the European Forum held in Wachau (Austria) in June 2005. Far more interesting than the ideas explicitly discussed was the implicit theme of this speech: that Schuessel has been working intensively with the Balkan countries of Slovenia and Croatia. Turkey, on the other hand, went completely unmentioned. Schuessel also made it clear in November that from his perspective, the Balkans belonged to Europe; Turkey, however, was another case altogether. Moreover, he emphasised the importance of open-ended negotiations and seeking alternatives to full membership for Turkey. Otherwise, and in the event of full membership, Austria would not hesitate to apply the EU opt-out clauses. Of the four freedoms granted by the EU – of movement for citizens, of circulation of capital, goods, and services – freedom of movement for Turkish nationals to Austria would most likely be limited. Unlike the United Kingdom has promised, there would be no sunset clause ending restrictions on the right of establishment for Turks in Austria.

The Austrian Foreign Minister, Ursula Plassnik, for her part, never tires of emphasising the significance of the Balkans for Europe. The day before the EU summit last December, Plassnik expressed the view that in the event of Macedonia’s accession to the EU, “the term ‘EU expansion’ does not quite fit”, as she considers the advance to be much more a question of reuniting Europe.

There are two main motivations behind Austria’s strong preference for the Balkans. The reasons are partly historical and partly economic. Foreign Minister Plassnik feels, despite the absence of common borders, that the Croats are “connected through many common historical and cultural experiences.” Though speaking about Croatia, the Foreign Minister’s words have implications for Turkey: “Croatia was and is a part of our Europe.” And she underlines the economic significance for the EU: “At the moment, we have only just arrived at the middle, at the heart of Europe; for Austria this means stability, peace, freedom, and huge economic advantages.” A glance at Austria’s economic figures shows the significance of its foreign trade with Eastern Europe: exports to Eastern European countries rose by almost 25% between 2002 and 2004, and constitute 17% of Austria’s total exports. Aside from that, Austria is the biggest foreign investor in Croatia.

Schuessel’s line is clear: the Balkan countries belong in the EU and Turkey does not. One reason for this position is certainly that only 10% of Austrians would support Turkey’s accession to the EU. Since consensus has been reached over the EU budget, Schuessel now has free rein to work on making the EU more open to the Balkans. Further discussion on the Common Agricultural Policy, which Schuessel has vehemently defended, will now be put off until at least 2008. A first victory is almost at hand: Macedonia is likely to be approved as an EU accession candidate. And the harder Schuessel pushes for EU expansion in the Balkans, the more Turkey’s chances of full EU membership are diminished. Such an effect is unlikely to trouble him.