The image of the welfare state remains strong and NATO membership is not given much thought.
The second half of the 1980s marked a pivotal period for Austria. Domestically the country was recovering from the so-called Waldheim scandal, whose consequent shock to society provided the impetus for national self-cleansing and for more constructive criticism of the past.1 However, even more decisive were the changes in the surrounding world. The Cold War was becoming a thing of the past, and the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence in Eastern Europe was being torn apart at every seam. On the border of this world, Austria—which had been pressed directly up against the Iron Curtain—was facing an opportunity to escape the Eastern European fate to which it had been geopolitically tied for decades. In order to get a handle on the changed situation, the Austrian government first tossed around the idea of positioning itself among the Central European countries as a collegial partner, emphasising the shared common cultural and historical heritage going back to the Habsburg era. The first steps did seem promising, and the cultural and economic ties were equally encouraging. Nevertheless, the hopes placed on Central Europe failed, due particularly to Austria’s own overall uncertainties.
To navigate through the myriad of events at this time, it is useful to try to sum up some of the characteristics of Austria’s identity. Some of these should seem quite familiar to Estonian readers: for example, the self-perception as a border between East and West, and as a small, ambivalent society in which a grandiose history meets present-day pragmatic facts belongs to the Austrian mindset, as do a vague sense of danger and the belief that one must work hard to shape one’s identity. The latter is far from being wrong. The unique Austrian identity, as it exists today, is a result of post-World War II developments; at that time Austrians were just getting over the national and social shocks caused by the end of the empire and began to rediscover their place in the European family. Since the liberation of Eastern Europe, Austria has been busy positively redefining itself in Europe’s geographical centre, where East meets West.
Talks on the Austrian approach to the European Economic Community began in the spring of 1987. Arguments for and against had already existed in parallel since the 1950s. A considerable amount of lobbying in favour of joining the Common Market and pro-European sentiments were encouraged by the strengthening of economic relations with West Germany. Quite naturally, the main political parties—the Social Democratic Party of Austria (Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreichs, SPÖ) and the Austrian People’s Party (Österreichische Volkspartei, ÖVP)—saw joining the Community as collateral for future interconnection with the West. The notion that there was no alternative to joining the EEC was further strengthened after the collapse of Yugoslavia in 1991, when a few bullets and shells even landed on Austrian territory. The EEC’s own internal development also contributed towards greater integration and institutional strengthening.
The Austrian legal code was re-examined in the light of EEC legislation, and in many cases steps were taken towards modernisation and liberalisation. For example, due to the adoption of European norms, male homosexuality was decriminalised, followed by acceptance of a more tolerant attitude in society as a whole. The years of proximity talks were used to rationalise and partially privatise state-owned industries; the “social state” was reformed and consolidated (among other things, a comprehensive pension reform was carried out). The Austrian economic situation remained among the best in Europe, but modernisation came at a price. Relations between the coalition partners were strained by constant confrontation over financial matters and by a strong opposition in the form of numerous interest groups, who suffered from these decisions due particularly to an austerity budget adopted in 1994. The “preparation for Europe” argument was often used to support the introduction of such policies, but they were inevitable in any case.
Anti-European sentiment was as strong as pro-European enthusiasm. In earlier decades, the Soviet Union’s opposition on this issue would in particular have been taken into account, but since Mikhail Gorbachev had come to power this obstacle had disappeared, and the opening of negotiations with the EEC did not evoke any significant reaction from the Soviet Union. However, there were even more internal counterarguments. In particular, over long decades neutrality had become part of the Austrian self-image. This hard-fought identity might come under attack by joining Europe since, according to the darkest forecasts, little Austria was certain to be economically, culturally and linguistically swallowed up by the larger Germany. It was feared that membership would limit opportunities for independent policy-making, and some on the left saw the merger with Europe as a threat to the nation’s very considerable welfare society.
The votes of the anti-European electorate were sought by the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs, FPÖ), whose leader, Jörg Haider, changed almost overnight from a quasi-German nationalist to an ardent Austrian one. Loud prophecies of the “exploitation” of Austria by Europe and Germany had the expected effect—the FPÖ became the strongest magnet for protest votes (17% of votes in the October 1990 elections). Although the SPÖ–ÖVP coalition survived and continued with the modernisation plans, they now had to watch their backs carefully. Unfortunately, or fortunately, moderation was not one of Haider’s strong points. In June 1991, he spoke approvingly of the Third Reich-era employment policy, causing a scandal that resulted in his political exile as governor of Carinthia. In general, initiatives against the FPÖ brought most of the other parties together, and this gave the government some necessary breathing space. In 1993, an internal split in the FPÖ led the more moderate members of the party to leave and create the Liberal Forum, which also helped to smoothe the way for Austrian accession to the Community. Nevertheless, in the 1994 general election, the FPÖ again achieved a good result, stepping on the heels of the major parties with 23% of the vote. In some darker moments, it looked as if Austria’s domestic policy was moving towards a crisis in the run-up to accession to what had by now become the European Union.
In the end, Austria’s accession to the EU went without major difficulties. The necessary agreements were concluded by March 1994 and, in a referendum held in June, 67% of votes were cast in favour of accession. On 1 January 1995, Austria became a full member of the EU. Now that the country was no longer pressed up against the Iron Curtain or shamed by the Western countries for its Nazi past, Austria could ride the tidal wave of economic prosperity and consensus policy into a carefree future—or at least such a hope was fostered by a large part of the country’s political elite. Gaining the rotating Presidency of the EU in 1998 became, in many ways, the highlight of Austria’s international prestige. The country’s budget was once again under control and the new euro currency was reasonably expected to further speed up economic growth. Even cultural life received an exciting boost, culminating in the opening of the impressive museum quarter (Museumsquartier), a huge modern-art complex in Vienna. Austrian society as a whole was clearly becoming increasingly more international and open. This sunny scenario was, in fact, clouded by only one problem—Jörg Haider.
Despite the coalition’s success in navigating Austria away from the low point of the Waldheim scandal and the post-Cold War and steering the country safely into the EU, there were still plenty of Austrians who, provoked by the rhetoric of the right wing, showed serious dissatisfaction towards it all. While the rationalisation of nationalised industry and the austerity budget did improve the Austrian economy and the financial situation, they still remained profoundly unpopular. Industrial society’s further movement towards becoming a service economy added a new prosperity to society as a whole, but also left behind plenty of victims, especially among blue-collar workers. And ultimately, the referendum’s 67% support meant that as many as a third of voters were against the change. Even after accession to the EU, tensions between the liberal government and the conservative reaction did not disappear. In this situation, Haider continued with his opportunistic and xenophobic populism.
Under Jörg Haider’s authoritarian leadership, the FPÖ’s astounding emergence reached its climax in 2000–4 when, after achieving 27% in the general elections, it formed a coalition with the ÖVP. This coalition, previously considered inconceivable, led to extensive protests both in Austria itself and across Europe. The remaining 14 member states deemed it wiser to establish a unique political and diplomatic cordon sanitaire around the coalition, one member of which clearly qualified by any criteria as a right-wing extremist. Diplomatic sanctions halted contacts and cooperation with the then members of the government for about three-quarters of the year, which, as expected, caused a great deal of confusion in society and mutual accusations.
The worst fears about the FPÖ’s rise to power eventually remained unrealised. Confronted with the realities of running a country and the responsibility that goes with it, the FPÖ quickly started to lose the public’s confidence. With the efforts of the other partner, ÖVP, the coalition was able to move forward with reforms and to keep the government as a whole under control. To alleviate international concern, it continued with the previously existing policy of restitution and compensation to Jews, and this was now extended to former forced labourers. Alongside similar achievements, they had to make concessions to their extreme-right coalition partner, of course. Thus, for example, in 2003 the government adopted a very strict asylum law, which earned public criticism from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. The restrictive policy, which was intended to insure Austria against economic migration from the new Central European member states, also showed signs of xenophobia. Opposition to Turkey’s possible membership reflected a return to the introverted, “among our own” mindset. At times, the idea of Austria as a former victim of Nazism was revived, together with a hesitant attitude that it is better to stop digging up the past and look to the future.
Once in power, the FPÖ’s popularity—which was almost entirely based on its leader’s charisma—steadily began to fade. With every subsequent election its support decreased by half or up to two-thirds. After about 20 years of Haider’s success, support for the party fell from 27% to 5–6%, where it was in the 1980s, before Haider rose to its head. Only in Carinthia, Haider’s home state, did the party still win over 40% of the vote. Although continuously active and represented in the national parliament, the FPÖ has not played an important role in the federal government since 2004.
In the light of its EU membership, it is striking that Austria has yet to deem it necessary to join NATO. Unlike some other countries, there is no historical enmity or unresolved conflict that would prevent Austria’s accession. Although there is a tendency to refer to the aforementioned tradition of neutrality, even this has been debated in society for decades. The fact that the Constitution—the supposed stronghold of neutrality—is not set in stone is supported by Austria’s active participation in the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy and its membership in NATO’s cooperation framework, Partnership for Peace (and through the latter Austria has also participated in the work of the Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence since 2014). In both cases a change in the Constitution was needed.
Surely the current absence of risk, and hence the apparent lack of need for protection, plays a role in the fact that Austria has so far stayed away from full membership of NATO. After all, there is not a single apparent enemy at Austria’s borders and, since 2011, when Liechtenstein joined the Schengen area, none of the neighbouring countries have implemented border controls on Austrian citizens. The main political parties disagree on Austria’s future status. The SPÖ favours the retention of neutrality, while the ÖVP is inclined towards closer security cooperation, and does not exclude eventual NATO membership. However, the division of opinion does not run clearly along party lines. For example, even in the early 1980s Bruno Kreisky, the former Socialist Federal Chancellor, warned that the neutrality of the state as a part of Austria’s identity could easily at some point become a thing in itself and start to generate its own myth. At present this myth still seems viable.
How then can we characterise the internal power lines of Austria’s society over recent decades? It is a fully integrated member of “Euroland”, which, incidentally, brought great benefits through the 2004 enlargement. The country’s economic situation has in many ways fluctuated in line with the EU’s general highs and lows, but it remains quite good. Despite cutbacks, Austria’s welfare state is one of the world’s most generous, based on a broad social consensus supported by successive governments. Political leaders have the habit of publicly affirming their faith in the social model of a welfare state.
Of course there are concerns, and in many respects Austrians are no different from other Europeans. A return to Euroscepticism and a desire for a “little Austria” identity is occasionally clearly discernible. In the search for their own legitimacy and identity, Austrians tend to criticise the EU’s for its supposed democratic deficit, against which they seek to rely on their own narrow exclusive nationalism. There has also been a resurgence of xenophobia, particularly towards Muslims and Turks. Nevertheless, anti-European sentiment, although strong, failed to undermine policies oriented towards integration and openness. Overall, it seems that Austrians wish to learn from the past and contribute to building a friendlier, more inclusive society. In recent decades, Austria has culturally and socially secularised and become in every aspect a modern society. Despite the fact that the Austrian general public has to face post-modern social problems, and notwithstanding occasional bouts of xenophobia in political life, the society itself is very cosmopolitan and open to international influences. At this point, one would not dare to predict what results these contradictory trends might eventually bring.
1 The revelation of the Nazi background of President Kurt Waldheim (in office 1986–92) launched a deep public debate over the real role of Austrians during the National Socialist repression. Until this time, Austrians had been seen as victims of Nazism, or its forced collaborators.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.