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2005-09-30

Schüssel's Austria and Turkey 

Despite appearances, I am pretty sure that Austrian chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel, who personally defines the foreign policy of the country, is actually in favour of full Turkish EU membership. This may sound surprising amid this weekend's turmoil over Austria's stubborn opposition against the 24 other EU-members over the start of accession negotiations. But if anything, Schüssel is someone who appreciates complex tactics.

Support for Croatia (see analysis at afoe) is one of his motivations, but not the crucial one. Schüssel understands that the Turkey issue is much more important. Similarly, this Sunday's tight regional elections in Styria (earlier posts) may play a role, but a small one.

Recently international observers have been puzzled over the huge opposition of the Austrian population against Turkish EU membership (another link to afoe for their cross-country comparison of anti-Turkey sentiment). In broad lines, the explanation has to do with poorly-managed integration policies towards the large population of Turkish "guest-workers" in Austria; the Ottoman threat of the 17th century; and, in the two biggest political parties, a fear of xenophobic populism that stems back to Jörg Haider's electoral successes of the 1990s. As a result, both Schüssel's conservative ÖVP and the socialdemocrat SPÖ have pandered to anti-Turkey sentiment for years, which has made open hostility towards Turkish EU-accession much more acceptable among the population. Truly a sad picture.

Now, I believe, comes Schüssel's conviction that he has better than anyone else understood the lessons of the failed referendums in France and the Netherlands: Schüssel, whose pro-Europeanism is deeply rooted, thinks that issues of EU politics must be dumbed down and simplified in order to close the gap between the pro-EU elites and public sentiment on the street. He tries to channel anti-EU and anti-Turkey sentiment among the population in a direction where he and his party become the trusted representatives of these sentiments towards the EU, thus shutting out the true anti-Europeans of the far right and left. Probably Schüssel even believes that with this populist turn he is doing the EU a favour, reconnecting it with the European population.

The challenge for Schüssel is to find a formula that satisfies both the negative instincts of his population, while safe-guarding the Turkish accession project. As we read in the papers, it's a high risk gamble, as Turkey is now threatening to withdraw from the negotiation process in frustration. But for Schüssel, victory is within grasp, one can already smell in the late September air another awkward European compromise based on a wording that will indicate the possibility of outcomes other than membership, although the same thing will be excluded by some other provision. Schüssel himself will be attacked from all sides, but he will have reached his goals. Eight million Austrians will worship him, the promotion of cynicism towards Europe among seventy million Turks will leave him cool.


2 comments:

Oh gawd, I've been waiting for a sane comment on that topic for a while now. so thanks for that.

It is true that a strong case can be made both for and against Turkey's accession. That being said, formulating intelligent arguments may help the debate. Following populist policies and appeasing to the xenophobic atmosphere certainly won't. It may bring short term gains in the internal politics (hence the mindless Turkey bashing of Sarkozy and Merkel) but the political center of gravity will then inevitably slide to the right, erstwhile marginal groups being more mainstream and xenophobia bordering on racism being acceptable.

Surely the last thing we would want now would be the arsoning of a Turkish house (a la Solingen) as a backlash against the perceived impotency of Schussel.
 

@afacan egemen: I personally agree with you. If you had a four-eyes meeting with Schüssel, he might counter with the necessities of realpolitik. You could then accuse him of cowardice and lack of leadership.
 
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