Austria as EU member state
Austria, nowadays a medium sized country back in the heart of the European Union, was for many decades located at the very border of Western Europe right next to the “iron curtain” of the cold war era. It seems historically fitting that the Austrian Federal Government officially submitted its application for EU (then EC) membership in 1989 when said curtain fell, since only a century ago this alpine state had been in the core territory of one of the dominating European empires: the Habsburg monarchy. Until today, this former place at the heart of Europe still influences upon our relationship with neighbouring countries due to our common history. In the European Union rigid frontiers are once more overcome as is evident in the case of Austria and its neighbours, where people are – like they were in former times – in close contact once more. This is also why Austria actively supported the 2004 and 2007 EU enlargement towards Central and Eastern Europe and continues to support the countries of the Western Balkans on their approximation towards the EU. Bratislava and Vienna are the two closest European capitals, and with Slovakia also being an EU member state this has practical effects on our daily life.
After successful accession negotiations and a positive referendum (66.6% of the Austrian population in favour) Austria became EU member on 1 January 1995 and, hence, took over the acquis communautaire, i.e. the treaties and the entire set of common legal provisions. Austria is also part of the Schengen territory (the respective agreement entered into force in 1997 and has been incorporated into the EU treaties) and introduced the Euro as a single common (scriptural) currency in 1999 together with ten other countries. The cash changeover was to follow in 2002.
Austrians in the EU
Austria has so far twice taken over the Presidency of the Council of the European Union: in 1998 and 2006 for half a year respectively. EU-Commissioners Franz Fischler (for agriculture from 1995 – 2004), Benita Ferrero-Waldner (for foreign relations and neighbourhood policy from 2004 – 09) and Johannes Hahn (for regional policy since 2010) were or still are responsible for significant dossiers.
In the European Parliament, Austria is currently represented by 19 members, with 6 of them belonging to the Group of the European People’s Party, 5 to the Group of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament, 2 to the Group of the Greens/European Free Alliance, 1 pertaining to the Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, as well as 5 non-attached members (who, cannot assume certain official responsibilities, e.g. that of reporting to the plenary about a legislative proposal and possible amendments). Hence, Austria features the highest percentage of non-attached representatives.
Among the civil servants working in EU institutions, Austrians work in all kinds of functions – from seconded national experts to permanent EU staff, including various top positions.
Austria is a small, strongly export-oriented country and its most important trading partners traditionally are its neighbours and other European states. Thus, the European internal market is of crucial relevance to our economy. According to the Austrian Economic Chambers, in 1995 Austrian exports to the EU26 of today amounted to EUR 33 billion, reaching EUR 85 billion by 2011. More than 70 per cent of Austria’s foreign trade volume stems from business with other EU member states and overall, foreign trade accounts for 6 out of 10 Euros earned.
The development in foreign direct investment (FDI) in Austria confirms the positive effects of integration into the internal market: while FDI stood at an annual average of EUR 1.3 bn. in the last three years before EU accession, it went up to an average of EUR 7.5 bn. until today. In turn, the Central and Eastern European countries since 2001 attracted more than 50% of Austria’s direct investment and, thus, are a key target area for banks and entrepreneurs. This trend was only halted in 2009 due to the global economic crisis.
In summary, the positive effects are obvious in the fact that Austria managed an annual increase of the real GDP of 0.6% with 14,000 new jobs every year. In many regards Austria belongs to the top performing economies in Europe. For 2013 Eurostat predicts the 2nd highest GDP per capita for Austria among the EU 27.
Sources: ÖNB (Austrian National Bank), WKÖ (Austrian Chamber of Commerce), WIFO (Austrian Institute of Economic Research), EUROSTAT
EU knowledge and public opinion about membership
ÖGfE has been monitoring public opinion in Austria on EU accession and then membership for two decades. Our findings show that a stable majority of roughly 70% on average is in favour of membership. In street interviews we ascertained this picture: people tend to opt for membership with a “yes, but…” attitude, as many Austrians are quite critical and often unhappy with EU politics but agree on the benefits of integration to ensure peace and cooperation in Europe.
The widespread scepticism can to some extent be ascribed to the influence of the tabloid sector among Austrian print media and its rather pronounced anti-EU bias. Due to an unusually high circulation (with a share of the leading daily in this sector of 38.2%, source: Verein ARGE Mediaanalysen, 2011) the impact is substantial. In relation to the population, among print media this is a unique phenomenon in the EU.
In part, this impact can also be explained by the lack of consistent and systematic efforts of Austrian governments to inform about the effects of EU-membership since accession. Official information campaigns have been rather fragmented over successive governments and were at times left to the foreign ministry almost altogether.
This is also one of the reasons why general knowledge about the EU, on the working of the political system and the interwoven legal orders, is rather low. In a recent ÖGfE survey this was, for instance, illustrated by the fact, that 58% cannot name a single Austrian member of the European Parliament and a mere 11% considered themselves sufficiently informed about the latter. On the other hand 71% named the European Parliament as an important institution. Thus, it is one of our objectives to raise voter turnout among Austrians in European elections, which stood at 46,2% in 2009.
Austrian perspective on issues of special relevance
Austria features one of the lowest rates of unemployment in EU comparison and (not for the first time) reached the top position with 4.0% in November 2011. (EU average: 9.8% of unemployment, Eurostat). The country, thus, shares best practice models for employment and training programmes. Consequently, jobs and growth were priorities on the agenda during both Austrian Council Presidencies. With regard to the countries that joined the EU in 2004 Austria made use of transitional provisions in accordance with the EU treaties in order to postpone full access of the new EU citizens until 2011. Experts have been divided in their assessments if this measure has been conducive or counterproductive. Vis-a-vis Romania and Bulgaria temporary restrictions of the freedom of movement for workers are still in place.
Due to historically rooted close economic relations with neighbouring and other Central and Eastern European countries, Austria supported the 2004 and ’07 enlargement rounds, as well as Croatia’s accession and promotes EU approximation and integration of the remaining Western Balkans. Concerning Turkey, public opinion is rather sceptical and Austria advocates accession negotiations as an open process with various possible outcomes including a specially tailored privileged partnership.
Net payer position
The member states’ contributions to the common budget depend on the countries’ size and economic performance. As a comparatively affluent country Austria’s payments have continuously increased since 1995. Returns out of the EU budget such as funding and assistance are also subject to changes, which is why the net payment (calculated as the difference between the contribution and the returns) changes every year. So far, it reached its maximum in 1997 at roughly 798 million and an all-time low in 2002 at 212.1 million. In 2008, the relatively low net contribution of 356 million resulted from considerable financial aid to help Austria cope with flood damages. In 2009, it increased to 402 million (with the Austrian GDP amounting to 276.15 billion).
Sources: Austrian Ministry of Finance, Statistics Austria
EU critics frequently put forward Austria’s position as a net payer. It is, however, questionable, how conclusive the net payment calculation is in terms of an overall assessment since a number of tangible benefits from EU membership cannot be captured by the calculation of the net payment: easier market access and considerable cost reduction especially for export oriented enterprises, participation in education and research programmes and non-quantifiable aspects such as institutionalised peaceful settling of disputes and active involvement in shaping EU law and policy, sharing of experience, cultural exchange and collaboration in many fields, the four freedoms (movement of persons, goods, services and capital), enhanced influence of smaller countries in international bodies.
An obvious example for the impact of EU funding is the development of the Burgenland (the easternmost Austrian federal province) which was entitled to financial resources as an Objective 1 region between 1995 and 2006 and under a phasing-out regime until 2013. A formerly under-developed region, the Burgenland has successfully caught up and is currently, for instance, a pioneer in wind power production in the EU.
In Austria, nuclear energy production has repeatedly been subject to heated public debate. Still a lasting anti-nuclear consensus has been established (and has even become part of Austrian collective identity) as it is perceived as a dangerous and health threatening energy source by the majority. The country’s one and only nuclear power plant never went operational after a negative plebiscite in 1978, but is used for training purposes and research today. Against this background Austrians are very sceptical concerning EU energy policy and populist EU opponents now and again draw on the vague worries that the use of nuclear energy might be imposed – frequently omitting the fact that an important aspect for the interpretation of the EURATOM treaty consists in an agreement by all EU Member States on its’ application. Accordingly, it is for each Member State to decide, if it wants to pursue a nuclear programme or not. However, it also remains a fact, that many nuclear power plants in neighbouring countries are as close to Austrian territory that an incident there could have severe consequences for public health. Naturally, the massive accident in Fukushima in 2011 added to the adverse mood in Austria and led the government to demand stress tests for all nuclear power plants in the EU in order to assess security risks and consequential measures for enhanced safety. Other EU members with a critical stance on nuclear issues supported the initiative and tests were conducted. In spring 2012, a preliminary report from the European Nuclear Safety Regulators Group (ENSREG) to the ministers in charge has been endorsed by all EU member states except Austria, which criticised the tests as not thorough enough.
Considering the EU’s energy strategy the two main driving forces to endorse nuclear energy can be seen in the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and the import dependency on classic fuels. Austria challenges the promotion of nuclear energy as an allegedly sustainable energy.
Genetically modified technology
Public opinion on genetically modified technology is pronouncedly sceptical if not hostile. Already in 1997, a popular petition against it emphasised the widespread concerns regarding the issue.
Hence, the legal framework in Austria is designed to allow for strictly controlled research and, on principle, in compliance with EU law, also for the cultivation of genetically modified crop. However, de facto, Austria’s agriculture remains free of genetically modified technology since a national ordinance of 2001 ensures that only seeds which are not genetically modified are on offer to farmers. The Austrian Länder (the federal provinces) passed Genetic Engineering Precautionary Measures Acts providing for restrictive authorisation procedures. Moreover, there are four national laws in place which prohibit certain GM varieties of maize, rape and potatoes.
Against the background of the critical attitude of the population and the frequent discussion of cultivation and import bans in various member states, Austria together with the Netherlands proposed that the member states should decide for themselves, if they allow the cultivation of GM plants on their territory once they are approved in general by the European Commission. The 2009 initiative was supported by other member states and led to a legislative proposal in July 2010 which has been amended by the European Parliament but so far remains under discussion in the Council. (COM 2010 375 Proposal amending Directive 2001/18/EC as regards the possibility for the Member States to restrict or prohibit the cultivation of GMOs in their territory).
With regard to food containing genetically modified ingredients, consumers have to be informed of GM products by compulsory labelling. For more information in English on Austrian laws concerning genetically modified technology see: Description of Austrian Regulations on Genetic Engineering
Further information in English
Please follow the links below to view more information in English about Austria as EU member on the sites of the Foreign Ministry and the Austrian Parliament: