Euro-sceptics join battle to save schilling

The Deutschmark and sterling might arguably be worth saving from extinction, but the schilling? Imre Karacs says a petition launched yesterday by Jorg Haider seeks a stay of execution for the Austrian currency.
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Euro-sceptics from across the Continent are making a beeline for Vienna. Austrians are about to speak out on the subject said to be close to their hearts: the future of their currency. Nowhere in Europe have the people been consulted on Economic and Monetary Union.

All this week, Austrian voters will be able to sign petitions calling for a referendum on monetary union. If 100,000 signatures are collected by the weekend, they are in with a chance.

The petition has been organised by Mr Haider's Freedom Party, a force sworn to battle alien influences of every kind. Issues such as immigration and Euro-federalism have propelled the Freedom Party to within a whisker of the Social Democrats and conservatives, who are united in government only by their hatred for Mr Haider. At last year's European elections, the Freedom Party got 28 per cent of the vote.

Euro-scepticism has proved a rich seam even in Austria, and Mr Haider intends to mine it for all its worth. His drive to ditch Emu is only the most spectacular of his high-profile campaigns to put Austria first.

"We'd like monetary union to be postponed for three to five years, because we think it has been badly prepared," explains Mr Haider's deputy, Susanne Riess-Passer. Like her German counterparts, Ms Riess-Passer denies she is totally opposed to the euro. "We are in favour of a currency union that is well-prepared," she says. "But not one country really fulfils the convergence criteria at the moment, and no one has found a way of dealing with Europe's 18 million unemployed."

The two parties in the government are euro-enthusiasts, she says, leaving the Freedom Party with no choice but to campaign outside parliament. It is a long shot. According to the Austrian constitution, parliament can - but does not have to - debate the matter if 100,000 signatures are collected.

If it does, the petition's call for a nationwide referendum is certain to be defeated by the governing majority. This is the outcome towards which the Freedom Party is manoeuvring. "The issue has to be discussed," Ms Riess-Passer says. "The government will not be able to ignore it if many people sign the petition."

But the government has every intention of ignoring it, thus serving up a moral victory for the Freedom Party. The additional danger for Euro- enthusiasts is that a massive turnout for the petition could make the call for a referendum irresistible.

It is unlikely, however, that large enough numbers will visit the town halls where the signatures are being gathered under official supervision. Surveys indicate that too few Austrians can be bothered about saving the Schilling.

According to the latest polls, the proportion of voters strongly opposed to Emu is around 13 per cent. Meanwhile, the proportion of Emu-enthusiasts has soared from 44 to 62 per cent since August.