Austrians voice disillusion with joining Europe

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The Independent Online


Andreas Wangler peered into the bright Viennese shop window to check the prices and emerged moments later tutting. "They promised us so much," he said, "but they delivered so little.''

"They" are the Austrian government and the promises were those made just before the referendum last year in which two-thirds of the population voted in favour of joining the European Union.

"They made it sound as though we were going to enter paradise on earth," said Mr Wangler. "Cheaper goods, more jobs, cleaner air and passport- free travel for all. Well, we are still waiting."

Comments such as those have been echoing along the streets of Vienna this month as Austria marks the first anniversary of the 12 June referendum that took the country into the EU at the beginning of this year.

Most Austrians share Mr Wangler's sense of disappointment. Indeed, according to opinion polls, if a referendum were held today, less than 40 per cent would vote "Yes" compared with 66 per cent last year.

The main reason for the change of mood has been the slowness with which Austria's notoriously high prices have begun to even out with those elsewhere in the union.

In the fever of the referendum campaign, the government argued that joining the EU would open the country to competition and knock some 1,000 schillings (about pounds 65) from the average family's monthly shopping bill. In the upshot, although some prices have fallen significantly, most have barely shifted: testimony to the continuing power of Austria's many protected industries and cartels. And, while prices have stayed static, taxes have gone up - something which Austrians were told would only happen if the country chose not to join the EU.

Further disenchantment was engendered by the undignified way in which the governing coalition of the Social Democrat and People's parties squabbled over who should get which jobs in Brussels.

The government, which together with the trade unions and employers organisations campaigned for a "Yes" vote, admits that mistakes have been made and that the 1,000 schillings-a-month promise was a bit wide of the mark.

But it is dismayed that so much attention has been focused on prices at the expense of the benefits that have accrued from EU membership - including some 50,000 new jobs and a dramatic surge in investment from Germany and non-EU Switzerland.

"With all the talk about the cost of milk or technical goods people have lost sight of the fact that we are now fully accepted alongside the other European nations," said Helmut Wohnout of the People's Party. "The main thing is that we now have a voice in the important decisions affecting the continent."

In next year's Inter-Governmental Conference, Austria plans to add its voice to those pressing for a deepening of the union but at the same time a preservation of the rights of smaller nations. It also hopes to be among the first wave of those joining an economic and currency union. If and when the EU agrees on a common security policy, Austria may even consider giving up its long-cherished neutrality.