Austria stops wanting to be alone

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The Independent Online
FOR AUSTRIA, joining the European Union would mark the resolution of a long period of dithering about how to re- establish a role in Europe. Once the heart of a great empire, Vienna became throughout the Cold War a lone, even isolated, voice amid the louder exchanges between east and west. With the fall of Communism, Austrians - who at heart consider themselves West Europeans - sought the security of a larger alliance.

Austria's determination to become a member of the European Union dates from the mid-1980s. It marked a turning away from a longstanding neutrality under which Vienna held aloof from any political or economic alliance - particularly Nato and the EC. This was enforced by the deal under which American, French, British and Russian forces, who entered Austria in 1945 after the defeat of the Nazis, withdrew in 1955. Moscow said its troops would not quit unless Austria promised to stay neutral for ever. The late Socialist chancellor, Bruno Kreisky, turned this constitutional necessity into a virtue, even a crusade.

For 20 years Kreisky fostered detente between Nato and the Warsaw Pact, offered asylum to refugees from dictatorships of all political stripes, and encouraged dialogue with Palestinians, while at the same time offering Jewish refuseniks from Russia an escape route to Israel. By playing the neutrality card, Austria built a reputation as a centre for dialogue and diplomacy and, as the Soviet empire began to fall apart, it hosted several international conferences at which the superpower rivals began to talk to each other seriously for the first time.

Economically, the benefits of neutrality were less clear, and Austria felt itself being sidelined by the changes being wrought in the rest of Western Europe with the forging of the Single European Market. Austria may have been in the shadow of the German economy, but it enjoyed many benefits from an artificially protected market. Residents complained that manufactured products were overpriced compared with those in the EC. But most Austrian firms were content with a degree of state featherbedding. The system of social partnership - pacts between unions and employers mediated by the government - ensured that labour relations were the envy of Europe.

With the collapse of Communism, the speed of which caught Austria, as everyone else, on the hop, Vienna suddenly found itself casting about for a role. The old Habsburg vision of a thriving mitteleuropa was briefly revived and efforts were made to forge cultural and economic bonds with Hungary and other central European countries.

But in the face of political instability and economic chaos on Austria's borders, and of nationalist pressures at home, enthusiasm waned and Vienna began to close its doors, especially to refugees. With the ideals of neutrality and the dreams of mitteleuropa outpaced by events, the desire to join Western Europe and exercise its influence there became more pressing.