Austrian right finds EU hard to swallow

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The Independent Online
Towards the end of a key television debate on wether Austria should join the European Union, Jorg Haider, the populist leader of the far-right Freedom Party, pulled out a tub of Spanish yoghurt. 'Look at this,' he exclaimed. 'It claims to be a strawberry yoghurt. Actually it does not contain one single strawberry. The strawberry flavour instead comes from lice.'

It was a classic piece of Haider theatrics. And, as so often in the past, it went straight to the jugular. To more than one millian Austrians watching, the message was clear: a 'yes' in Sunday's referendum on EU membership would open the floodgates to 'impure' foreign substances. In Mr Haider's book, moreover, Spanish yoghurt would just be the start. Within weeks of Austria's planned accession to the Union on 1 January next year, the streets of Vienna would be teeming with migrant labourers from Spain, Greece and Portugal on the scavenge for Austrian jobs.

In their wake would come the Mafia crime gangs of Sicily and international drug dealers. And rather than being able to deal with these problems swiftly and effectively themselves, Austrians would by then have cravenly surrendered control over their own lives to the 'undemocratic' bureaucrats of Brussels and the 'freemasons' who control them.

Mostof what Mr Haider says - he is on record as stating that the employment policies under the Nazis had much to commend them - is errant nonsense. But it has struck a deep chord among many Austrians who feel unsure about giving up the cocooned and cosy little world into which they retreated after the war and who fear they may end up losers by joining the European Union. It has also terrified the Austrian establishment: the government, trade unions and employers' federations, all of whom believe that a 'yes' vote is the country's only viable option.

'Arguments about long-term political and economic advantages that will result from membership just don't have the same impact as scare stories about Brussels wanting to take away our lovely Alpine water or forcing us to eat lice-infested yoghourt,' says Annelise Rohrer, political editor of the daily Die Presse. 'The government has tried to appeal to reason: Mr Haider has gone for the emotions.'

Despite what most agree has been a fairly lacklustre campaign, the 'yes' camp is expected to win. Opinion polls suggest that if the turn-out is high, the scale of the majority for EU membership could reach 55 per cent. If the turnout is low - which it may be if the weather is good and people choose to head for the hills - it could be a lot closer. After Denmark's shocking 'no' in its first referendum on the Maastricht treaty, few here would put money on Sunday's result. It is widely accepted, however, that a 'no' here would undoubtedly boost the strong anti-EU campaigns in Sweden, Norway and Finland. They all negotiated entry to the European Union together with Austria and are set to hold referendums on the same issue later this year.

So what, members of the Austrian establishment have been asking themselves, went wrong? When negotiations of the country's EU membership were finally concluded in March, the Austrian negotiating team returned from Brussels to Vienna almost dizzy with what it felt was a great success.

In the weeks since, scepticism and fear of the unknown has grown. Many Austrians have reflected on the good life they lead now and have asked themselves why should it be changed. While negotiation successes, such as subsidies to farmers and agreement aimed at reducing pollution from trucks travelling between Germany and Italy, remain important, attention has shifted more to the cost of joining the Union and the implications it would have on Austrian neutrality.

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