EC's hopefuls fear delays will imperil entry

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THERE IS a 'slow but systematic erosion of support' in Austria for joining the European Community, according to Peter Jankowitsch, an Austrian MP and a former foreign minister. 'The EC has to pay a price for keeping Austria waiting,' he warned yesterday.

Mr Jankowitsch represents one of four countries - Austria, Sweden, Finland and Switzerland - which hope to join the EC by the end of 1995. At the Lisbon summit last weekend, the Community's 12 heads of government agreed that Denmark's rejection of the Maastricht treaty should not keep these aspiring new members out. Preparatory work on their applications, the 12 agreed, should start under the British presidency; then, when the Maastricht treaty has been ratified and the EC's five-year budget agreed, formal negotiations can open.

Each of the four countries has made it clear that it plans to carry on with its application regardless of the Danish setback. But the danger - both for them and for the Community - is that public support in these countries for membership may melt away while diplomats pore over the fine print of accession treaties. That danger appears particularly acute in Austria, which applied for membership as far back as 1989.

For the four, EC membership is a natural successor to membership of the European Economic Area (EEA) a free-trade zone combining the 12-member EC and seven other European countries. Under the treaty earlier this year that established the EEA, its non- EC members have to accept many Community rules on trade and business without having the right to change them. Having undergone two-thirds of the trouble of joining the EC outright, they have decided they ought to be represented as well as taxed.

For the Community, the addition of four new members means more economic clout in the world, and - because the four are all richer than the EC average - more money for the budget. British diplomats have calculated that even without Switzerland, the new applicants would contribute a net pounds 2.1bn a year to the EC's coffers.

The Danish 'no', however, has brought into focus public fears in the four states that citizens from small countries get a raw deal inside the EC. Too many Austrians, Mr Jankowitsch says, 'have the impression that the European Commission rules with an iron fist', and that so extensive are the Commission's centralising powers that they will pay their taxes not in Vienna but in Brussels.

The job of both the Community and the governments of the aspirants is to lay such fears to rest. That is why the Austrians and the Swiss are pleased to find that Britain sympathises with their wish to see European power decentralised. 'We are a federalist country,' said Jacques de Watteville, of the Swiss mission to the EC yesterday. 'We would like to see decisions taken at the lowest level possible. This is our daily preoccupation.' The new European buzzword of 'subsidiarity' slips as easily from Austrian diplomatic lips as from British.

How the EC treats the Danes is likely to be an important factor in changes in public opinion in these countries. 'If at the end of the year, the EC tries to impose something on Denmark by force, that will be very badly seen in Switzerland,' said a Swiss diplomat last night. 'A fair solution for Denmark, and a constructive dialogue, on the contrary, might have a very positive effect: people will see that a small country can still say no.'

Of the four, Switzerland has the greatest support for its application: some 61 per cent, according to a poll taken before the Danish referendum. Support in Austria remains at around 50 per cent, but the number of those undecided appears to have risen from about 10 per cent to almost 40 per cent.

In Sweden, however, where many fear the generous public sector will be endangered by EC membership, there will be an uphill battle: in May, a poll showed almost 36 per cent against joining the EC, and 31 per cent in favour.