If Austria works, why change it?: After 40 years of prosperous neutrality, the people decide today whether to join the EU club

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The Independent Online
MARTINA Messner has lived all her life in the shadow of the motorway. When she opens the front door of the pretty little Tyrolean pension where she and her parents work, more often than not she sees lorries looming overhead, roaring to and from the Brenner Pass.

'Who will come to our aid once we have joined the European Union?' she asks mockingly. 'The rest of Europe will hardly be interested in our transit problems, and we will have sacrificed the right to do anything about them ourselves.'

Like many in Steinach, a small town some 20 miles south of Innsbruck and one of many lying directly on the main motorway linking Germany and Italy, Ms Messner plans to vote no in today's referendum on whether or not Austria should join the Union.

She accepts, however, that in the country as a whole she is likely to be in a minority. According to all the opinion polls, Austrians' fear of the unknown (the EU) will almost certainly be outweighed by their fear of being left alone.

A majority - albeit a narrow one - is expected to vote in favour of joining the EU on 1 January next year.

If it does, the government, which had spearheaded a less than 100 per cent convincing yes campaign, will heave a huge sigh of relief. Such a result would also undoubtedly come as a much-needed boost to the struggling pro-EU campaigns of the fellow Efta countries of Sweden, Finland and Norway, where referendums on the same issue are due later in the year.

The Tyrol is a focal point for many of the pro- and anti-EU arguments that have raged in Austria over the past few weeks. With an average of 3,500 trucks passing through the region every day, residents are terrified that open borders with the Union will result in even more traffic, and with it, more noise and pollution.

The government insists that under the terms of membership agreed with Brussels earlier this year, the basic provisions of a 1991 treaty aimed at controlling traffic through Austria would be maintained. Critics, however, say the goalposts have been moved: instead of a 12-year fixed period, the agreement can now be revised after three, six and, finally, nine years - and that in effect Vienna has caved in to the powerful road lobby in Brussels.

'The government conceded the basic principle of the free transport of goods throughout the Union,' said Fritz Gurgiser, of the popular Transit Forum citizens' protest group. 'But that policy is not compatible with the needs of an alpine country such as Austria. The consequence will be the ruin of the quality of our life.'

Another group fearing ruin in the Tyrol is the farmers. With food prices here between 20 and 45 per cent higher than those in neighbouring Germany and Italy, many are terrified that they will go under, once the tariff barriers that have protected them for so long are removed. To offset the losses of income, the government has promised farmers a special payment of 17bn Austrian schillings (pounds 1bn) a year for four years after accession to the EU, and additonal indefinite annual payments of 13bn schillings for restructuring and new investment projects. Such large sums have successfully quietened many of the farmers' protests, but scepticism remains.

Among ordinary Austrians there is a widespread suspicion that, although food products may soon be considerably cheaper, their contents will not meet the high standards that Austrians have come to expect.

The barrage of anti-EU arguments, which have been articulated at the political level by the far-right Freedom Party and the Greens, caught government leaders on the hop. Having initially thought that Austrians would be only too pleased to join the EU, they suddenly realised that they would need a little persuading.

Most of the 'pro' arguments have concentrated on the long-term economic, political and security advantages of joining the Union, and the fact that it would be almost unthinkable for Austria to follow the Swiss example and remain out. 'Like it or not, there can be no splendid isolation for us,' said Helmut Wohnout of the Austrian People's Party, junior partner in the governing coalition. With opinion polls showing the gap between the yes and no camps narrowing, the government, which has been backed by employers' federations, trade unions and most of the media, tried a few scare tactics.

A no vote, it threatened, would mean drastic tax rises and a surge in unemployment.

It would also mean Austrians going to the back of the queue of countries wanting to join the European Union, humiliatingly finding themselves behind the likes of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. In the end, such arguments are likely to win the day for the yes camp. But it promises to be much closer than anyone had imagined and, as in Britain, the arguments may well fester on after today's vote.

'For most ordinary Austrians, the main question comes down to this,' explained Friedel Berger, spokesman of the Tyrol state government. 'Ever since the war, we have worked hard to build this country up, and have enjoyed a steadily improving standard of life. So why on earth change it now?'

(Photograph omitted)