Leading Article: The logic of Austria voting 'Ja'

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The Independent Online
MUCH hangs on Sunday's referendum in Austria on membership of the European Union. Terms judged favourable by the political establishment have been negotiated. It is now for the people to give their verdict. The latest poll suggests that a comfortable majority will say yes, but earlier soundings indicated a much closer result.

Of the four countries whose governments hope to join the EU next January, Austria is the first to stage its referendum. Sweden, Finland and Norway follow, by arrangement, in descending order of presumed enthusiasm. If the Austrians say no, the Scandinavians are more likely to do likewise. Should the first three vote yes, even the ultra- hesitant Norwegians may do so, too.

As usual in such debates, each side has been seeking to scare voters with horror stories about the consequences of ignoring their advice. Austria's post-Second World War tradition of neutrality has been at the centre of the debate. When the Soviet Union and the Allies withdrew their troops in 1955, the Russians made Austria promise to stay neutral for ever. Under successive chancellors, notably Bruno Kreisky, Austria presented itself as a neutral pivot between the superpowers, hospitable to refugees and ever ready to use its various special relationships for the common good. That disappeared when the Berlin Wall came down - and with it the logic of being neutral. Refugees poured in, fuelling latent xenophobia. Freed in 1992 of the odium attaching to its durable President, Kurt Waldheim, Austria needed to redefine its role. Joining the EU looks like the logical answer. With its backing, the old capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire could once more play a key role in relations between Western and Central Europe. Staying out could result in being overtaken politically by the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Poland when they join.

An interesting question is whether, if Austria joins, it will see its interests best served by aligning with Germany - or with other small powers. A side-effect would be to establish German, far less used than English and French, as the language spoken by much the largest number of EU citizens.

Another certainty is that Austria's currently low international profile would be substantially raised. A parallel can be drawn with Ireland, which has gained enormously in political self-confidence from membership. Should Austrians vote for membership, their country will be joining the big league. At last Austrians will be able to shed their feeling of being the perennial victims of forces beyond their control.