EU? Austria Not So Sure

More support it, but more have also decided against it

News | Vera Mair, Maruska Strah, Dardis McNamee | May 2009

One month before the elections for the European Union Parliament, knowledge about the EU is more important than ever. The issues on the main agenda will influence everyone’s lives in both new and old member states. However, a widespread lack of information among Austrians about the EU – both programs and powers – appears to translate into a deep skepticism towards the Union and its bodies.

It’s not that everyone is against it: Just under 40% of Austrians believe that the EU is a good thing, according to the EU’s Eurobarometer No. 70, the statistical assessment of the public opinion in the EU and its member states, published in Fall 2008. Although 66% voted in 1994 to join the EU, support soon dropped sharply and by 1997, just two years after Austria entered the Union, only 34% thought the EU was "a good thing." Since then, support has grown gradually, reaching 37% by 2002, still far below the level at accession.

Negative attitudes however, have resurfaced, with a full 21% now reporting that they think the EU "is a bad thing," a number that had declined to a low of 16% in 2002, down from 24% in 1997. And while more support it than don’t, this figure is lower than a majority and far below the EU average of 53%.

The situation appears to be improving in specific areas, however. The survey also showed that 47% of Austrians believe that the European Union benefits them, and that the country is more stable economically during the financial crisis, because of EU membership.

The trouble is, nobody thinks the EU is listening. A full two thirds of Austrians (66%) believe that their opinions and voices don’t matter in the EU. And while many believe that they have benefited from the EU as individuals, Austrians – along with Italians, Czechs, Bulgarians and Romanians – believe that their country is disadvantaged. Only 43% believe that Austria’s voice matters in the EU, whereas the EU average percentage is 60%.

Rüdiger Morawetz and Helmut Rauscher are trying to change these perceptions. Through their non-profit association Österreich Pro EU, established in 2008, they have undertaken to inform Austrian citizens about the real purposes of the European Union. Morawetz, a film director, prepares educational documentaries and organizes discussions on the European Parliament, the Commission and the European Union in general, held at locations around the country, believing that people would trust the EU more if they knew more about it.

"The average citizen usually has no political background," explains Morawetz. Discussions usually include representatives from the European Parliament as well as Austrian politicians.

"The problem is that people believe all the stupid things written in the Kronen Zeitung," Morawetz said. A prime example for this was the salt crisp Salzstangerl affair: In January, the Austrian tabloid daily Kronen Zeitung, that with a circulation of over three million, has the highest penetration of any newspaper in the world, caused great furor, claiming that the EU planned to regulate the amount of salt allowed on the snack.

"The EU bureaucracy is taking aim at our Salzstangerl," the paper claimed.

This misinformation was soon corrected by other media, as the EU discussions were about restricting the use of labels "healthy," "light" or "natural" entirely to products which really are low-fat, sugar free or low-salt. Still, some damage was sure done. Between this incident and earlier coverage of the EU regulations on the degree of the curve of cucumbers, it is hardly surprising that "bureaucracy" (32%) and "a waste of money" (45%) ranked among the terms most commonly associated with the EU.

Austrians are certainly not alone in this, as percentages in Germany were similar. Other common associations for Austrians were European fundamental rights (50%); "more crime" (45%); and the Euro (58%). This is something officials find particularly frustrating as the Euro is not a feature of membership in the EU, which Austria joined in 1995, but of the European Monetary Union, which launched the euro in Jan. 2002.

It is not just citizens who are ill-informed, though, Morawetz admitted.

"I know of an Austrian delegate in the Austrian Parliament who claimed that the Lisbon agreement was impossible to understand, but at the same time said she hadn’t read it," he recalled. In another incident he "once asked a man why he didn’t want to be in the European Union. He wanted the schilling back, he told me, since everything was a lot cheaper back then."

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