Bitter Austrian Activists Over 60 Press Their Government to Retain Military Neutrality and to Exit The European Union
A sunny Spring morning in late March. In front of the shining glass windows of the Haas Haus on Stephansplatz, a grandmotherly woman in a comfy hand knit cardigan and wire-rimmed glasses was shouting into a megaphone.
"Raus aus der EU!!" (Out of the EU!!) She didn’t sound angry exactly; more passionate. "Only 32% of Austrians believe it’s a good thing," she called out. Pay attention, class, for today’s lesson.
Nearby, a half dozen pensioners were hovering around a booth set up in front of a huge banner held up by two polls: "Austritt aus der EU: Überparteiliche Unterschriftenaktion." (Withdrawal From the EU; Non-Partisan Signature Campaign.) Brochures and the EU contract were on sale for only €7 and a documentary about the EU for €15. The long table was covered with papers, DVD´s, brochures, and finally a long list on a clipboard. Several names and addresses were already written in and three elderly women were standing by, pulling in the passersby and urging them to add their signatures to the petition. Some 40,000 had already signed.
"We’ve been all over Austria but so far only one newspaper has written about us," said the woman. Political activists over 60 are apparently not news.
Later that day, around 10,000 people gathered at Staatsoper to show their opposition of the EU, both old and young with signs like "EU + ORF = Mafia," "Volkstimmung statt Diktatur" (The People’s Voice Instead of Dictatorship), "Neutralitat zum Retten; Nein zum EU Vertrag" (Save Neutrality, no to the EU), "EU Vertrag = Vaterlandsverrat" (An EU Contract Equals Betrayal of the Fatherland).
The entire campaign was, in fact, hardly non-partisan, but the work of Freedom Party chief Heinz-Christian Strache and several other right wing politicians under the slogan "Österreich bleib frei!" (Austria, stay free!). It was intended to press the government to retain its military neutrality, lower Austria’s contributions to the EU and hold a referendum on Austria’s membership in the Union. The issue of neutrality has come back to the forefront in the wake of 120 Austrian troops being sent to Chad last December for 12 months to protect aid workers and refugees fleeing violence in the neighboring Darfur region of Sudan. (see The Vienna Review, Feb. 2008)
But after 13 years of EU membership, why do they want to pull out now?
"The EU has brought nothing but problems: the end of neutrality, less self-determination, genetically engineered food against our will, selling off our landscape and environment," the lady at the booth checked off the complaints. "It’s always more money to the EU, and less money for us." According to the Chamber of Commerce, Austria paid €860 million to the EU in 2007 (the actual figure being closer to 470 million). "That’s interesting," I said politely, and asked her name as I noted down the figure. She changed the subject.
The FPÖ had hoped to collect a minimum of 100,000 signatures, a goal they more than reached according to EU business webpage a few days later, citing Interior Ministry reports that the petition had been submitted with 258,277 signatures. The success of the petition requires the Parliament to debate the question, however they are not required to take action or to order a referendum. The petition was less successful, however, than the two previous neutrality initiatives in 1996 and 2000.
Party officials are less than pleased that the issue was back on the table, just as the dust had finally seemed to settle following the French and Dutch "no" votes on the EU Constitutional Treaty in 2005. ÖVP General Secretary Reinhold Lopatka called the petition "unnecessary and expensive," saying it would cost taxpayers €2 million in government time and trouble.
This did not seem to faze the activists. The pensioners have been traveling all across Austria to inform the public about their issues with the EU. When they had finished in Vienna, they planned to go back on the road, on an enterprising tour including stops in Innsbruck and Graz, all detailed on the handy maps available to anyone interested. The profits from selling the Anti-EU merchandise will help cover their traveling cost. People are welcome to join them at any point along the way, they say, and youth was apparently no barrier. All in all, it seemed like a very friendly affair.
"This demonstration is without violence in any form," one of the pamphlets assured me. "Austria is a land of culture; we don’t need to express ourselves with tomatoes, eggs, or other extremes actions."
And whether they like it or not, Austrian officials have been forced to listen.