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Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Austria to hold referendum on Turkish EU accession

"What's with Austria?!?" This was how a colleague of mine responded to yesterday's post about the cross-national variation in levels of support for Turkish EU-accession. (Austria is, by far, least supportive of EU member states.) It is a valid question.

And the extremely low level of support for Turkish EU membership in the country has political consequences. Understandably, Austrian politicians are reluctant to take a stand and try to push through such an unpopular issue. The natural - albeit cowardly - response is to "let the people decide." Austrian Chancellor has used the occasion to reaffirm its decision to put Turkey's EU bid before the Austrian people EurActiv Turkey reports:

"Even in the case of a positive decision after the negotiations between the EU and Turkey, we will organise a referendum in Austria on this topic," Faymann was quoted as saying by Turkish daily Hürriyet.
In all honesty, it is overly generous to present this as a response by the Austrian leadership to existing popular sentiments. There is probably an element of this - collective memories of 1683 perhaps - but the two largest parties as well as much of the media establishment is resolutely against letting Turkey in. On this issue, they are as much the leaders of opinion as they follow it.

Of course, Austria is not alone. France has taken a similar position on the issue of referendam, and for Turkey this clearly spells trouble. The accession of a new member state requires the consent of all existing members. Thus, EurActiv phrasing of the Turkish reaction to the Austrian Chancellor's statement - made on the occasion of Turkish President Abdullah Gül's visit to the country no less - is probably somewhat of an understatement):
 The statement apparently left Ankara unimpressed.


  1. It's not a bit exaggerated think that Austrians are thinking in 1683? At least, I want to think that...

  2. I'd prefer not to think so, too. But I don't think that it is an exaggeration that history is "present" in today's discourse. The long answer to your question is in my forthcoming book, which attempts to show the continuing relevance of a long historical legacy.

    The shorter answer is that collective memories are not really what they claim to be: memories. It is perhaps better to view them as sites of contestation or tools to be used in contemporary political struggles. And the Siege of Vienna (and other similar "recollections") are undoubtedly being used in the discourse about the Turkish EU bid.

    Here's a characteristic quote from a debate in the European Parliament that I examine in the book:

    "Europe has a long history of relations with Turkey. Unfortunately, this history consists almost entirely of painful events and acts of injustice. It is a history of constant invasions, wars, massacres and the occupation of central and southern Europe. These were the events experienced by Europeans for centuries. Today, little has changed and Turkey continues to threaten its neighbours."

    This example of a highly selective reading of history - obscuring, among other things, extensive trade and past alliances between the Ottomans and e.g. France or Venice, as well as the extremely hostile and violent relations throughout history between many current EU member states - suggests how such "memories" are being used for political and polemical purposes today.

    (That was the shorter answer...)

  3. I understand what you say.

    I always associate this with the recent past. For example, the political division among the Spanish people because of the Civil War.

    But I am surprised that the impact can endure for centuries.

    The question is: can they over this? As historic enmity between Germany and France was resolved, couldn't Turkey and Austria overcome the obstacle?

    Your book looks interesting indeed.

  4. Hi Javi,

    To that question I have a much shorter answer: yes, they certainly could. And I hope that they do. If collective memories are (in part) tools to be used in contemporary political struggles and not simple recollections of 'real' past events, they are more malleable, changeable. Large parts of today's Hungary, for example, was conquered by the Ottomans in the 16th century but Hungarians are very supportive of Turkish EU membership today.

    Btw, your blog looks interesting, too. I just wish I could read Spanish!


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