Chain of events.

While the rest of the European Union leaders see hope in possibility, the Austrians and many other EU citizens see uncertainty. Considered by many to be the most skeptical country in Europe, Austria was the last nation standing against the other 24 in its prolonged concern over negotiations to integrate Turkey into the Union. However, on Oct. 4, negotiations for accession officially began.

While there is still no guarantee that Turkey will be admitted, the Austrian government had favored an option for “privileged partnership,” in case Turkey falls short of its goals, set by the EU, for human rights, economic and democratic reform. “We have witnessed over the last year that the open-endedness is in danger to become empty rhetoric,” said Austrian foreign minister Ursula Plassnik, in an email to the Associated Press.

Turkey opposed this clause, having waited over four decades since attaining associate membership in 1963, and threatened to back out of negotiations altogether if full membership were not the goal. In perhaps the most quoted statement of the whole ordeal, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Ergdoan, said on Oct. 2: “Either the EU will decide to become a world force and a world player, which would show its political maturity, or it will limit itself to a Christian club.”

Tony Blair, British Prime Minister and current President of the EU, made Turkey a priority of his presidency. In a speech on Sept. 28, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw argued: “Anchor Turkey in the west, and we gain a beacon of democracy and modernity, a country with a Muslim majority, which will be a shining example across the whole of its neighboring region.”

Austria’s got a point.

EU surveys have shown that only 10 percent of the 8 million Austrian citizens favor Turkey’s membership. In the greater EU, the level of support among citizens jumped only to 35 percent, as reported by the AP.

“Austria is listening to the people,” Foreign Minister Plassnik said. Citizens, led by President Wolfgang Schüssel, cited a huge rush in immigration, including cheap laborers which may lead to an increase in Austria’s already 6% level of unemployment, and also the financial burden supporting a poor country of 70 million, the would-be second largest nation in the EU, would bring to the other members.

Austria holds the 3rd largest Turkish minority in Europe at 150,000. In Vienna, that population lives in a “ghetto” sort of status. “The main goal of the Turks living here is not assimilation or even adaptation to the Austrian/European way of living,” says Max* Wachsmann, a jurist and real estate property manager in Vienna. “And I’m not talking about eating Wiener Schnitzel every Sunday.”

He is concerned about the advent of “parallel-societies” with “incompatible cultural heritage and opinions,” citing examples like underage, arranged marriages and ancient family structures with many children. In addition, Wachsmann says many Turkish women are prohibited by their husbands from learning German. Also, and the fact that Turkish children don’t speak German causes problems in public schools.

But what it comes down to, and Wachsmann is emphatic: is M-O-N-E-Y. (“Shall I spell it again?” he asks. E-U-R-O-S.). “The majority of Turks here have low-paid, low-regarded jobs,” he says. “But the Turks profit a lot from our ‘dream-of-any-immigrant’ social system.” As an example, he cites that whole Turkish families can live in Austria from the government subsidized child-support money.

Wachsmann says Austrians pay more than 50 % of their salaries in taxes. “I´m afraid that many people outside Europe and Austria don’t imagine, how ‘good’ our social security system is: everything from complete medical treatment to pension, schools, even university is (almost) free.

He sees a rise in taxes as inevitable. “We are working for a social system in which Turks benefit more than Austrians, working so that Austria can pay the EU, and now working so those sums can be reinvested in Turkey. Me and many other Austrians and Europeans don’t want to work for Turkey.”

“I think if there were to be a referendum in every country in Europe, there would be a huge majority against Turkey joining the EU,” he says. But the politicians are completely caught by left-wing political correctness; they act against their people.”

History lives on.

The Ringstrasse, the main thoroughfare surrounding the first district, marks the wall that once protected the city. But in 1683, surrounded by 140,000 Ottoman Turks, the wall also served to isolate its inhabitants. The epic Battle of Vienna waged on for nearly two months and claimed thousands of lives. By early September, with aid from Poland, the Turks were defeated; the second siege (the first was in 1589) had come to an end, and not just Austria, but perhaps all of Europe was saved from invasion.

Legend has it that the following morning, Viennese bakers crafted half-moon shaped pastries, symbols of the Turkish flag, in celebration of the victory. Those pastries, called Kipferln, can still be found in a Viennese Konditorei (or enjoyed in one of the famous Cafes, also remnants of Turkish invasion).

Dr. Gernot Neuwirth, a professor, now retired, from the Vienna School of Economy and Business Administration (Wirtschaftsuniversitaet Wien), agrees that the majority of Austrian people do oppose Turkey’s ascension. Among them, he says, “there are of course the notorious, primitive, right-wing xenophobes, and possibly some ultra-Catholic religious groups. But certainly also many middle-of the road people.”

Most Austrians agree that the EU simply cannot afford it. With the economy lagging, the recent admission of 10 more members is already straining its resources to the utmost, Neuwirth says. He went on to say that labor unions also fear an increased influx of cheap workers who would take their jobs, especially since admission of Bulgaria and Romania is also waiting in the wings. Though as one would expect, he says, employers feel quite differently about that.”

Another argument is that the US is pushing Turkey's EU membership to gain influence in the EU. The AP reported that the United States strongly backs Turkey’s candidacy, and hails Turkey as “a Muslim country that is not only pro-western, but also secular and democratic. “Neuwirth says some EU politicians are seeing the EU as a potentially strong antithesis to US hegemony. “These ideas lead to EU militarism, he says. “Which in turn threatens Austrian neutrality--a development deeply unpopular with most Austrians.”

Neuwirth says the EU doesn’t seem to have a quick mechanism to practically enforce human rights in a member country. “I’m personally at a loss as to what I really want,” he says, citing that many of the victims of human rights abuses, Kurds and women, are hoping the EU will bring them more rights. “But imagine Turkey,” he says, “after several years of negotiation, becomes a member and then reverts back to human rights abuses. Will Turkey as a member accept criticism or will it interpret it as illegitimate interference by those Christians?”

A Culture of Racism? Or skepticism.

The southern tower of St. Stephens Cathedral dominates the first district skyline. Cafes have tables outside for the summer and whole city smells rich with coffee. The Kaerntnerstrasse is bustling with shoppers. Horse drawn carriages clip-clop down the streets as wide-eyed tourists take in hundreds of years of history.

It is a place that Emma Brockes of The Guardian calls “a land of edelweiss and yodeling and the greatest enthusiasm for far-right politics in Europe.” Whose government, according to a Wall Street Journal editorial, is a “Lederhosen Lobby,” with a “racist and ignorant” ruling class. In the Ottawa Citizen, Keith Spicer alludes to the “ancestral terror of being swamped by people of alien culture and religion.”

But Austria is far from “reliving the siege of Vienna over 300 years ago,” as Gareth Harding of UPI asserts. As the first nation in Europe to recognize Islam as an official religion—100 years ago—Austria is home to 250,000 people of Turkish descent. Indeed, Mr. Spicer, Austria has already been ‘swamped.’ Population demographics show that 10% of the population is comprised of recent immigrants (2001), and 4.2% are Muslim.

Historically a cultural crossroads, a border country between East and West, and an alpine nation with its own unique culture, one must ask whether Austrian reluctance to accept a new wave of immigrants, a large financial burden and a country that has not yet reached EU standards of democracy and human rights is discrimination--or preservation of national identity?

Or perhaps it is just another example of the skeptical nature of the Austrians. And perhaps, that skepticism will pass. Before the Vienna opera house opened in 1969, not just the public but also the emperor harshly criticized its design. The architect, Eduard van der Nuell, fell into despair and committed suicide. Yet today the magnificent building is a cultural icon, the host to each year’s traditional Opera Ball, and the theater for some of the world’s finest performances. It is carefully restored each year, true to the design that was once so disdained.

More tangible examples of political skepticism include Austrian’s reluctance to utilize nuclear power or accept genetically engineered foods.

Conclusion

The Austrian government never officially vetoed the negotiations. “One might say that the pressure on our foreign minister on the part of the remaining 24 was too strong,” Neuwirth says. “The poor girl said she hadn't slept all night.”

But Neuwirth is unconvinced. “The truth was probably that the whole thing was staged,” he said. While the European Union debated over Turkey, the Austrian government held provincial elections, and the conservative party lost their majority in Styria.

“Austria's foreign minister withheld her assent exactly until those elections were over,” Neuwirth says, “and then was happy with the addition of a rather meaningless phrase in the negotiation documents--something like ‘Turkey's accession will be contingent on the ability of the EU to accept new members.’”

This was one of two small concessions by the EU, a clause that assesses the EU’s ability to absorb another country before ascension is granted. “The absorption capacity issue is as important as the fulfillment by Turkey of all obligations of membership,” Plassnik said. “And this is why Austria holds a reasonable and moderate position.”

In addition, the Austrian government strongly advocated on behalf of Croatia, another Roman Catholic and longtime Balkan ally, for membership, and the EU reopened negotiations on Oct. 3.

Austrian opposition leader, Social Democrat Alfred Gusenbauer, calls the concessions “better than nothing,” according to AP. He felt that Austria would not have had to stand alone if they had acted sooner.

Membership negotiations with Turkey, expected to last about a decade, could be stilted. Austrian Parliament Speaker Andreas Kohl expects the membership talks to last 20 or 30 years. “I have the impression that 10 years won’t be sufficient,” he told AP. “Turkey is not ripe for entry.”

On Oct. 7, Ollie Rehn told the EU Observer that Turkey is already dragging its feet over an EU customs agreement that would force it to allow Cypriot ships and planes into its territory.

While some 60,000 Turks rallied in Ankara against the Austrian-proposed “conditions,” not everyone in Turkey is so convinced they want to be a part of the EU. In fact, like the Austrians, they feel that their cultural identity may be in jeopardy. Keith Spicer of the Ottawa Citizen reported, “many Europeans dread wild-eyed Islamic fanatics. Traditional Turks shudder at wide-eyed sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll.”

In a MacLean’s article, Adnan Khan cites the ultra-conservative Fatih district as one major site of opposition. Others, the article continues, are wary that member nations rejected the EU Constitution.

In January, Austria will take over the six-month presidency of the EU. As the negotiations begin to build this “bridge between East and West,” the mixture of skepticism and hopefulness within and between the two worlds might make for a shaky foundation.

PROS/CONS

    Cons:
  • Turkey is not in Europe, mostly on the other side of the Bosporus Strait.
  • Turkey refuses to recognize Cyprus (now an EU member) and has illegally occupied the country since 1974
  • Turkey per capita GDP=$6,772; 70 million people
  • still a long ways to go with rule of law, human rights, women’s rights, religious communities and trade unions (EU observer)
    Pros:
  • progress: abolished the death sentence, gave more rights to Kurdish minority (London times)
  • member of NATO since 1952
  • EU associate member for 42 years
  • improved relations between Islam and the West (London Times)

Sources: Personal interviews (via Email); The International Herald-Tribune; Associated Press; The London Times; The EU Observer; MacLean’s; BBC Worldwide; The Ottawa Citizen; Agence France Presse; UPI; DiePresse

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