Austria takes over the presidency of the European Union on Sunday, just six years after the alpine nation was slapped with EU sanctions for bringing the rightist Freedom Party into its coalition government. Although public support has greatly waned for the Freedom Party, which was accused in 2000 of espousing anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant sentiment, the rest of Europe will be watching Austria's six-month EU leadership with interest and caution. In October, the conservative Austrian government tried unsuccessfully to block the EU from formally opening membership talks with mostly Muslim Turkey. It also has staked out a decidedly "Euro-skeptical" position on further enlarging the 25-nation bloc. "The European Union is certainly not limitlessly expandable," President Heinz Fischer told the Wiener Zeitung newspaper in an interview for Thursday's editions.
"Many of the problems we're struggling with today, including unemployment, are seen by numerous Austrians as connected to EU membership," he added. Underscoring that lack of enthusiasm, a recent EU poll showed that Austrians are the least supportive: Only one in four people in the country of 8 million thinks belonging to the union is a good thing.
Austria's collective coolness toward the EU is sure to color the "period of reflection" that Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik said earlier this month would be a main focus of her country's presidency. Plassnik said Austria, which is officially neutral, would organize debates and special programs, including an initiative dubbed "Europe Listens!" aimed at finding out what European citizens want out of the EU. "We need to look at what we want, how we want to live in Europe," Plassnik said.
What comes out of all that reflection is likely to have an impact on another of Austria's main objectives as the EU's caretaker, restarting debate on the EU's first constitution. French and Dutch voters rejected the accord in referendums last spring. Their repudiation has Europe a bit adrift, since the pact was intended to streamline EU decision-making and bolster the bloc's role on the world stage.
If EU leaders manage to revive interest in the constitution and get all 25 member states in a position to ratify it, "Austria will have had an historic presidency," said Elmar Brok, a German who chairs the European Parliament's foreign affairs committee. Austria takes over from Britain, whose six-month presidency was marred by a bitter battle over the bloc's 2007-13 budget. With the budget issue largely settled, the Austrian presidency will examine whether to admit Bulgaria and Romania in 2007 as scheduled or delay their accession by a year to ensure they meet strict entry guidelines, reports the AP. N.U.