Page last updated at 09:51 GMT, Saturday, 30 May 2009 10:51 UK

In search of Europe: Austria

Many Austrians are deeply suspicious of the EU, the BBC's Jonny Dymond reports, as he tours the continent ahead of next month's European elections.

Austria is a big central European paradox. Its language links it to Germany. Its culture links it to Italy. Its former empire links it to Hungary, the western Balkans, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. It is difficult to imagine a place more plugged into Europe.

BBC correspondent Jonny Dymond

I'm Jonny Dymond and I've said goodbye to the BBC Brussels bureau for the next few weeks. I'll be taking the temperature in nine EU member states before the European Parliament elections on 4-7 June. I'm going to ask voters what they think of the EU and what their priorities are. Join me on the trip!

And it is difficult to find anyone with a good word to say about the EU.

Down in the 10th district of Vienna the fast food joints rub shoulders with cheap jewellery stores and mobile phone shops. It's a working class area with a high immigrant population.

At an outside table in a cafe in a market, Horst Glasner and Hans Bubnik are settling into a fairly liquid lunch. As they drink white wine they bite into fat pickled cucumbers sold from a barrel at a stall a few metres away. Both men are retired. Neither have anything but contempt for the EU.

"We have a bit of a problem with the whole thing," says Horst. "The problem is that the EU is not honest. They cheat on us a lot. This is the big problem."

"The problem is that everything has become more expensive," says Hans. "Since we joined the EU everything has been a third more expensive."

Poster for centre-right OeVP
There is no shortage of election posters on Vienna's streets

Horst finds another problem.

"Every country is in a different situation. The EU must look at the individual conditions. And this is the big problem."

"This is why you have the representatives," adds Hans.

"Unfortunately they don't do enough," complains Horst.

All around the market place these views are echoed. Four rubbish men, pushing at the detritus of the day, are all negative.

"The EU tells us what to do, everything gets more and more expensive," says one.

"All the ideas they have, the cucumbers, the lightbulbs… Austria should leave the EU," says another.

"We don't need the EU," chips in a third.

"Switzerland has done it right," concludes the fourth.

The pedestrianised street back to the U-Bahn is lined with election posters. Thanks to what must be some generous state funding, Vienna has far more of these than any place I've visited so far.

Freedom Party leader Andreas Moelzer (left)
Andreas Moelzer links the spread of Islam in Europe to EU policies

The centre-right Austrian People's Party (OeVP) calls on people to "Vote Europe and Strengthen Austria". The centre-left Social Democrats (SPOe) promise an "'A' team for Europe".

And the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) calls for "Real Representatives instead of EU Cheats" and "Our Country in the hands of Christians," over the slogan "Payback Time".

In one of the grand basement rooms of Vienna's enormous town hall, Andreas Moelzer, the Freedom Party's lead candidate in the elections, speaks to his audience of 150 or so pensioners about the asylum seekers who never go home, scrounging foreigners and an overcentralised, meddling Brussels.

The claim, made by political opponents after his party ran an advertisement opposing Israeli entry to the EU, that the Freedom Party is anti-Semitic is, he says, "nonsense…the discussion [about Israeli accession] was already there".

But Islam is a different matter. "We are opponents of Islam, we are very strong opponents of Islam." It is not, he says, a religious dispute, but a cultural issue.


Jonny Dymond in Austria, "the great European paradox"

Some in his audience are more extreme. In the question and answer that follows his speech, one speaker talks about how Turkish women are using their fertility as a weapon. Another says the answer is sterilisation. There's some nervous laughter, but it didn't seem like a joke. Mr Moelzer makes no comment, offers no rebuke.

The FPOe has bobbed up and down in the polls over the past few years. In 2004 it picked up a measly 6% of the vote. But last year in local elections it soared to 18%. And now it seems to be dominating the debate in the European election, largely because the major parties have so little to say to an electorate unwilling to be enthused by the EU project.

"Unfortunately Austria joined the European Union at the very time that the negative effects of the globalisation process began to hit this country," says Hans-Peter Martin, independent Austrian MEP and author. That, he says, led people to associate the problems springing from globalisation with the EU.

"And, as far as the EU is concerned," he goes on, "there have been a lot of expectations when Austria joined, and most of them have not been met. There were unsubstantiated promises that everything would become cheaper, everything would be safeguarded at the same time, and that has not been true."

The analysts are wary of calling this election. But on one thing nearly everyone, from pro-European pressure groups to parliamentary candidates, agrees. The Austrian people and the EU do not get on at all right now. And that must play to the benefit of the Freedom Party and its candidates.

Jonny Dymond's route across Europe
4 May - France
8 May - Ireland
12 May - UK
16 May - Sweden
21 May - Latvia
25 May - Poland
29 May - Austria
2 June - Italy
5 June - Germany

Jonny's response to your comments:

Both Stefan Wrba and Michael in Vienna complain that I have gone out to highlight the worst of Austria and that by choosing to visit the 10th district in Austria I went to an unrepresentative part of the city. Alastair Gunn in York in the UK asks where my coverage is of the mainstream parties, the centre right OVP and the centre left SPO?

On the question of political emphasis, the original idea of the piece was to look at another fairly sceptical country and to try to work out what made it tick - the contrast I thought between 'island' Britain and 'heart of Europe' Austria being an interesting one.

But by the time I got to Austria it was pretty clear that there was another important story, allied to the one about apathy - about how a pretty drab campaign had been "hijacked" by the Freedom Party. Since 2000 Austria's far-right has been a topic of international interest. It would have been odd to have gone to Austria and ignored it. I like to think that the balance of the article is about Austrian scepticism and its roots. If it gives a different impression I am sorry.

As regards where I went to seek out opinions, journalists are not opinion pollsters and make no claim to scientific balance. That's why it is important in general to name and describe the areas that we go to, so that readers, listeners and viewers can know that it is a specific slice of opinion, rather than a general one. Had those I talked in the 10th all proclaimed their love of the EU and started singing Ode to Joy over the pickled cucumbers I would have thought again and would have probably tried another area. But they very firmly confirmed the polls that are regularly made of opinion in all EU countries, and the discussions that I had with Austrian analysts and politicians of every stripe. So it certainly didn't feel like a misrepresentation. There are always more places to go, and I wish I had the time.

I also believe quite strongly that it is important to give readers a chance to hear from people who probably don't get heard from most of the time.

Another serious point comes from Matt in London/Vienna - that Austria is actually three very different regions. I've done my best to avoid capitals in this trip around Europe. But the smaller the country the greater the temptation to concentrate on the capital. And I love Vienna with a passion that may not be reflected in the article, which probably reflected my choice of location! But I think Matt makes a hugely important point about European coverage everywhere; London is not the UK, Paris is not France etc etc. Take a look at the map of this tour and decide whether I have successfully battled against "capital-centricity".

I appreciate that there are some (perhaps many) like Stefan who see Hans-Peter Martin as a populist who rants and raves; I found him a pretty thoughtful guy, despite his misguided passion for Arsenal. When I spoke to him he could have told me that Austrians disliked the EU because it was wasteful and corrupt (the campaign he is famous for as an MEP). He didn't - he gave a rather different analysis, which I hope I summarised correctly. But maybe he comes across very differently in local media.

Finally, Michael in Berlin and others point out that Austria is not 'culturally Italian' - I think I wrote that it shared a culture with Italy, which may be seen as cheating a bit because which country in Europe doesn't? If I gave the impression that Austria was all Vespas and lasagne al forno, forgive me - it was another way of saying that there are cultural and historical ties going back centuries.

Thank you very much for you comments and thoughts, it is an honour to share a conversation with you. Onwards to the elections!

Your comments on Jonny's feature:

I've been in Vienna for getting on for a decade - so have seen a fair amount of ebb and flow in terms of the politics of Austria, including the rise of the odious HC Strache. I always have to laugh at Austrian contempt of their neighbouring countries - after all most Austrians are certainly far from having an Austrian ethnic pedigree. Most have now foreign blood in their ancestry.

Just to clarify though about the stops Jonny takes in Vienna. The 10th district (Favoriten) is a traditionally low-income one, with a high-immigrant population. The Viennese living there tend to have a slightly jaundiced view. A balanced view would have taken in the Kaffeeklatsch brigade and residents of some of Vienna's more opulent districts (e.g. the 1st (Innenstadt), 13th (Hietzing), and 19th). It might also have been worth mentioning that, contrary to very conservative expectations, Vienna has continuously had an SPOe (Social Democrat) mayor since the end of the Second World War.
Michael, Vienna, Austria

That is Austria's opinion but I do not support it. First, Austria should just learn to accept the fact that Europe once again is becoming Europe. If they do not like what their representatives are doing in the EU and the Austrian Parliament then do something about it, go out and vote instead of just blah, blah, blah... Austria should first learn EU laws and comply with them fully, instead of polluting their neighbouring EU member state known as Hungary. So typical and hypocritical of Austria.
Robert, Erd, Hungary

I am a London student living in Vienna. I've been here for about 9 months, and I have gotten to know Austrian society. A beautiful country, with some remarkably forward, and some ridiculously backward people.

Vienna is a bastion of common sense. It is the most relaxed, liberal place I have ever been. Vienna is the political, cultural and economic hub of central Europe. Being the UN's 3rd city, with international organisations such as the OSCE, OPEC, the UN... with a thriving financial center.

But Austria is THREE countries. Those who live in Linz, St Poelten, Vienna, Graz, who have benefited economically and culturally from the EU (Linz and Graz recent European Capitals of Culture). Then Innsbruck and Tirol, Salzburg and Vorarlberg, who have benefited from the rapid expansion of mountain tourism fueled by EU aviation deregulation. And then Carinthia, Styria and Burgenland, who have not seen many great economic benefits from the EU, but have seen an expansion (small) of Slovenes and Hungarians moving into their comfortable, isolated communities (hence Joerg Haider, and the FPO/BZO). This is where ethnic and cultural tensions have been whipped up by fear-mongering political leaders in the FPO or BZO.

But anyway, Austria has benefited MASSIVELY from membership and expansion. Companies like OMV, the gas and petroleum company, have been benefiting greatly through co-operation with Gazprom, as well as Eastern European pipelines and other exploration. Banks such as Erste and Raiffesen have expanded eastwards to become dominant Eastern European financial powers. Faymann's government is reasonably strong, if not entirely singing from the same songsheet.

The thing is Austria is relatively well placed to see this recession through. Car-part industrial sectors have been hit massively hard, but the financial sector is not under threat, and 70% of Austrian energy comes from hydroelectric sources.

The reason for the strength in the BZO FPO vote in the last election was that Austria has a lot of "Alpine Germans" who live in fairly isolated comfortable little communities. When they are told by charismatic political figures like Haider that they should be scared of Turks in Vienna, or Hungarians or Slovenes in the South... they believe them.

But it can never be said that the EU has not benefited Austria massively. If it wasn't for the EU this country of 8 million people would not be able to punch above its weight, which it clearly does.
Matt, London/Vienna

Of course, the view from Vienna is one thing, the view elsewhere in Austria is different. For example, the question of the South Tyrol, ceded to Italy after WWI, was never settled properly until Austria joined the EU: now the borders are open, German is accepted in the South Tyrol and a lot of tension has eased.

One area where Austria HAS benefited from joining the EU is in public transport. The Austrian railway network has been seriously modernised with new, high-speed trains since accession - due to Austria's favoured geographical location as the rail crossroads of Europe. But the Viennese don't notice this, of course...
Robert Day, Coventry, UK

How come you spend most of the article concentrating on the FPO, whilst dashing off the SPO and OVP in one sentence each? Also, why no mention of the Austrian Green Party? Could you try for a little political balance, rather than assuming that Austria is full of unreconstructued Nazis?
Alistair Gunn, York, UK

Quote from Michael: "Austria is not culturally Italian, but rather Alpine German".

Austrians are not culturally like the Germans and the Italians. We have our own culture, with own tradition. The Germans are only a source of money for us, with their loads of tourists.
Michael2, Austria, Salzburg

Great series Mr Dymond, I have really been enjoying your work. It is a pity you can't get to Switzerland, to get an alternative perspective on how democracy can work in Europe.

However, when you go to Verona, be sure to invite your favourite female companion. I was there recently, and the place has become a Mecca of shoe and handbag shopping.
democracythreat, zurich, switzerland

Much as I enjoyed Jonny Dymond's first paragraph, describing Austria as a kind of European melange, the rest of the article falls somewhat short of my expectations. It's regrettable that the author seems to make a point of looking only for right-wing politicians, outspoken critics and ill-informed citizens, and in doing so merely scratches the surface.

Many Austrians' scepticism about the EU traces back to the unfortunate sanctions which 14 member countries imposed on Austria in 2000. Then there is the irritating habit of many national politicians of distancing themselves at home from resolutions they have earlier agreed on in Brussels. Instead of explaining how the EU works, they downplay or distort their involvement in the decision-making and leave the field to populists. Furthermore, if you take into account TV stations and tabloid newspapers like the Krone, which give populists like Hans-Peter Martin a platform to rant and rave about the EU, you might understand the "Austrian paradox" better.

However, it's a pity that, on his stroll through Vienna, Jonny didn't come across one of the many Austrians who see the new opportunities that have come with the EU and who understand that today's challenges cannot be met on our own. Perhaps he should have also talked to young people, who see the advantages of moving around Europe and studying or working abroad. Or to business owners and other economy-minded people, who are aware of the advantages of cross-border trade and a single currency.
Stefan Wrba, Vienna, Austria

I'm sorry to see you won't be stopping in Spain on this "electoral tour".

Spain has never been terribly keen on voting, but when it comes to European elections voter apathy grows to pre-industrial revolution levels.

The problem is simple: Nobody has taken the time to explain why we need the EU, so nobody bothers about it. In Spain at least, voting on June 7th will be a preliminary poll on how the government is handling the recession. Much like in Austria, the only parties that will take anything significant from this vote will be the extremist ones.Nicholas Fry, Jauregui, Madrid, Spain

I think a great many Austrians unfortunately never accepted the enlargement of the EU in 2004. It is one of the very last countries where we are not allowed to seek employment, and Austria tends to treat its eastern neighbours sometimes quite unfriendly. (The pollution of the river Raba, which I am sure would be a criminal act in their own country, the plans of building a HUGE refuse burner next to our national park, no-entrance signs in some Austrian villages along the Schengen border...)

Anyway I am absolutely a PRO European and I am quite sad about the rising eurosceptic tendency. One of my great-grandfathers was killing Italian soldiers during WWI until he stepped on a landmine that crippled him for life. (BTW: he, just like tens of thousands of other Hungarians, was forced to fight for the Austrian Empire against Italy. Hungary never had any problem against Italy in history.)

Today I can travel to Italy, I can enjoy their fabulous lifestyle, their food, their beaches, I have to fight no-one, and no one wants to kill me. How much my great-grandfather would enjoy life in this "imperfect" Europe!
Peter, Budapest

I see Jonny's point in emphasizing that as the dominant state within the Holy Roman Empire of German Nations, Austria was a multi-cultural empire. But let us be clear: Austria is not culturally Italian, but rather Alpine German. A minor quibble to an otherwise accurate story.
Michael, Berlin, Germany

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MEP Seats

  Votes MEPs
Party % +/- % Total +/-
EPP 33.4 -1.4 264 -18
Socialists 23.2 -4.1 183 -26
Liberal 11.0 +1.6 84 +5
Green 7.4 +1.3 50 +9
Left 5.3 -0.6 34 -2
UEN 3.4 +1.6 28 +2
Ind/Dem 2.7 -1.8 21 -15
No Group 13.6 +3.4 72 +3.4
0 of 27 countries declared.

UK Total MEP Seats

Party Votes MEPs
% +/- % Total +/-
CON 27.7 1.0 *26 1
UKIP 16.5 0.3 13 1
LAB 15.7 -6.9 13 -5
LD 13.7 -1.2 11 1
GRN 8.6 2.4 2 0
BNP 6.2 1.3 2 2
SNP 2.1 0.7 2 0
PC 0.8 -0.1 1 0
OTH 8.5 2.4 0 0
SF 1 0
DUP 1 0
72 of 72 seats declared. Vote share figures exclude Northern Ireland as it has a separate electoral system to the rest of the UK
* Includes UCUNF MEP elected in Northern Ireland
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Steve Rosenberg Berlin voters celebrate at party

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