"Coalition parties have agreed to go for a referendum if Turkey's accession talks are concluded in favour of a decision to prepare a membership agreement," Austria's Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik told the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on Saturday (23 August).
"And they have a good reason for that: Turkey's membership will bring a new dimension to the European integration and the EU," she added.
If Austria indeed decides to push for a public vote on Turkey's EU accession, the chances are high that citizens would vote against it, as polls repeatedly reveal that Austria is the bloc's most Turkey-sceptic member, with disapproval ratings as high as 80% (see our Links Dossier on public opinion on Turkey). However, membership talks with Turkey are unlikely to be concluded before 2014.
It also remains to be seen whether the referendum pledge would be maintained by the new government, which will be most likely be elected in September. New elections became necessary after the current government, made up of Social Democrats and the conservative Austrian People's Party, collapsed over disagreements on how to reform the health system and a statement by Prime Minister Alfred Gusenbauer regarding holding referenda on future EU treaties (EurActiv 07/07/08).
Andrew Duff, a British Liberal MEP and vice president of the Parliament's EU-Turkey Joint Committee, urged not to pay too much attention to the Austrian proposal, dismissing it as "part of the Austrian election campaign".
Talking to EurActiv, he nevertheless admitted that the pledge did not come as a surprise as Austria had a long-standing, historically-rooted aversion towards Turkey, which means parties in Austria often resort to making the country a political issue.
Turkey-critical campaigns are not a uniquely Austrian phenomenon, but also very popular in countries such as EU heavyweights Germany and France. In the latter, President Nicolas Sarkozy has repeatedly stated that he does not consider Turkey to be part of Europe, while in Germany, the ruling coalition of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats is divided on Turkey's EU prospects.
While the latter are in favour, saying that the bloc would benefit from Turkish membership, the party of Chancellor Angela Merkel follows Sarkozy's line. Both Merkel and Sarkozy are in favour of offering Turkey a privileged partnership with the EU instead, which Turkey rejects as insufficient.