Why Cameron should bother to visit tiny Austria

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David Cameron

David Cameron hosts an NHS Reception at Downing Street, November 23, 2015. [Number 10/Flickr]

London and Vienna see eye-to-eye on a range of issues regarding Britain’s demands for EU reform, including limiting child benefits for the families of EU migrants. But the good relations are not enough to reconcile the conflict over another hot topic: nuclear power, writes Dr Melanie Sully.

Dr Melanie Sully is a British political scientist and director of the Vienna-based Institute for Go-Governance. This article first appeared in the Wiener Zeitung, Vienna.

So far, contacts between Vienna and London have taken place only at ministerial level. Foreign Minister Philip Hammond was in Vienna and his counterpart Sebastian Kurz paid a visit to the UK.

Britain is trying through soft diplomacy to gain support in the European Union and get concessions vital to win the upcoming in/out referendum on EU membership. Vienna plays a secondary role in all this and the top destinations to date have understandably been Paris, Berlin and Warsaw.

With Angela Merkel, Cameron has mounted a charm offensive often seemingly playing the role of a nephew who should be kept in the family but can often be rather irritating and keeps asking for more pocket money. But his idea of quotas for EU-migrants was soundly slapped down by the German Chancellor and Cameron abandoned the idea without a fight.

With France, the UK has an historic tense relationship but in times of need has stood like good comrades side by side. After the terrorist attacks in Paris on November 13, the solidarity was unwavering and unhesitant and Cameron even ventured a sentence or two in French as Churchill and Blair before him with varying degrees of success.

In Poland, many see the UK see as the country that fought against repression and tyranny and whose pilots fought heroically in the all important Battle of Britain. But relations of late have been rather strained with the Conservative’s government desire to curb welfare benefits for EU migrants which would hit Polish workers in the UK especially hard. Of all EU countries, migration from Poland is one of the highest in the UK.

But what about tiny Austria? The country’s entire population does not even add up to the population of London. So what expectations does the British Prime Minister have as he touches down in Vienna, the beautiful city of music and culture?

Well even little Austria has a voice in the EU. And during bilateral talks between the two conservative foreign ministers, it became clear that there was common ground on issues such as cutting child benefits paid to families of EU migrants. Cameron’s idea of making people pay in to state coffers for a time before drawing out is also appealing to some Austrian Conservatives. And even the rather nebulous concept of subsidiarity rings positively in Vienna and London—more rights for national parliaments, after all, cannot be so bad.

But the good relations between the two foreign ministers is not enough to reconcile the conflict over another hot topic: nuclear power.

Unlike Austria, the UK has no real misgivings about the peaceful use of nuclear power despite the Windscale accident at the end of the 1950s. There are no mass protests and one solitary Green in the House of Commons. Those who might be concerned worry more about the costs than the safety.

Austria, however, has mobilised its forces against UK plans to build a new nuclear reactor at Hinckley Point C in southwest England. It has even taken the matter to the European Commission for legal action. For the Social Democrat Chancellor Wolfgang Faymann, such reactors do not have a place in Europe today and Austria has also protested against state subsidies.

Austria opted out of nuclear energy in a referendum in 1978 and is sensitive on the topic. So Faymann can be sure of popular support in his crusade to halt the plant. For Cameron, an end to the project would spell disaster and possibly also give those seeking to leave the EU ammunition to expose Europeans as interfering in matters of national concern.