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Anatomy of an Austrian debate

A referendum on the unknown Turk?

Monday 11 February 2008

It is one of the most talked-about events in global politics in years, and the thousands of journalists converging on Vienna to cover it reflect the enormous interest of a world-wide audience. CNN, the BBC and Al-Jazeera have sent teams of reporters to towns and villages across Austria, interviewing taxi drivers in Linz and mountain farmers in Tyrol, asking them “What is it that you fear?”. They are broadcasting live from the Kahlenberg hill overlooking Vienna where, they tell their viewers, the Turks were stopped once before in 1683.

Around the world, the quality press has been reporting for weeks on the run-up to the Austrian referendum on Turkish EU accession. In London, The Guardian writes: “In 1683, Turkey was the invader. In 2015, Austria still sees it that way.” A commentator in The Financial Times notes: “For many Austrians it is as though the Janissaries were even now aiming their cannon at the gates of Vienna.” The Austrian press (“Siege Mentality”, “The Return of the Turks”, “Bulwark Austria”) and the Turkish media (“The Walls of Vienna”, “Will Vienna fall?”) are awash with military metaphors.

An Austrian Referendum on Turkey in 2015

Everywhere they go, foreign reporters are asking: Why Austria? It is a natural question. This is not Switzerland, and referenda are not part of the country’s normal politics. In fact, there have only ever been two previous referenda in Austria: one on nuclear power, and one to decide on Austria’s own accession to the EU.

Nor have Austrians been asked in previous decades to vote on the accession of any other candidate for EU membership. Turkey is therefore an exception. And so is Austria, once France changed its constitution in 2010 to allow parliament to ratify treaties of accession. During the long years of negotiations, Austria and some other countries have secured permanent exceptions to protect their labour markets. Yet that hardly figures in this referendum debate in 2015.

Instead, what the media corps sees is a small, wealthy, overwhelmingly Catholic country voting on the fate of a large, less prosperous and overwhelmingly Muslim one. Political posters everywhere evoke the clash of civilisations: there are countless pictures of headscarves and minarets, references to the Sharia, Muslim hordes and terrorism. The right-wing Austrian Freedom Party and its blue-eyed leader have become household names from Jeddah to Jakarta. Its activists enflame tensions, accusing the Prophet of having been a child-molester. But they are not alone: the Christian Democratic mayor of Graz also tells the press: “Graz has a long history of fighting the Turks. Today, we continue this fight with different means.

There has never been any doubt about the outcome of the referendum. For more than a decade, Eurobarometer polls have recorded no more than 10 percent support among Austrians for Turkish accession. With the exception of the Green party, all political parties represented in parliament have campaigned for a ’no’ vote. It is the inevitability of the result which fascinates some (and shocks others). Vienna 2015 will replace Vienna 1683 as a global metaphor for the eternal confrontation between Christian and Muslim Europe.

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