Austria Table of Contents

Beginning in 1955, the guiding principle of Austrian foreign policy was neutrality. As part of an agreement reached that year with the Four Powers (Britain, France, the Soviet Union, and the United States), Austria passed an amendment to its constitution declaring that it would forever remain neutral. Specifically, Austria pledged that it would never join any military alliances or allow foreign troops to be stationed on its soil. The commitment to neutrality was seen by virtually all political groups as a sensible step to achieve the complete removal of occupying forces from the country.

However, Austria chose to pursue a looser model of neutrality than that followed by other states, such as Switzerland. Austria joined the United Nations (UN) in 1955, shortly after making its neutrality pledge. Austria did not take neutrality to mean that it should occupy a moral middle ground between the democratic countries of the West and the totalitarian states of the East during the Cold War period. In terms of political and social ideology, Austria was firmly within the community of democratic nations.

A second important principle of Austrian foreign policy was internationalism. Austria was active in many international organizations, such as the UN and its subsidiary agencies. The country was a long-time participant in UN peacekeeping operations. An Austrian medical team served in the Congo (present-day Zaire) between 1960 and 1963, and medical teams and soldiers have served continuously in Cyprus since 1964 and at various times in Egypt and Israel since 1968. Vienna was the home of two UN entities, the International Atomic Energy Agency and the United Nations Industrial Development Organization. During the Cold War period, Austria consistently supported all attempts at fostering détente between the United States and the Soviet Union. Austria's leaders pursued this policy because they realized that heightened tensions between the superpowers would make the maintenance of their country's neutrality more difficult.

Foreign Policy During the Kreisky Era

Bruno Kreisky, who had served as foreign minister between 1959 and 1966, laid great emphasis on an active, internationalist foreign policy during his tenure as chancellor (1970-83). Kreisky's vision of foreign policy was based on the notion that Austria, as a neutral country, should seek to mediate conflicts between countries and stake out independent and innovative policies on various issues. He offered Vienna as a site for many series of negotiations on nuclear arms reductions and other international matters.

Among Kreisky's more controversial policies was his decision to grant informal diplomatic recognition to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1980. This was an outgrowth of Kreisky's conviction that Israel was stubbornly refusing to recognize the legitimate interests of the Palestinian people. The fact that Kreisky was Jewish gave him a certain credibility in becoming so involved in trying to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict. Kreisky further surprised the world by receiving Libyan leader Muammar al Qadhafi in Vienna. He also showed his independent approach with his decision that Austria should participate in the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, despite the boycott of the games orchestrated by United States president Jimmy Carter in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Austria also did not adhere to the economic boycott of Iran organized by the United States after the seizure of its embassy in Tehran in 1979.

During the 1970s, Austria collaborated extensively with other neutral and nonaligned countries in the UN. Austria developed an independent voting profile, frequently joining with other neutrals such as Sweden to press for action on issues ignored by countries belonging to military alliances. Austria also pursued this kind of diplomacy with the nonaligned countries belonging to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

New Focus on Europe

After Kreisky's departure from the political scene in 1983, Austrian foreign policy became more focused on European matters and less on global issues. This shift was caused partly by the increase in tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union, as United States diplomacy under President Ronald Reagan became more confrontational. In this climate, Austria's room to pursue a foreign policy of mediation was more constricted. Concern that the country faced exclusion from the increasing political and economic integration of Europe being pursued by the European Community (EC) was another factor that came to exert strong influence on Austrian diplomacy. The traditional concept of Austrian neutrality had held that membership in the EC was not possible or desirable, even though the EC was not a military alliance. The idea of ceding even limited areas of political and economic sovereignty to a supranational organization was seen as incompatible with neutrality.

As an alternative to the EC, Austria had joined with Britain, Denmark, Norway, Portugal, Sweden, and Switzerland to form the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) in 1960. EFTA was restricted to facilitating trade among its members and did not involve the ceding of sovereign powers. Austria also negotiated a special economic arrangement with the EC in 1972 that allowed for the duty-free exchange of industrial manufactured goods.

By the mid-1980s, the opinion of Austria's political elites had changed in favor of seriously considering the advantages and disadvantages of EC membership. Many argued that Austria could not expect to guarantee its economic future if it remained outside the EC. Two-thirds of Austria's trade was with members of the EC, with the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) by far its largest trading partner. There was also a fear that the country could become isolated within Europe as ideological barriers between East and West were lowered.

A long period of debate among the major parties over EC membership began in 1987, and the cabinet established a working group to examine the issue. It gradually became clear that, despite some misgivings over the expected impact of EC membership in certain areas, the two major parties, the ÖVP and SPÖ, favored applying for entry. The trade unions had some concerns about EC membership's diminishing their strong bargaining powers in the Austrian system of social partnership, but they, too, generally favored joining. There was also widespread concern that the high volume of highway traffic passing through Austria en route to West Germany and Italy was damaging the country's environment. Many Austrians believed that their country's environmental laws were stricter than those of the EC. The priority of protecting the environment led the Green deputies in parliament to oppose joining the EC.

Within the two major parties, there was little concern over the neutrality issue, and government leaders pointed out that although the EC might someday add a military dimension to its structure, for the foreseeable future it would remain primarily an economic union with aspirations of developing greater political unity. The new climate of glasnost in the Soviet Union ushered in by Mikhail Gorbachev led Austrian leaders to expect no objection from Moscow to an Austrian decision to seek EC membership, and this expectation proved true.

The government reached an internal consensus in favor of applying for membership in June 1989, and the following month, Foreign Minister Alois Mock delivered the application to the EC Commission in Brussels. Chancellor Vranitzky emphasized to his countrymen that during the upcoming negotiations with Brussels his government would seek clear understandings on the maintenance of environmental standards and the preservation of Austria's advanced social welfare system. Vranitzky also asserted that the issue of limiting the volume of motor vehicle traffic passing through Austrian territory would be handled separately from the application to join the EC. Austria's application met with a chilly reception from some quarters in Europe, especially from a few politicians who argued that the admission of a neutral country could hinder efforts at coordinating the foreign policies of the EC's members. However, the momentous events of late 1989 and 1990--the freeing of Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Poland from Soviet domination and there unification of Germany--made it clear to all observers that Austrian neutrality would take on a new dimension and might even be jettisoned altogether. The disintegration of the communist system in the Soviet Union in late 1991 further reinforced the impression that neutrality was of little relevance in the new Europe.

In August 1991, after an examination of the Austrian application, the EC issued an initial assessment that was predominantly favorable. By late 1993, negotiations between Austria and the European Union (EU), the organization's name as of November 1993, were continuing over the terms of membership. Most observers expected that the EU and Austria would be able to reach an agreement on Austrian entry and that the country would join the EU in January 1995. The main issues involved limiting international road traffic through Alpine regions because of environmental concerns, subsidies for Alpine farming, and foreign ownership of residences in some parts of Austria. A less certain matter was whether the Austrian government could convince a majority of Austrians to support EU membership. The question of joining the EU will be voted on in a popular referendum because any governmental action that changes the constitution must pass this test. Many opinion polls taken in the early 1990s showed Austrians evenly divided over the merits of joining the EU. In order to ensure approval by the electorate, the Austrian government will have to gain significant concessions from the EU in the negotiations and mount an effective public relations campaign in favor of a yes vote.

Regional Issues

Austria has generally enjoyed good relations with its neighbors, although there have been exceptions. The most notable exception has been its relationship with Italy, which was strained by the issue over Southern Tirol during the 1960s. This largely German-speaking region, which belonged to Austria-Hungary prior to World War I, was ceded to Italy in 1919 as a result of the peace negotiations. Until 1992 ethnic Germans in South Tirol, in the present-day region of Trentino-Alto Adige, had to struggle to maintain the measure of autonomy promised to them by the Italian government. Acts of terrorism directed against Italian targets became a serious problem in the 1960s, and Italy accused Austria of not doing enough to capture terrorists whom it claimed were using Austrian territory as a sanctuary. Austria and Italy eventually reached an agreement in 1969 on a timetable for satisfying the demands of the German-speaking South Tiroleans for cultural autonomy. Progress was slow, but in June 1992 an agreement was finally realized that granted the German speakers a greater degree of autonomy. Although not allowed the right to secede from Italy, the cultural rights of German speakers in Trentino-Alto Adige were enhanced with guarantees of education in their own language, greater representation in the civil service, and the right to go to the International Court of Justice in The Hague without permission from the government in Rome. Both Italian and Austrian authorities have declared themselves satisfied with the agreement.

Austria became concerned as the political stability of its neighbor to the south, Yugoslavia, began to unravel in 1991. As it became clear that the republics of Slovenia and Croatia were preparing to break away from the Yugoslav federation, a disagreement arose within the ÖVP-SPÖ coalition over when to grant diplomatic recognition to the new states. In September 1991, Foreign Minister Mock advocated immediate recognition, but Chancellor Vranitzky preferred that Austria wait until other European governments were ready to take the same step. In the end, Vranitzky prevailed in this debate, and recognition was delayed until January 1992, when the EC recognized the newly independent states.

On other important aspects of policy toward the breakup of Yugoslavia, greater unanimity existed between the ÖVP and SPÖ. Foreign Minister Mock was an early advocate of sending a UN peacekeeping force to prevent bloodshed as the various Yugoslav republics sought to establish their independence. In August 1991, Austria became the first UN member to bring to the attention of the Security Council the fact that large numbers of civilians in Slovenia and Croatia were being killed by Serbian forces. Despite their deep concern about the tragedy unfolding in Yugoslavia, both Mock and Vranitzky are in agreement that Austria's neutrality and its proximity to the fighting preclude the inclusion of Austrian troops in any UN peacekeeping force.

During the 1980s and early 1990s, the literature on Austrian politics in English grew considerably. Austria: A Study in Modern Achievement, edited by Jim Sweeney and Josef Weidenholzer, contains a useful collection of articles on Austria's political system and political parties. Modern Austria, edited by Kurt Steiner, covers roughly the same ground, in some cases in more detail, but is somewhat dated because it was published in 1981. Melanie A. Sully's A Contemporary History of Austria is an excellent treatment of Austrian politics during the 1980s. It is particularly good on the interaction between the parties and their internal problems. John Fitzmaurice's Austrian Politics and Society Today covers roughly the same ground as Sully's book and is a readable introduction to Austrian politics. Politics in Austria, edited by Kurt Richard Luther and Wolfgang C. Müller, contains a collection of essays by Austrian political scientists examining the sociological changes in Austria during the postwar era and their impact on the political system. Readers with a knowledge of German should consult Handbuch des politischen Systems Österreichs, edited by Herbert Dachs et al., which contains a wealth of articles on political parties, political institutions, trade unions, foreign policy, and many areas of government policy. Also in German is the very useful Österreichisches Jahrbuch für Politik, which contains articles by noted specialists and politicians about recent political developments.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress