Anti-Temelin petition signed by close to a million Austrians

AKW Temelin

Nearly one sixth of Austrian voters signed a petition launched by the country's junior coalition Freedom Party to veto the Czech Republic's entry into the European Union, unless it shuts down the Temelin nuclear power station. Although the petition is not legally binding, it gives the Freedom Party the right to take the issue up in Parliament. Dita Asiedu looks at the implications this new development has on Czech-Austrian relations...

The last few days have seen a great deal of friction and a war of words between Austria and the Czech Republic, with both countries awaiting the results of the petition. The final 915 220 signatures have resulted in the easing of tension, although reaction to the developments has been mixed. Within Austria, Joerg Haider's far-right Freedom Party is satisfied with the results, many people are surprised by the high number of signatures, whilst the ruling coalition People's Party and the opposition Social Democrats concentrate on the number of people who did not sign - some 85% of the electorate. The Czech Republic too has chosen to highlight the 85 %. According to Czech government spokesman, Libor Roucek, the petition's results are a cause for celebration:

"We can say that it is a defeat for the Austrian Freedom Party. If we look at the last Austrian federal elections, the Freedom Party - which organised the current petition - received 27% in those elections. Yesterday the final count was 15.5%, so we can say that it is a clear defeat because not even all the sympathisers of the Freedom Party came to the ballot books. We expect that the issue will be discussed in Parliament but that the pro-European forces co-operating with the Czech Republic will prevail and will reject those demands presented by the Freedom Party."

The Chairman of the Czech Parliament's foreign affairs committee, Lubomir Zaoralek , however, looks at the petition with more caution:

"I agree that Prime Minister Zeman's proclamations could have contribute a little to this result. Austria started off with an anti-Czech hysteria and it is very important for the Czech side not to have this hysteria repeated. I am convinced that what we need is to know that Austria is our future partner in the European Union and we have to find a way to co-operation. That is why I would like to contribute to a change of this atmosphere and the style of communication."

Despite the turbulence of the past week, Government Spokesman Libor Roucek does not believe that Czech-Austrian relations will be affected:

"If we look at the broader picture of bilateral relations between the two countries, we can say that these relations are excellent, in spite of the issue of Temelin, the Freedom Party and Mr Haider. We need to look at economic relations, the trade exchange which grows by more than ten percent a year. Austria is our third or fourth major trading partner and investor in our country and we can say similar things about cross-border co-operation, cultural relations and so on. I don't think that this issue will have a lasting impact on overall Czech-Austrian relations."

To many Austrians, the petition was a little too harsh and was viewed as an attack against the Czech people and not just against Temelin. I spoke to the Foreign Affairs editor of the popular Austrian "Die Presse" daily, Dr Anneliese Rohrer, and asked her what sort of people signed it:

"There are four groups. First, the group of anti-nuclear people, then people who are afraid of the nuclear plant in their vicinity (you had the highest percentage of support in Upper Austria where people felt most affected). Then you had a group of people who are against EU enlargement, a group that went to sign because of Mr Zeman's attacks and probably a fifth group - but not a very significant of people - who wanted to cause havoc in the government."

The petition is not legally binding but, having exceeded the 100 000 signature minimum, has to be discussed in Parliament. Christian Rainer from Austria's Profil magazine does not believe that this could make a significant change in current Czech-Austrian discussion on Temelin:

"The Freedom Party cannot achieve its goals, a binding resolution in the Austrian Parliament, because the Austrian People's Party will never sign this resolution and the Social Democratic Party won't either. It would need a two thirds majority to get anywhere on the constitutional level, which again would be necessary to oppose the Czech Republic becoming a member of the European Union on the European level so it is impossible."

Before the petition was launched, it was quite clear that the Freedom Party would have little chance in parliament. So, with things looking grim for the Freedom Party and its campaign against Temelin, right from the start, what did the Freedom Party want to achieve? According to Anneliese Rohrer, the petition was a political manoeuvre to set the stage for the Freedom Party's anti-EU enlargement election campaign in 2003.

"They're down in the polls - at around 21% - so they have to find new voters to come up with the last result of 1999, which was 27%. I know that they are looking at the people who are against EU enlargement and this is what they are going to capitalise on."