Austria takes lone anti-Turkey EU stance in Central Europe

Photo: CTK

Turkish politicians were celebrating on Monday after the European Union finally offered the country official talks on membership. After 24 hours of tough negotiations between the EU 25, Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul arrived in Luxembourg, the first stop on a long road towards joining the EU. So where do the politicians and people of Central Europe stand on the Turkey question?

Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul,  photo: CTK
British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw described Monday as "a truly historic day for Europe and the whole of the international community." For once that hackneyed old phrase "a truly historic day" wasn't an exaggeration. After forty long years the EU has finally opened its doors and allowed Turkey to peek inside.

The deal was struck after Austria - the fiercest opponent of Turkish membership - finally withdrew its demand that Turkey be offered something less than full membership. Austria's Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik said her government had simply been defending the views of its citizens:

"We should take concerns people have with regard to enlargement seriously, there's no question about that. I tried with my way of dealing with this situation over the last hours to give a signal to those who worry that certainly we cannot solve all the problems in advance but we're trying to figure out the horizon of the undertaking we are venturing into, and we're trying to give as many safeguards and securities as possible."

And a recent Eurobarometer poll showed Austrian support for Turkish membership at just 10 percent, the lowest in Central Europe. That figure contrasted sharply with the rest of the region. In Poland, Hungary and Slovenia more than half of respondents said they backed Turkey's EU bid. Only in the Czech Republic and Slovakia did opponents outweigh supporters. But that had little effect on Czech and Slovak politicians. Eduard Kukan is Slovakia's Foreign Minister:

"The history of Europe was not formed by referendums. The history of Europe was formed by statesmen and political leaders who were not afraid to take decisions that their citizens didn't agree with."

And Czech President Vaclav Klaus had this to say:

Photo: CTK
"I support the beginning of membership negotiations with Turkey, because I don't like the hypocrisy of several European politicians. They've allowed many Turks and many Turkish politicians to invest all their political capital in EU membership, and saying No to them now would severely destabilise this large and important country. I think a responsible European politician just can't allow that to happen."

So it seems both the politicians and the people of the new member states are more supportive of Turkey's bid to join the EU. The reasons for that vary enormously, but EU observers said the people of former Communist countries might identify better with their eastern neighbours still trying to join - unlike the rich westerners of the old EU 15, the new EU citizens are poorer, they don't pay for the EU and they have more recent experience of life under authoritarian regimes.