Austria is still sceptical about sanctions, but it will not challenge the bigger EU states without support.
Last week was fairly successful for Austria. In the skiing world championship in Beaver Creek, Austria scored highly: its athletes won nine medals (five of them gold), putting the country in first place in the medal totals ahead of the United States, Slovenia, and France. As skiing is a central part of Austria’s public life as well as Austrian identity (much like soccer in Germany), this is the kind of news that Austrians pay attention to and care about. Then, there is politics. It should not be surprising that the Chancellery in Vienna had by 16 February not yet issued a press statement on the second Minsk Agreement, but had already issued two written congratulations to the Austrian skiers.
Austria is again among those who are sceptical on sanctions. On 10 February (even before an agreement was reached in Minsk), Chancellor Werner Faymann said that “the sanctions have achieved nothing and are an obstacle to Austria’s economic relations with Russia. We don’t want to build up a wall against Russia either.” The statement not only reflects how far Austria stands aside from the European consensus, but also shows how deeply pro-Russian feelings are entrenched in the Social Democrats’ political thinking.
Societies in Central and Eastern Europe are more (socially) conservative than those of Northern or Western Europe – and the Kremlin is finding it easy to tap into this widespread feeling of unease.
The reasons for Austria’s reluctance to confront Russia have not changed since autumn: they include economic, political, and ideological concerns. We have to accept that societies in Central and Eastern Europe are more (socially) conservative than those of Northern or Western Europe – and the Kremlin is finding it easy to tap into this widespread feeling of unease with a “too liberal, too Protestant, and too postmodern” Europe. This applies to Austria’s Freedom Party (FPÖ) as well as to the Social Democrats and the Greens, who are much more inclined towards anti-American sentiment than are most other European leftist parties.
After 2004, Austria’s foreign policy fell into a steady decline. European Union and NATO expansion reshaped the European order, and Austria – which had in the past been a frontline state – became a state located securely at the heart of the Euro-Atlantic area of stability. Austria does not face any direct threat or political challenge. Therefore, instead of conducting foreign policy, Austria takes care of its businesses – and in this, there is not much difference between Austria and the other Central European states. The decay in Austrian foreign policy is well illustrated by the difference between the intellectual profile and the influence on domestic politics of the current foreign minister, Sebastian Kurz, as compared to that of his counterparts in the 1990s, Alois Mock and Wolfgang Schüssel. In terms of military security, Austria was a free rider during the Cold War and has little inclination to change now.
Is Austria a danger to European foreign policy or European cohesion?
Is Austria a danger to European foreign policy or European cohesion? In the aftermath of the summit held on 29 January at Slavkov (Austerlitz) between Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka, Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico, and Chancellor Faymann, speculations about a possible pro-Russian alliance in Central Europe soared. (If Hungary’s Victor Orban were a Social Democrat, he would have been very welcome in this club). The Austrian chancellor criticised sanctions in individual press statements and sought support for his stance. However, no statement on sanctions was made in the official declaration.
So far, not one of the smaller European states has dared to challenge Germany or the big European states on sanctions policy. The new government in Greece has added another sceptical small state to Europe’s political landscape. But for very different reasons, each of the smaller states needs Germany, France, or Poland in order to advance their own interests. For that reason, they refrain from challenging them on a key issue. On the other hand, if one of the larger states were to challenge Germany or Poland on the sanctions issue, serious disagreements within Europe could be expected. If that were to happen, those small, dissatisfied nations could hide behind a bigger state and dodge the blame for undermining the European consensus. But in the near future, this outcome seems unlikely.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.