Austrians are deciding this week whether to call a referendum on the closure of a controversial Czech nuclear power plant. The result could be disastrous both for Austria's government and the Czech Republic's EU hopes
The point of dispute
The fact that the Czech Republic has refused to shut down the much-disputed Temelin power plant near its border with Austria seems to be beside the point.
Austria’s rightist Freedom Party (FPÖ) and its former chairman, the internationally-reviled populist Jörg Haider, seem determined to force relations between the neighbors to the breaking point in order to get rid of the power plant.
The structure 50 kilometers from the Austro-Czech border presents a danger to Austrian citizens, they say. Now they are willing to bet their reputation that most of Austria thinks so as well.
This week a petition initiated by Haider and the Freedom Party, has begun circulating throughout Austria. The petition demands the Czech Republic close the Temelin plant or risk losing out on entry into the European Union in the next round of enlargement talks.
If the petition gets more than 100,000 signatures, the Austrian parliament will be forced to take up the issue and vote on a referendum. A higher number of signatures - the 800,000 to 1 million Haider hopes for - could lead to a break between the Freedom Party and the senior partner in Austria’s coalition government, the conservative People’s Party, which is against the closure of the plant.
Such a break could prove disastrous both for Austria and the Czech Republic’s accession hopes. Haider’s Freedom Party, which holds seats on the EU’s parliament, has said it will block the former eastern block country’s entry into the EU.
"In the end, the Czech Republic will have the choice between EU entry or shutting down Temelin," said Peter Westenthaler, the FPÖ’s parliamentary leader after affixing his signature on Monday.
Issue was resolved
Haider called for the petition after Austria and the Czech Republic came to an apparent agreement on Temelin last Fall.
After lengthy talks with an EU mediator, Austria accepted the Czech Republic’s strict safety assurances on the plant. As a nuclear-free country, Austria frequently voiced concern that Temelin’s outdated technology posed a danger to its own citizens. The plant has had to shut down numerous times since testing began in October 2000 because of technical problems. It is expected to begin full operation next year.
In response, the Czech Republic accepted most of a list of 21 safety standards proposed by a group of Austrian nuclear scientists.
Both Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel and Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman said they were content with the agreement.
But Haider was not.
Haider’s populist, nationalist goals
The politician has been a source of exasperation for Austrian leaders ever since his Freedom Party was swept into the government coalition in 2000 on a platform of anti-immigrant, nationalist issues.
His supporters consider him a breath of fresh air who promises job security, a curtailment of abuses in the welfare state and the protection of Austria’s national interests.
His opponents consider the descendant of Nazi party activists xenophobic and dangerous to Austria’s image as open, progressive and upstanding member of the European Union and world community.
The Anti-defamation league has pointed to statements in which Haider defended Nazi Secret Service officers and praised the Third Reich’s economic war machine. Therefore the league said the "rise of Jörg Haider ... is indeed troubling to those who continue to hope for a more tolerant and inclusive Europe."
Following the international wave of scorn that accompanied his party’s rise, including EU sanctions against Austria, Haider has sought to soften his image.
Immediately following the 1999 election, he resigned the party’s leadership. He turned down a position in the Freedom Party’s coalition government with the conservative People’s Party, opting instead to return to his governor’s position in the northwestern Austrian province of Carinthia.
The call for the petition is proof that Haider still pulls the strings of his party’s national presence. In a matter of months he has made the Temelin power plant into a make-or-break issue for Austria’s coalition government.
In a recent poll by Austria’s Profil newsmagazine 86 percent of those polled believe the petition will get at least 300,000 signatures. Of those, 32 percent believed the petition would get between 500,000 and 1 million signatures.
The Kronen’s crusade
Haider’s campaign has been aided, in no small part, by the Kronen Zeitung, Austria’s largest-circulating tabloid. Announcing it was not for the FPÖ, but against Temelin, the paper began a crusade for the petition, splashing the names and faces of Austrian celebrities who supported it on the front page.
Austrian politicians are concerned the Kronen’s influence will encourage more signatures, despite recent announcements by some of the Kronen’s celebrities that they will not sign their names, after all.
Austrian, Czech politicians concerned
Officials from Austria’s three other parties, the Greens, the social democrats and the ruling People’s Party are absolutely against the petition.
The head of Austria's Green party, Alexander Van der Bellen, called the petition "absolutely counterproductive."
Across the border, the Czech Republic has appeared perplexed at Haider’s petition. Government officials said that they have a right to choose which form of energy they use and any concerns about safety they thought had been resolved in the Fall discussions.
"Austria can’t reverse the Czech Republic’s decision," foreign minister Jan Kavan said in an interview last week in Profil.
As the petition got underway this week, Czech politicians reacted with anger to what the consider Haider’s provocation. They warned of the damage the referendum could do to Austro-Czech relations.
"The earlier Austria can get rid of Jörg Haider and his post-fascistic party, the better," Prime Minister Zeman said in an interview with Czech radio on Monday.
Government officials have repeated again and again that they will not close down Temelin.
"You could get more than one million signatures on that petition," Kavan said. "The position of the Czech government will not change."