Austria today launched a petition, due to continue through 21 January, that seeks to call a national referendum in a bid to prevent the Czech Republic from being admitted to the European Union if the Czech Temelin nuclear power plant is put into commercial operation. However, all of Austria's major political parties -- except for the junior party in the ruling coalition, the far-right Freedom Party -- are opposed to holding a referendum on Temelin. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele reports on the FPOe's populist attempt to boost its standing.
Prague, 14 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Joerg Haider's far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) initiated the petition over the objections of its center-right coalition partner, the People's Party (OeVP).
The petition calls for the Austrian authorities to hold a nationwide referendum on the Czech nuclear power plant at Temelin, obliging Austria to try to block the Czech Republic's accession to the European Union.
Temelin is some 60 kilometers northwest of the northernmost point in Austria. In 1978, Austrian voters prevented by a slim margin their own country's sole nuclear power plant -- at Zwentendorf, just 45 kilometers from the Czech border -- from ever being put on-line.
At least 900,000 Austrians must sign the petition for the referendum to be held.
Petition signers are asked to agree with the statement: "Through the Federal Constitution, the following is to be ensured: that the federal constitutional organs will be empowered to conclude the State Treaty on the Entry of the Czech Republic into the European Union as soon as the Czech Republic provides a legally binding statement that the Temelin nuclear power plant will be shut down for good and this shutdown is actually accomplished."
An Austrian opinion poll, published in the news weekly "Format," indicates that nearly half of the country's registered voters have no intention of participating in the petition. However, the petition is expected to draw the required 900,000 signatures -- some 15 percent of registered voters. A separate poll, published in the news weekly "Profil," says 80 percent of voters believe that even if the petition proves a success, Temelin will begin commercial operations nevertheless.
In an interview published today in "Profil," Czech Foreign Minister Jan Kavan said he sees no reason why the Czech side should change its stance on Temelin based on an Austrian referendum, adding that the Czech Republic, like every country, has the right to chose for itself what form of energy production it will use. Kavan also ruled out any chance that the Austrian initiative could slow down Czech accession to the EU.
Kavan, however, warned that the petition/referendum "contains anti-Czech elements" which he says could have a negative impact on Austro-Czech relations as well as Austria's reputation in Europe and overseas. Kavan ruled out shutting down Temelin and warned that FPOe politicians are being unrealistic in predicting that Czech parliamentary elections in June will usher in a government willing to shut down Temelin. The foreign minister noted that no major Czech party favors a shutdown.
OeVP leader and Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel recently called on party members not to sign the petition.
Schuessel, quoted by the Viennese daily "Kurier," said: "A signature on the referendum on the whole can only worsen our country's situation." He noted that efforts are underway to push through EU-wide nuclear power standards, and that the proposed referendum would be irresponsible and would push Austria out of the European mainstream. Schuessel accused the Freedom Party of being more interested in populism than reform politics.
But Haider and his FPOe appear to be standing firm on the issue. Haider, who is governor of the southern province of Carinthia, yesterday told a cheering crowd of 2,500 participants at an FPOe conference in Linz that Austria should not be a nuclear testing ground for the Czechs.
"If Temelin is not shut down, then there will be no EU entry for the Czech government, for these Czechs." Haider also denounced Schuessel's opposition to a referendum, saying, "If his reserve toward our petition gets any bigger, he'll soon be introducing a 'Czechia first' petition."
FPOe deputy and Vice Chancellor Susanne Riess-Passer told the Linz gathering, "The only safe nuclear power plant is a shut-down nuclear power plant," and: "We want to show our teeth -- not the teeth of mice, but teeth with pressure that will be felt." Riess-Passer added, "It is solely up to the Czechs to create the preconditions for entry into the EU -- whoever wants to be a member of the community must accept its rules of the game."
Riess-Passer alluded to the 1978 referendum banning nuclear power in Austria: "Also back then, my dear friends, the people in a direct, democratic decision corrected politicians who lacked foresight -- and this chance also exists at present, with this referendum."
Riess-Passer also said that if the referendum is successful, her party intends to reopen talks with the Czech government on Temelin, with or without the OeVP's participation.
EU Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen has repeatedly stated that the EU is not setting policy on nuclear power, as its members hold widely different views on the wisdom of its use. Verheugen has acted as a mediator in talks between Schuessel and Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman on the issue of Temelin. The EU provisionally closed the energy chapter in the Czech Republic's EU accession negotiations in December.
Although the mass circulation Viennese tabloid "Kronenzeitung" is advocating participation in the petition drive on Temelin, the editors of eight other leading Austrian dailies say they oppose the misuse of the petition by a political party and insist they will not sign. Andreas Unterberger, the editor of the center-right daily "Die Presse," declared he would not sign because "nuclear energy is the most ecological form of energy and Temelin is not a dangerous power plant." And Gerfried Sperl of the center-left "Der Standard" says the petition/referendum could weaken Austria's position in Europe by aiming to prevent EU expansion.
Meanwhile, the Czech government has postponed for two months an emergency exercise intended to test Temelin's accident plan within a 13-kilometer radius around the plant. Deputy Prime Minister and Social Democratic Party Chairman Vladimir Spidla said the postponement was intended to keep the exercise from being exploited by Austrian politicians while the petition is being circulated.