Austrian chancellor's EU treaty vote threat


AUSTRIA:AUSTRIA'S SOCIAL Democratic chancellor, Alfred Gusenbauer, has sparked a government crisis by promising a Lisbon Treaty referendum if changes are made to the document ahead of a second Irish vote.

Foreign minister Ursula Plassnik, from the conservative People's Party (ÖVP), denounced the move as "crazy" and did not rule out bringing down the coalition with the "erratic" Social Democrats (SPÖ).

In a letter to the EU-critical Kronenzeitung tabloid, Mr Gusenbauer said the Irish rejection of the Lisbon Treaty reflected "widespread unease about the EU and its politics". The SPÖ, he said, was anxious to restore faltering Austrian confidence in the EU by responding better to people's needs and by including them in the decision-making process.

"We are of the opinion that future treaty changes that affect Austrian interests should be decided by referendum," said Mr Gusenbauer in a letter co-written with his incoming successor as SPÖ president, Werner Faymann.

"This applies too for a possible entry of Turkey which, in our opinion, would overwhelm EU structures." The SPÖ has always had its reservations about the EU, but conservative coalition partners in the ÖVP said Mr Gusenbauer's move was more populist than the far-right Freedom Party.

ÖVP leaders have called on President Heinz Fischer to chair crisis talks between the two parties.

"This is a panic attack at the head of government, an intellectual and political short circuit," said foreign minister Ursula Plassnik, suggesting the SPÖ was using its demand for a referendum to disguise its hostility to the EU.

"This path solves nothing: look at Ireland. On the contrary, it creates more uncertainty instead of trust of the people." Last week, EU leaders responded to Ireland's rejection of the Lisbon Treaty by calling for ratification to continue before revisiting the Irish vote later. Many EU leaders, particularly in Berlin and Paris, have ruled out renegotiating the treaty.

Mr Gusenbauer defended his letter as a response to the faltering image of the EU in Austria. Just 13 years after accession was backed by a two- thirds majority, a recent survey suggested just 28 per cent of Austrians still have a positive image of the union. "Considering this figure it would be a mistake just to continue with business as usual," said Mr Gusenbauer.

In Brussels, Austrian MEPs — even those from the SPÖ — reacted with horror to the suggestion, suggesting the chancellor had seized on the issue to distract from recent domestic political difficulties.