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Jewish World Review / June 16 , 1998 /22 Sivan, 5758

William Pfaff

William Pfaff Austria and Europe's phone number

VIENNA -- Austria takes over the European Union's presidency in July, for its first time, which presents Austria, in its turn, with the problem of providing Europe with a telephone number. Henry Kissinger once appositely remarked that he would believe in ``Europe'' when someone gave him a phone number to call to get in touch with it.

This task is a particular problem for Austria, since it is a small country, a neutral, and is undergoing a self-examination concerning its own relationship with Europe. Austria's anxieties are largely unappreciated elsewhere, and may even seem baroque, but they are matters of strenuous debate.

They are given exposure, sometimes brilliantly so, in the latest issue of the noted Vienna quarterly, Europaische Rundschau. As this is the journal's 25th anniversary issue, it is available in English and French as well as German (Ebendorferstrasse 6/4, A-1010 Vienna).

To summarize (or abbreviate) Austria's self-examination, it asks where Austria today belongs between the west and east of Europe. This would seem very simple to answer, but history as well as current political feelings produce confusion and argument about the matter.

The Austrian emperors were once the sovereigns of the German Holy Roman Empire, which incorporated not only various principalities of German-speaking Europe, but because of wars and dynastic marriages, came to unite them with Spain, a part of Italy, Burgundy, the low countries, and eventually Poland, Bohemia, and Hungary in Central Europe.

Thanks to that, Austria made itself the defender of Catholic Europe's eastern frontier, confronting the Moslem Ottoman Empire, whose troops twice unsuccessfully besieged Vienna. By the late 18th century, however, Prussia was on its way to great power status, unifying the other German states at Austrian expense.

Austria was left a dual monarchy, composed of Austria itself, the Kingdom of Hungary, Bosnia, Croatia, the Czech lands, and Galicia (which included parts of modern-day Poland and Ukraine). In 1910 the population was 50 million people. (Britain at the time had 45 million inhabitants, and Germany 65 million.)

Vienna was the cultural and educational as well as the political and economic center of this multilingual empire -- a westernizing influence on the rest, but at the same time one whose domination provoked nationalist reactions. The world war destroyed the system: that, and Woodrow Wilson's crusade during the Versailles treaty negotiations to give national self-determination to all the Hapsburg peoples.

From being a great multinational empire and Western Europe's bridge to the East, Austria was turned into a small German-speaking state of 6.5 million people with no apparent reason for independent existence. Thus Hitler could and did take it over.

After the second world war, when the Soviet Union withdrew its troops in 1955, Austria reclaimed independence, becoming a formally neutral country in the Cold War, but once again a frontier country, on the Warsaw Pact's front line.

Now Austria is a member of the European Union, although not of NATO. NATO's expansion is a very controversial matter in Austria, since all three countries expected to be incorporated initially -- Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Poland -- are Austria's neighbors, and all were at one time or another part of its empire.

All of them are also candidates to become members of the European Union, and have begun preliminary negotiations with Brussels. Where does that leave Austria?

Uniquely placed, as one might say -- but uniquely placed to do what? Neutrality no longer has any real meaning, although some Austrians like to think of themselves as an Alpine state that should look towards another neutral country, Switzerland, which has made a national career out of neutrality, but in a geographical situation where it could afford to do so. Austria is the crossroads of southern Europe.

Karl-Markus Gauss writes in the Europaische Rundschau that EU membership has encouraged Austrians to claim to be ``a normal country among all the other normal (that is, western European) countries.'' He objects to this because it denies Austria's special history and allows it to reject any attempt ``to make something meaningful out of the contradictory heritage of its history, out of the often painful experience of being historically caught up with the central European countries for many centuries.''

His argument is that Austria should not, but also cannot, dissociate itself from all of its old and complicated relations with central Europe and the Balkans. These actually provide an opportunity of great value to the European Union, as it opens itself to the ex-Communist -- and ex-Austro-Hungarian -- states of central Europe. However this is a controversial argument in Austria.

With its own role under debate and unresolved, the Austrian government approaches its EU presidency with a conventionally platitudinous view of foreign policy for the European Union as a whole.

The foreign minister and vice-chancellor, Wolfgang Schussel, writes of the European Union helping to keep the Dayton accords functioning, trying to do something about Cyprus, and encouraging Middle Eastern peace -- all things which the United States has in hand, or thinks that it does, and on which it prefers no advice from Europe. With that as Europe's aspirant ``CFSP,'' its common foreign and security policy, it really doesn't matter that Europe doesn't have a phone number.


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©1998, Los Angeles Times Syndicate, Inc.