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Austria looks isolated on EU membership for Ukraine

Vienna has resisted Kyiv’s request for swift admission, putting it at odds with central European allies.

By Liam Hoare

VIENNA — “Ukraine belongs in the European family,” Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, told Volodymyr Zelensky on a visit to Kyiv in early April. “We have heard your request” to join the European Union, she said, “loud and clear.” The Ukrainian president has seemingly secured support in Brussels, and the commission is due to deliver its opinion to the European Council on Ukraine’s readiness for membership in June.

Not every member state’s government is so supportive, however. Kyiv’s request for swift admission to the EU has left Vienna unmoved.

On April 23 the Austrian foreign minister, Alexander Schallenberg, gave an interview to a Swiss journalist at the European Media Summit, held at the luxury ski resort of Lech am Arlberg where the sanctioned Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska once owned the Hotel Aurelio. In the interview Schallenberg signalled his opposition to Ukrainian membership of the EU. While expressing support for a “tailor-made offer” to Ukraine that would result in the “closest possible connection” between it and the EU, the negotiation process need not result in full membership, he argued.

Officials in Kyiv interpreted Schallenberg’s remarks as a clear rejection of EU membership for Ukraine, which 91 per cent of Ukrainians now support want according to polling by the agency Rating in April. Oleg Nikolenko, a spokesman for the Ukrainian foreign ministry, told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that he was “frustrated” by the Austrian position. Nikolenko said Schallenberg’s remarks were “strategically short-sighted and inconsistent with the interests of a united Europe”.  

Schallenberg does have a habit of making inappropriate comments, especially when it comes to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In an interview with Austria’s public broadcaster, ORF, on the day Russian troops invaded Ukraine, he said: “After all, we experienced first-hand in 1938 what it means to be abandoned.” Schallenberg later tried to claim he was not invoking the myth that Austria was the first victim of Nazism, but the comparison he was attempting to draw between Austria in 1938 and Ukraine in 2022 was all too evident.

His appearance in Lech forced the Austrian government into damage control. Outright opposition to EU membership for Ukraine “is not Austria’s position”, Karoline Edtstadler, the Europe minister, clarified on 3 May. In an interview with the Financial Times published the same day, Schallenberg said that his words had been “misinterpreted” in Kyiv, stressing that his argument was merely that Ukraine’s membership application should be given the same priority as states of the former Yugoslavia such as Albania and North Macedonia. 

Yet Schallenberg did not repudiate the particular vision for the future of Europe that he sketched out at the Lech summit: a flexible union with different circles of integration. Rather, he doubled down on it. He called for potential member states in southern and eastern Europe such as Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova to be granted access to “parts of the common market” and other European institutions and programmes such as the European Economic Area, thus locking them into the EU’s sphere of influence. “It’s either our model or someone else’s,” Schallenberg said.

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Schallenberg’s call to rethink the EU’s entire enlargement and neighbourhood policy comes as the bloc’s fervour for enlargement has largely burnt out. While Austria has long supported a European perspective for its western Balkan neighbours, the process of integrating them into the EU has been slow and grinding. Governments in France, Greece and Bulgaria have been responsible for holding up the accession process for domestic political gain. Meanwhile, the candidate countries themselves have not always managed to convincingly embrace the EU’s ideals during the process. The prospect of EU membership has, for example, done nothing to halt Serbia’s democratic backsliding during Aleksandar Vučić’s presidency.  

While Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister, and Olaf Scholz, the German chancellor, have both voiced concerns about bringing Ukraine into the EU too quickly, Austria’s stance has been firmer. When Edtstadler said on 3 May that EU membership for Ukraine “certainly cannot be achieved in the next five to ten years”, it was the strongest opposition to Ukraine’s aspiration for speedy admission to the EU publicly uttered so far. This places Austria on the opposing side to allies in central and eastern Europe such as Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, and Slovakia, all of whom back immediately granting Ukraine candidate country status and kickstarting the membership negotiation process.

Schallenberg’s half-in, half-out vision for Ukraine is also one Kyiv could never accept. “We have proven our strengths,” Zelensky told the European Parliament in March. “We have proven… we are exactly the same as you are. So do prove that you are with us, do prove that you will not let us go. Do prove that you indeed are Europeans.” An association agreement, which Ukraine has had with the EU since 2017, represents the status quo. Anything other than full EU membership would leave Ukraine in the geopolitical position of being a buffer state between Russia and the West — close to Europe but not close enough to give them the stability and protection they clearly desire.  

Since the war’s beginning, Austria has tried to have it both ways, adopting a rhetorical position in favour of Ukraine while doing little in practice to help its cause. Karl Nehammer, the chancellor, is in Kyiv one day offering his solidarity to Ukraine and in Moscow the next for talks with Vladimir Putin, making him the only EU leader to visit the Russian president since the invasion. Nehammer’s foreign ministry has backed sanctions in principle while stalling on specific, hard-hitting measures that might damage Austrian economic interests. Now Austria is trying to change the ground rules just as Ukraine is trying to join the European club. Both Kyiv and Brussels might rightly ask whose side Vienna is really on.

[See also: Austria is Russia’s tunnel into the heart of Europe]

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