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18th Aug 2018

Austrian minister quits over EU referendum clause

Austria's pro-European foreign minister Ursula Plassnik has refused to be part of the country's new governing coalition because it did not rule out future referendums on EU treaties.

"I was not ready to serve as an EU warranty or fig leaf for a government where some of its members do not distance themselves enough from a fruitless and energy consuming alliance with EU-critical forces," Ms Plassnik told Die Presse.

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The minister's center-right OVP party formed a "grand coalition" with the populist Social-Democrats (SPO) at the weekend, following two months of talks that locked Austria's resurgent far-right factions out of power.

The new SPO chancellor, Werner Faymann, declined to insert a clause into the coalition pact guaranteeing that future EU treaties will be ratified through parliament instead of referendums, prompting Ms Plassnik's departure, she explained.

Instead, the coalition signed up to a "self-destruct clause" under which the two parties can seek EU-wide or national referendums by mutual agreement. In case of disagreement, the government would be dissolved.

The OVP and SPO both officially want the Lisbon treaty - which was ratified by the Austrian parliament in May - to come into force.

But in tendering her resignation, Ms Plassnik recalled that Mr Faymann and the then SPO chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer in July wrote a letter to Hans Dichand, the editor of the tabloid Krone newspaper, pleading for national referendums on EU affairs.

"Future changes on the EU treaty, which touch upon Austrian interest, should be decided through a referendum in Austria. The same applies to a possible EU accession of Turkey, which would overstrech, in our view, the current EU structures," they said, as part of the SPO election campaign.

"It is not about cutting 'the people' out. Mr Dichand [the editor of Krone] is not 'the people.' It is about explaining carefully and clearly the EU and its co-operation with Austria. The EU must not be chased as a scapegoat through the villages. This is false and brings Austria to a dead end. And Austria is no dead end country," Ms Plassnik told Kleine Zeitung.

A coalition cannot assume governing responsibilty and have an "official pro-EU line," but at the same time "enter a coalition with EU opponents," she added. "It shouldn't be the case that Austria becomes a risk country [in terms of future EU integration]."

The Austrian public is the most eurosceptic in the union - only 28 percent had a positive view of the EU in a June 2008 survey, the lowest among all 27 states.

The majority of Austrians also wanted a referendum on the Lisbon treaty, with 59 percent saying they wanted a popular vote in a Gallup poll in April 2008.

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