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Anti-EU Forces In Austria Push For Exit Referendum


Some people in Europe are asking if they should follow the example of the U.K. They are pondering whether to leave the European Union.


The drawback is that by following the British example, they could face British-style chaos, at least in the beginning. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports from Austria.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Not long after the Brexit vote, Austrian presidential candidate Norbert Hofer told reporters it might be time for his own country to hold a referendum on leaving the EU. But Hofer, who is with the far-right Freedom Party, quickly backed down. He and other Austrians were shocked by the ensuing chaos in London, including the resignation of the prime minister and the crash of the pound. Hofer now says an Austrian exit, or Auexit, as the locals call it, would be damaging to the Alpine country and should be a last resort.

He is one of three acting co-presidents in Austria, assuming that post after the country's constitutional court threw out earlier election results and ordered a new runoff now scheduled for October. In order to win, he needs the vote of millions of Austrians who are deeply unhappy with the EU leadership in Brussels but also nervous about cutting EU ties. One is engineer Albert Haberl, who hails from Carinthia, a region where the populous Freedom Party is very strong.

ALBERT HABERL: (Speaking German).

NELSON: Haberl says he was eager to vote Austria into the European Union 21 years ago but doesn't know that he would do so again now. He complains about the EU's fractured refugee policy and perceived erosion of local power.

HABERL: (Speaking German).

NELSON: He also points to neighboring Switzerland, which isn't in the European Union and yet gets access to the bloc's integrated market. Heberl quips, never getting in seems to be easier than trying to get out. More Austrians are like Andrea Juenger, who vehemently opposes an Austrian exit from the EU. Even so, the gallery owner says it's high time for EU leaders to stop micro-managing its members.

ANDREA JUENGER: (Speaking German).

NELSON: Juenger says Brussels needs to deal with major issues, like securing the bloc's porous borders, instead of making regulations for things like Parmesan cheese. Recent polls show anywhere from a quarter to nearly half of Austrians want out of the EU, a number that could well climb if Brussels fails to address voter dissatisfaction.

A petition last year calling for a referendum gathered more than a quarter million signatures, although the parliament in Vienna refused to act on it. That came as a relief to Vienna retiree Susan Kubik who has been a dual British-Austrian citizen for 43 years. She says Austrians forget the good things about being in the union.

SUSAN KUBIK: It's just being able to travel all over Europe and not change money and just go anywhere you like. You get in the car and go. It's just nice to be European and not only Austrian or British.

NELSON: Referendum advocates here say they won't give up. Robert Marschall heads Austria's EU Exit Party, which he helped found nearly five years ago.

ROBERT MARSCHALL: (Speaking German).

NELSON: He says given widespread dissatisfaction with the EU here, the current government should hold a referendum to at least give Austrians a chance to air their grievances.

MARSCHALL: (Speaking German).

NELSON: Marschall adds, if parliamentarians are so convinced that the EU is a good thing for Austria, they don't need to worry that any exit referendum here would succeed. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Vienna. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Special correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is based in Berlin. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and read at NPR.org. From 2012 until 2018 Nelson was NPR's bureau chief in Berlin. She won the ICFJ 2017 Excellence in International Reporting Award for her work in Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.
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