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The rumored resurrection of Austria-Hungary

The rumored resurrection of Austria-Hungary

by host

A sure way to rankle an Austrian is to mention an upcoming Austria-Hungary football match and then ask who is the opponent.

For many in Brussels these days, the answer is clear: the EU. Whether the issue involves Ukraine, Russia, or even the Israel-Hamas conflict, the impression in EU circles is that the pair are singing from the same songbook.

“This is classic Austrian behavior,” an EU diplomat told POLITICO, insisting on anonymity in order to cast aspersions on a European ally. “Don’t be mistaken: this is the dual monarchy rising from the grave.”

With Hungary holding €50 billion in aid to Ukraine and the country’s EU accession hostage, Vienna, its critics claim, is using the impasse to push its own priorities behind the scenes while ignoring the urgency of Kyiv’s situation. Austria’s recent move on Ukraine fits a familiar pattern of leveraging its neutrality to cozy up to Moscow while also claiming allegiance to the West, a tactic Hungarian leader Viktor Orbán has also mastered (without neutrality). Austria’s reputation for obstinance in Brussels has been exacerbated by its yearlong blockade of Bulgaria and Romania’s path into the borderless Schengen zone. Even Hungary supports including the two countries.

An Austria that operates off the reservation, and often in cahoots with Hungary, is a frightening prospect for many in Brussels. For one, Austria has traditionally been a member of the Western European fold that, despite occasionally causing problems, can generally be counted on to support the liberal consensus. What’s more, though the two countries are roughly the same size in terms of population, Austria’s economy is about three times larger than Hungary’s, which lends it more clout.

Neighbors, not friends

EU officials often ascribe an effortless haughtiness to their Austrian counterparts, which feeds the stereotype that Vienna hasn’t woken up to the fact that its imperial days are long gone. While it’s tempting to think Vienna, high on delusions of the “imperial and royal” splendor of the Habsburg empire, is seeking to revive its collaboration with the Hungarians, which ended in the ashes of World War I, Europe’s fear of a resurrection of Austria-Hungary is nonetheless unwarranted by the facts on the ground — at least for now.

In private, Austrian government officials bristle at comparisons with the Hungarian leader, whom they regard as an authoritarian. “We seek to get along with Orbán because he’s our neighbor, but that doesn’t mean we enjoy it,” an Austrian official with extensive dealings in Budapest said.

There is persistent tension between the two countries on migration, for example. Vienna suspects Hungary of waving asylum seekers across its territory to Austria without registering them in order to avoid having the migrants sent back, as required under EU rules. Hungary denies this, yet the large increase in asylum seekers in Austria in recent years tells a different story.

Balkan ghosts

The real reason Austria is suddenly making noise about Ukraine in Brussels involves Bosnia and Herzegovina. If the EU opens accession talks with Ukraine, Austria wants Bosnia, to which it has longstanding economic and political ties, to be included as well.

“We want to see Bosnia and Herzegovina in the EU family,“ Austrian Europe Minister Karoline Edtstadler said this month on a visit to Sarajevo, arguing that the country’s accession was “a geopolitical necessity.”  

Given Austria’s proximity to the region, calming tensions in the former Yugoslavia has long been at the top of the country’s foreign policy priorities. Austria has deployed its military as part of United Nations peacekeeping missions there for decades. Vienna is convinced that the best way to create lasting peace in the region — and also blunt Russia’s persistent influence there — is to bring the Western Balkans into the EU fold.

The EU declared Bosnia an EU candidate country in late 2022, but the Commission argued Bosnia needs to address its alleged backsliding when it comes to the rule of law before it can entertain full-fledged membership talks. With Ukrainian accession on the agenda of this week’s EU summit, Austria saw an opportunity to sneak Bosnia in through the backdoor.

“We have no intention of stepping in the way of Ukraine’s accession path,” a senior Austrian official insisted, adding that doing so would be like “standing in front of a freight train.”

Austria’s only agenda, the official said, was to quietly attach Bosnia “to the back of the train.”

That should calm Austria’s critics in Brussels.

Yet when it comes to Austria’s political direction, there’s still plenty of reason for concern. The country is scheduled to hold elections next fall. The anti-EU Freedom Party, which regards Orbán’s Hungary as a model, leads in the polls by a comfortable margin.

On a recent visit to Budapest, Freedom Party leader Herbert Kickl called Hungary a “refuge of national self-determination and resistance against globalist intervention from Brussels.” 

Despite the budding far-right fraternity between Kickl and Orbán, Europe can take solace in the fact that Austro-Hungarian collaboration has never stood the test of time. The last attempt only lasted about 50 years.

Barbara Moens contributed reporting.

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