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Austria: referendum on Euratom membership

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Roland Egger

In January 2007 five organizations expressed their discontent with the role of Austria within Euratom, the European Union’s nuclear energy authority. The press conference was held in Vienna with Greenpeace, Umweltdachverband, Global 2000, Salzburger Plattform gegen Atomgefahr and Atomstopp – and they all demanded that Austria should unilaterally withdraw its membership from Euratom if Austrian politicians are not willing to enforce the Austrian antinuclear consensus within Euratom. “Out of Euratom” became the slogan.

All five organizations, participating in the "Raus aus Euratom" campaign, agreed: Euratom is undemocratic because it excludes the European parliament from decisions on nuclear issues. Because all struggles for a Euratom revision conference failed, single countries should come up with initiatives to leave the Euratom-treaty.

The Austrian organizations were deeply frustrated that despite the Austrian antinuclear consensus in the population and the legendary fight against nuclear power plants near Austrian borders like Temelin in the Czech Republic, Mochovce in Slovakia or Isar 1 in Germany, the decisions of Austrian politicians in Brussels did not reflect this rejection of the population on nuclear energy.

Anyway – the press conference in January 2007 later turned out to be the beginning of a campaign having lasted now for more than four years, bringing together regional parliaments, municipalities, organizations, churches – with the demand to leave Euratom. So by gaining strength on the one hand, the campaign was more and more discussed, became  controversially and was attacked on the other hand. Atomstopp also had to face financial cuts being the driving force behind the campaign.

The campaign “Out of Euratom”
Starting with five organizations the campaign “Out of Euratom” comprises now 86 organizations with various background: antinuclear, renewable energies, ethics, environment – even the Catholic and the Evangelic Church in Upper Austria gave favorable statements on the campaign – showed solidarity with the demand that Austria should also leave Euratom because the membership of an organization that promotes the nuclear industry is not compatible with the Austrian rejection of nuclear energy. Opinion polls showed that in 2006 63% of Austrian population was in favor of a unilateral withdrawal from Euratom – in 2008 that number already rose to 78%. While 81% disapprove that Austria supports the European nuclear industry financially.

177 municipalities throughout Austria strengthened the campaign “Out of Euratom” by resolutions to the Austrian government saying with the end of the Austrian Euratom membership the financial means formerly spent on the nuclear industry should be transferred to renewable energies.

All nine regional parliaments in Austria treated the Euratom membership in critical resolutions, expressing at least their wish to prepare the requirements for a unilateral withdrawal from Euratom if a Euratom-revision conference is unlikely in the near future.

In the last four years the opposition parties in the Austrian parliament brought eleven (11!) applications on an unilateral withdrawal from Euratom – another eleven (11!) inquiries were addressed by the opposition parties to the Austrian government on the financial aspects of the Euratom membership and the question “how much pays Austria for its nuclear membership”?. The Austrian government refused all applications in parliament. Also the inquiries on the financial aspects remained unanswered.

The government did not show any motivation to end Austrian membership of Euratom and did not show any motivation to bring antinuclear aspects to Euratom.

Position of the Austrian government
Confronted with the demand for a unilateral withdrawal from Euratom, the Austrian  government says that (a) a unilateral withdrawal is not possible for legal reasons, (b) will result in a more pro-nuclear Europe as Austria does no longer take part in nuclear decisions, (c) the financial means of Euratom are mainly spent on fusion and safety issues, (d) Euratom covers vital aspects as radiation protection and non-proliferation of fissionable material and (e) Austria is and will always be keen on a Euratom revision conference.

These arguments are very weak when analyzing the influence of Austria on the European nuclear policy in the last 15 years. There is already a pro-nuclear Europe – even with Austrian Euratom-membership: the Euratom budget was trippled in 2006 – with Austria's approval! And Austria's representative in Brussels did not hesitate in summer 2010 to give his OK for another 1400 million euro to cover the additional costs for the planned fusion reactor ITER in Cadarache. Austria gave its approval also for weak directives on safety of nuclear installations (2008) and did not show any discontent with the controversial directive on nuclear waste disposal (2010). With Austria's approval 223,5 million euro were granted as a Euratom loan for the completion of the Romanian nuclear power plant Cernavoda (2004) – and by the way: Austria's radiation protection was more rigorous before the Euratom-membership.

For the legal possibility of a unilateral withdrawal from Euratom see: Heinz Stockinger – Euratom: Countries free to step out. (Nuclear Monitor 658, 13 July 2007, p. 4). With the Lisbon Treaty being in force since December 2010 the possibility of a unilateral withdrawal is seen in Art. 50 with a reference to Art. 106a of the Euratom treaty. And those in favor of a Euratom-revision conference have to remember that one single Euratom member state can block any initiative. Who really expects France, or Great Britain, or the Czech Republic to allow any changes of the Euratom treaty as it is still their basis and legitimation for their nuclear programs?

To sum it up: If Austrian politicians made, and encouraged, a strong anti-nuclear policy within Euratom there would be no need for a campaign like “Austria -  Out of Euratom”. In such a case, all antinuclear organizations would be happy with the Austrian politicians and would have supported them in their struggle against the nuclear industry in Europe. Or will this remain a naive dream? Is it realistic to think Euratom will allow antinuclear positions? Is it realistic to hope to change Euratom from inside? Reality – and the experience of the past 15 years - shows a different picture.

The referendum
After four years campaigning, there is no sign that the Austrian government is willing to deal with the demand of regional parliaments, with the demand of the opposition parties, with the demand of 86 organizations joining the campaign and with the call from municipalities: “Out of Euratom”. A government not willing to meet NGO demands is a very common counterpart and in fact one of the reasons why we work on this topic in the first place, so to stop the campaign, as some suggested, was no option. Atomstopp_Upper Austria had no choice than to bring the campaign to a next level.

Because the Austrian government continues to ignore the demands of regional parliaments, organizations and municipalities, it was decided by atomstopp Upper Austria in spring 2010 to start with the preparation-work for a referendum on this issue to bring direct pressure on the government – direct pressure from the Austrian population. Starting the preparation-work turned out to be the end of some funding: one of the organizations stopped financial support for the "Out of Euratom" campaign.

Within a few months it was possible to collect 8.032 signatures (confirmed by municipalities) necessary to launch the referendum. Municipalities were part of this first (launching) phase. In every third municipality in Austria people signed the referendum in this phase. All political parties from the right (freedom party) to the left wing (communist party) supported this phase. Green groups supported it, mayors from the people's party supported it, too. And the socialist party in Upper Austria gave a strong signal: all delegates signed the referendum already in the launching phase, too.

100,000 signatures needed
During eight days between February 28 and March 7, it will be possible throughout Austria to sign the “Out of Euratom” referendum. When the referendum gets more than 100.000 signatures the parliament has again to handle with the demand. With this referendum we want a commitment from the Austrian government to follow the outcome and end the Austrian membership of Euratom. The unilateral withdrawal of Austria from Euratom can be the start of a Europe-wide campaign – with affects on the European nuclear and anti-nuclear policy. Every member state of the European Union should have the choice either to finance nuclear industry via Euratom or finance renewable energies.

Source and contact: Roland Egger, atomstopp_Upper Austria, Promenade 37, 4020 Linz, Austria.