Let's get Austria out of EURATOM!

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This text's primary publication was 2007 in Nuclear Monitor #661. Additional publication on the Nuclear Heritage Network website has been authorized by the author.

Governments of non-nuclear EU member states proved unable, or unwilling, to push for a reform of the European Atomic Community (Euratom) during the EU constitutional process (2001-2004), when even a single country could have made a Euratom revision conference a condition for its approval of the constitution treaty. This opportunity having passed away, what a non-nuclear country can now do on its own without having to wait for the approval of all 26 other Euratom member states is to withdraw from the Euratom treaty and community. Austrian NGOs have been waging a campaign aimed at just such a withdrawal since the beginning of this year. (Continued from „EURATOM: Countries free to step out“, Nuclear Monitor 658, 13 July 2007)

PLAGE - In January this year, three months ahead of the 50th anniversary of the EURATOM Treaty, all five major Austrian antinuclear and environmental organisations except WWF Austria joined to launch the Leave EURATOM Campaign. The Upper Austrian and Salzburg Platforms Against Nuclear Dangers, Global 2000 (the Austrian branch of Friends of the Earth), Greenpeace Austria, and the Federation of Austrian Nature Conservation Organisations, demand from the Austrian government and parliament to head for the termination of Austria's membership in Euratom and withdrawal from the Euratom Treaty (ET). Meanwhile, around a dozen other organisations have joined in, most importantly Attac Austria.

Why should Austria quit Euratom? (The NGOs’ motives)

  1. Austria has been a member of the Euratom Treaty (ET) and the European Atomic Community (EAC) since its accession to the Union on Jan. 1st, 1995. While the Austrian government tried to completely keep the lid on the Euratom issue in the years before, the antinuclear movement did manage to build up some pressure. Thus it was only thanks to parts of the civil society that the government negotiated a Common Declaration with the European Commission, according to which Austria could keep its own, non-nuclear energy policy despite membership in Euratom. It is quite likely, though, that this Declaration would not hold water if someone entitled to do so filed a complaint against it with the European Court of Justice, for instance a utility wanting to build a nuclear installation in Austria (M. Geistlinger: The Austrian Nuclear Energy Prohibition Act (of 1978) vs. the Joint Declaration on the Application of the Euratom Treaty, Salzburg, 1994 [short title, transl.]). In the same way, Euratom membership may threaten the Constitutional Act Establishing a Nuclear-Free Austria (1999).
  2. Year after year, Austria, with its non-nuclear status laid down in the country's constitution, contributes more than 40 million € to make Euratom operate. It thus assists, too, the nuclear “renaissance” peddlers distributing cheap Euratom loans to new nuclear plants (Romania’s Cernavoda-2 reactor, etc.). And the most insane nuclear research project ever, the international fusion reactor (ITER), was agreed and hailed with euphoria by Austria's minister of science, Elisabeth Gehrer, when the final decision was taken in the EU Council last year.
  3. The widely claimed Euratom revision conference could have been obtained in exchange for Austria's (and/or some other states') signature under the EU Constitutional Treaty in 2003. With this chance missed, unanimity among all 27 member states would be required for such a conference to be held – making it an utter illusion.

Five member states (Austria, Germany, Hungary, Ireland and Sweden) did issue a joint declaration annexed to the EU Constitutional Treaty of 2003, stating that the essential provisions of the ET have to be revised and updated. They would therefore support the idea of an intergovernmental conference, which should be convened as soon as possible. But nothing has happened. Even when it held the EU presidency in the first half of 2006, and despite strong announcements by environment minister Josef Proell, the Austrian government finally gave up holding a mere 3-hour discussion on Euratom and Austria’s position in it, which it had planned for June 2006. This puts the revision conference light-years away! True, it will not be easy at all to get Austria’s main political forces moving on the exit issue. Yet here, at least, Austria could act on its own, negotiate on its own, and does not depend on the consent of 26 other governments. And we citizens groups can “hammer” at our government and parties, i.e. concentrate on an aim much “easier” to localize than whenever the EU as a whole is the main lobbying ground.

What do Austrian politicians say?

What is already looming between the lines above is that the main ruling parties in Austria, the Social and the Christian Democrats (SPOE and OEVP, respectively), cannot be counted on to take any initiative toward leaving Euratom. Especially so when they are ruling together (The Big Coalition), as they now are. This cannot be an argument, though, for not preparing the ground. So what political support does the Leave Euratom Campaign have at present, what perspectives are there for widening it?

The Greens' attitude had at first been hesitant on the national level. On July 4 however, their spokesperson for environmental matters, MP Ruperta Lichtenecker, gave written confirmation of the national Greens' support for Austria's withdrawal from Euratom. Until then, support had been expressed only in a number of regional branches of the Austrian Green Party. The most important of these voices had come from the first-ever Green regional minister, Rudolf Anschober, who is in charge of the environment within the government of Upper Austria (neighbour to Czech Temelin NPP):

“We have long been counting on Euratom reform, on a revision conference. However, no majority can be found for this within the Union at present. The scandal of subsidizing nuclear energy through millions of Austrian taxpayers' money must not continue. There is now clear expert proof that withdrawal from Euratom is legally possible and feasible for EU member states. Therefore, Austria has to launch an initiative aimed at terminating its Euratom membership. This is important not only to preserve the credibility of Austria's antinuclear policy, but also to maintain an efficient counter-weight to the nuclear lobby's current PR offensive. Austria must not support nuclear energy, but rather use the (Euratom) money saved to cover the financial needs of the new Green Electricity Law required to implement the big energy paradigm change!” (Press conference, Mar 19, 2007.)

The right-wing Freedom Party (FPOE)'s spokesperson for environmental issues in parliament, Norbert Hofer – referring, too, to the expertise now elaborated which evidences the legal possibility of stepping out of Euratom – has told “the coalition parties (i.e. SPOE & OEVP) that if they want to make real antinuclear policy, they just have to vote for the FPOE parliamentary motion for withdrawal from Euratom.” (Press release, Nov. 29, 2006.) The essential sentence in the motion reads: “The National Assembly shall pass a resolution calling on the federal government to take all steps required to make it possible for Austria to leave the Euratom Treaty.” One of the two similar motions the FPOE has tabled on the subject was voted down by the SPOE-OEVP majority before the summer break, one is still pending. (FPOE support is not necessarily helpful, given its general right-wing stance. Still, one has to bear in mind that this is the party with which the Christian Democrats/OEVP formed a government from 2000 through 2006.)

As appears from the above, the two biggest parties and ruling coalition, Social Democrats (SPOE) and Christian Democrats (OEVP/People’s Party), do not want to touch at the status quo. They are clearly afraid of waking the sleeping dogs, i.e. taking up the fight with many in the Union that would be heavily upset if one country declared its will to get out of Euratom. As a corollary to this, they blow up very secondary Euratom advantages into fictitious counter-weights to its scandalous flaws and anachronisms. And they do not WANT to know or admit that there IS the legal possibility of withdrawal, so they shove away the three expertises that corroborate this possibility. (See, however, Regional parliaments & governments and Success: it's a topic now, further below!)

Instigated by local groups in spring this year, the regional parliaments (diets) of the Vorarlberg and Salzburg provinces have each voted a resolution that moderately supports the Leave Euratom Campaign. The strategic essence of the Salzburg resolution is that Austrian withdrawal from Euratom should be considered in case no ET revision comes about within three years: “2. The Government of Salzburg Region shall call on the Federal Government – 2.1. to work toward a fundamental revision of the Euratom Treaty within three years, (...); 2.3. in case no fundamental revision of the ET comes about, to examine the withdrawal scenarios and, accordingly, declare Austria’s readiness to withdraw.” (Unanimously adopted May 9, 2007.)

Actions taken

Train advertisements

From December 2006 to June 2007, atomstopp_oberoesterreich took the message ”Euratom – 50 years is enough!“ on the rail(s). It travelled along on nine intercity trains throughout the country: an ad had been placed in the train schedule leaflet, which is regularly distributed into each compartment of the fast trains. (This and other documents can be seen at www.atomstopp.at, and some at www.plage.cc.)

Vienna Opera Ball – A dancing Euratom message

Every year, Austria's top social event is the traditional ball at the State Opera in Vienna. This year, on February 15, activists of atomstopp_oberoesterreich and PLAGE Salzburg had ordered the expensive, hard-to-get tickets far ahead and had carefully prepared their act for months. On the crucial evening, the two couples and another male activist got inside the opera house without a problem, thanks to their outfit of absolute elegance. The ladies' robes were were yellow satin and the men's tail-coats black – typical colours of anti-nuclear symbolism. Once inside, and as soon as they were stepping up the broad staircase to the main ball room of the classicist, 19th century palace, the five took off their capes or overcoats, exhibiting large no-nukes sun symbols that carried the slogan ”GET AUSTRIA OUT OF EURATOM!“ Whenever they opened their black fans, the people around saw the same slogan again. Underneath his jacket, one of the men had concealed a banner in fine silk-like tissue carrying Austria's red-white-red stripes, and the same words again. Every now and then, the group unrolled the banner to the eyes of the public, and of the TV and photographers' cameras. Thus a crowd of 5,000 was witness to the call to leave Euratom until far after midnight. The butlers in livery and other watchdogs couldn't really do anything against the dignified presentation of the message, which met with great sympathy from most bystanders and even got applause several times. One activist even got inside the private box of Austrian chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer and had a brief exchange with him.

Regional and Austrian-wide opinion polls

After a regional poll carried out by a professional opinion poll institute in the summer of 2006 in Upper Austria, before the elections to the regional parliament, atomstopp_oberoesterreich and PLAGE Salzburg ordered an Austrian-wide poll from Market-Institut to find out what people think of Euratom membership. Among its findings, presented at mid-March 2007: while 63% of the Austrians are in favour of withdrawal from Euratom, only 5% strictly oppose such a step. If a referendum were held on the issue, 65% would vote for withdrawal.

First-ever backwards marathon

On two weekends in April and May, participants in city marathons in the regional capital cities Linz and Salzburg exhibited signs, banners, and wore sports dresses reading “No to nuclear power!” and “Leave EURATOM!” Several thousand runners of all ages and walks of life took part in each of the largely publicized marathons, and many more watched and saw the slogans. In the Linz Marathon, they were probably witnessing a world première: Jakob Neff, a 20-year-old activist of the Salzburg Platform Against Nuclear Dangers (PLAGE), did the first quarter of the race backwards, catching everybody’s eye and attracting lots of applause – both for the sportive feat and for his message to the Austrian government “Get out of Euratom!”. A message also carried by his father, Thomas, and his brother, Stefan, who were running at his sides “the normal way” in order to warn him of obstacles and the like. (Anybody who cannot imagine how hard it is to run backwards, ought to try a mere 100 metres instead of 10,000!)

Success: it’s a topic now

From the start, we proponents of the Austrian Leave EURATOM Campaign hadn't expected quick success. What is a tangible success so far, is that not only regional politics but the federal government, too, have been forced to react. While an article in the national daily Die Presse following our presentation of the Austrian-wide opinion poll on the exit campaign said almost nothing about the poll but hurried to ask the foreign affairs ministry for its downplaying statement on the NGOs' demand for termination of the ET by Austria, the minister had to reply there. Just as the environment minister was obliged to do when the Vorarlberg deputies to the Second Chamber of Parliament (regional chamber) officially put the issue on the table (cp. Vorarlberger Nachrichten, Sep. 9, 2007). And quite recently, environment minister Josef Proell, in an answer to a letter by atomstopp_oberoesterreich, did condescend for the first time to indicate expert sources according to which a unilateral withdrawal from Euratom is alledgedly impossible. These authors, however, have not dealt explicitly and exclusively with the issue of one or more countries wanting to step out of Euratom, whereas the three expertises concluding that such withdrawal is undoubtedly possible (see Part I in N.M. n° 658) concentrated on this very question. Also, Mr Proell gives no quotes, just titles of articles or books and their authors. Still, for the first time the minister doesn't just say withdrawal is impossible, but shows smatterings of argumentation. Meanwhile, we have forwarded Mr Proell's letter to Prof. Bernhard Wegener of Nuremberg-Erlangen University, who has done the most exhaustive of the three expertises on ET termination by one or several member states. In his answer, Prof. Wegener says that in his 70-page expertise he has considered and disproved all the counter-arguments contained in the literature mentioned by minister Proell. By any means, there finally is a beginning of debate and argument.


The campaign may have to go on for years and wait for a special window of opportunity to gather enough momentum and public pressure to weigh on the Austrian government. We will come back at least every time something scandalous happens in the name of Euratom: financing of new reactors or upgrading, Commission inaction against state aid and other privileges for the nuclear industry, directive proposals for common safety standards on the lowest level rather than the highest, nuclear energy research getting more funds than any other energy technology.

It is preferable not to give details on strategic lobbying or coming actions. In any event, occasions to develop the case for Austria's withdrawal from Euratom will be, for instance: the run-up to the 30th anniversary of Austria’s “no“ to nuclear power in the 1978 referendum on the operation of its first and only NPP, at Zwentendorf; the revival of the EU constitutional process, if under a different name; the overhaul of the Austrian constitution which is on the way; the next elections to the European Parliament... (Any hint to other crucial dates and action lines will be welcome.)

Instruments envisaged to push the topic and/or further clarify the issue: getting further regional parliaments and governments to take resolutions like those in Vorarlberg and Salzburg; a hearing in the Austrian parliament; panel discussion (between politicians and/or legal experts for and against the unilateral withdrawal option). Another “instrument“ hopefully will be the political support from sister NGOs in the EU: in one of the next issues of the Nuclear Monitor, we hope to include a short letter and questionnaire addressed to all of YOU. Mind that we do NOT expect you to work for us, just to express your support. For example, we have been thinking of a group of NGO representatives from various EU countries to hold a supporting press conference in Vienna, and possibly meet with Austrian MPs, government officials and maybe ministers. If time and money allows, we should develop special ties with NGOs in Denmark and Ireland, for instance.

Also, we are sure to come up with surprise actions again, like the one at the Opera Ball, to support certain lobbying steps and boost attention for the political demand.

Source and Contact:

  • Heinz Stockinger at PLAGE (Platform Against Nuclear Dangers); Nonntaler Hauptstr. 86, A 5020 Salzburg, Austria; Tel/Fax: +43 662-643567; Email: info AT plage DOT cc[1]; web: http://www.plage.cc
  • Roland Egger (Upper Austrian Platform) at WISE Austria

Austrian NGOs supporting the Leave EURATOM Campaign

(With the exception of WWF-Austria, all relevant Austrian NGOs in the nuclear, environmental and EU policy fields are comprised in this list.)

  • ARGE Nein zur Atomkraft, Ja zur Umwelt
  • atomstopp_oberoesterreich
  • ATTAC-Austria
  • Carinthian Platform Against Nuclear Dangers
  • Friedenswerkstatt Linz (peace org.)
  • Global 2000 (Friends of the Earth Austria)
  • Greenpeace Austria
  • Lower Austrian Platform Against Nuclear Dangers
  • Permakultur
  • PLAGE-Salzburg Platform Against Nuclear Dangers
  • Resistance for Peace
  • SOL (Sustainable Lifestyle)
  • Umweltdachverband (big umbrella org. comprising a great number of environmental & conservationist orgs, e.g. the Federation for the Protection of Nature/OENB)
  • Vienna Platform Against Nuclear Dangers
  • Vorarlberg Platform Against Nuclear Dangers

Euratom information blockade & distortion

Press conference, 17 Jan. 2007

To present the Leave EURATOM Campaign, it was for the first time ever that all major anti-nuclear and environmental organisations except WWF-Austria held a common press conference in Vienna on Jan 17, 2007. This fact should by itself have led to a minimum of media coverage, independently of the topic. The topic itself was quite a sensational demand with tremendous implications for external and domestic policy. All Austrian media and numerous decision-makers had been invited; a number of journalists had been called personally the day before, and several had shown great interest. Nonetheless, not a single journalist from a mainstream paper, TV or radio station showed up at the press conference. The Austrian Press Agency (APA) did circulate the NGO press release to TV, radios, newspapers and magazines. But the editors weren't interested. A small article in the Vienna edition of Austria's big tabloid Kronen-Zeitung (some 3 million copies a day for a population of about 8 million) was the only resonance in the mainstream media.

Our first spectacular action seemed to be destined to quite the same treatment…

Opera Ball action, 15 Feb. 2007

While a public of 5,000 was repeatedly confronted with the Leave EURATOM Campaign message at the State Opera Ball in February, TV watchers throughout Austria didn't get a glimpse of what the TV cameras couldn't possibly avoid recording from various angles of the opera house. In the days and weeks that followed, we went to great lengths to get hold of what some cameras must have filmed – in fact to the top of the Austrian public radio & TV ORF's hierarchy. After a series of the usual tricks and dodges used to brush off „nasty askers“ or pump the courage out of them, we were finally told there was „nothing on record“ at the Austrian state TV „than what had been broadcast on that very evening“; „no document showing other scenes of the event in our archives“...

Austria-wide opinion poll, mid-March, 2007

Again, only a few papers reported from the press conference held together with the Green Environment Minister of Upper Austria, and some of them, e.g. the centre-right daily Die Presse, gave more room to distorting statements by the Foreign Ministry than to the poll results and NGO statements.

Killing the news...

A mere two days before the five proponent NGOs presented their campaign on Jan. 17 (see above), the environment ministry announced a press conference of its own, for the same day, same hour. His Excellency, the minister himself, Josef Proell (Chr. Dem./OEVP), was to give an evaluation of Austria’s climate policy – the environmental topic of the moment.

A little media breakthrough

A major national newspaper...

We did manage some media breakthrough, though: From an unjustifiable refusal of an earlier article, the Salzburger Nachrichten, one of Austria's more reputed papers with a circulation of 150,000, owed PLAGE a compensation. So both a big, fantastic picture of the Opera Ball surprise jig and the basic information on the Quit EURATOM Campaign appeared on the paper's prominent page 3 on Feb. 19, in the run-up to the 50th anniversary of the Euratom Treaty.

Also, the Opera Ball act was so impressive that several other national and local papers did publish photos and articles.

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