At the Crossroads of the European Union, a Dysfunctional Nuclear Power Plant

Fallout over Temelin

"The Bomb is Ticking:" Germans protest Temelin, April 28, 2001 (Photo: AFP).

In bucolic southern Bohemia, now part of the Czech Republic, sits an accident-prone nuclear power plant named Temelin. Since construction began in the 1980s under Soviet rule, there have been concerns about its safety. As of 1996, the International Atomic Energy Agency had discovered 84 grave safety lapses at Temelin. To date, the Czech Republic has invested more than US$2.5 billion in the facility. Part of the plant operated for two weeks in early August 2001—after a shutdown in May for repairs—before being shut down again at the end of the month. Today, part of the plant is back on line. Located 37 miles from the Austrian border, Temelin has, over the years, caused quite a stir in Austria—which prides itself in being nuclear-free.

This month, Austria's far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), under Jörg Haider, began to turn up the heat by linking Temelin to the eastern expansion of the European Union (EU). Haider, a member of Austria's ruling coalition, called on the government to veto the Czech Republic's entrance into the EU in 2004 unless Temelin was dismantled. On Jan. 21, he initiated a petition under the banner "Veto on Temelin," which was signed by 915,220 Austrians—a number Haider called "sensational." The signatories called for the Czech Republic to be excluded from the EU if Temelin were not dismantled. When news of the petition broke in Vienna and Prague, a public and acrimonious melee ensued that pitted Haider against both Czech politicians and his partners in the Austrian coalition. As the bickering worsened, it momentarily seemed as though the issue might bring down the Austrian government. Haider called for early elections, plunging the Austrian government into the worst crisis it has yet faced in its already tumultuous two-year history. When the extent of the crisis became clear, Haider recanted, but not before raising alarm and puzzlement throughout Europe.

Under Austrian law, a petition signed by more than 100,000 people must be debated by parliament within five months. When the petition was introduced, the Austrian government was already in the final stages of adding a clause to its coalition agreement requiring that every petition signed by more than 885,000 people become a nationwide referendum. "The petition…adds dynamite to domestic politics," opined Vienna's conservative Die Presse (Jan. 22). "For the Social Democratic Party of Austria, the result is an expression of distrust in the government."

The Green Party—usually a vociferous opponent of nuclear power—found itself in a peculiar position: It did not endorse Haider's petition, even though dismantling Temelin would have fit neatly into their own anti-nuclear platform. Instead, they labeled the petition as little more than a cheap political ploy. In a Jan. 21 article, Die Presse paraphrased Green politicians as saying, "[Haider] has unleashed primitive anti-Czech propaganda instead of pushing fruitful anti-nuclear politics," while liberal Viennese newspaper Der Standard quoted representatives from the Green party as saying that only the Czechs' entrance into the EU could safeguard its adherence to European nuclear safety standards, and ensure that the plant would be dismantled if it failed to meet those standards.

After the outcome of the petition became public, the real mudslinging began. Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman called Haider "an Austrian political Chernobyl," adding that it was time that the Austrians got rid of Haider and his "post-fascist party." Haider retorted that Zeman was a former communist who had difficulty adapting to democracy, "a lame duck with no clout." Then, on Jan. 24, Haider backed Austria's foreign minister, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, in her demand that, as an additional prerequisite for joining the EU, the Czech Republic abrogate its World War II "Benes Decrees." These decrees, written into law in 1946 by then Czechoslovak President Eduard Benes, stripped people of German (Sudetendeutsche) and Hungarian nationality of their Czechoslovak citizenship and were expelled from Czech territory. The stage is set for a showdown.

Austria and the Czech Republic have had a long history together: For more than 300 years, Bohemia was part of the Hapsburg Empire. "Czech lands were the jewel of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy," Prague's English-language news agency CTK (Jan. 26) reminded its readers. History is now coming back to haunt the two uneasy neighbors. "Hitler is permanently watching us," claimed Martin Komarek in Prague's independent Mlada Fronta Dnes (Jan. 24). "Had it not been for Hitler, there would have been no 'Benes Decrees'—an international problem mightier than Temelin would not have loomed on the [Czech] Republic's horizon. In waging his war against Temelin, Haider is reminiscent of Don Quixote. With his wooden sword proudly hoisted, he is thrusting toward the nuclear windmills. Yet he is completely alone…. In the struggle against the "[Benes] Decrees," he will have strong allies on his side [Germany]…. Our parliament should find the courage to abolish this unjust and inhuman law. If not because of the EU and because of justice, we should do so because of Hitler. Because if there is something over which he is really gloating in hell today, it is probably his continuing influence on us. Let us deprive him of it."

The mood in both countries remains gloomy. According to Vienna's financial daily Wirtschaftsblatt (Jan. 26), 55 percent of the Austrians believe their shaky coalition is about to fall. One could almost see Zbynek Petracek shaking his head as he lamented, in Prague's conservative weekly Respekt (Jan. 28): "We have behind us two weeks of the most serious diplomatic warfare in our post-November [1989] history…. The petition presented no risk in itself…. Zeman, however, couldn't resist the opportunity to engage in a duel of words, which turned into a diplomatic row."

Austria's conservative tabloid, Die Krone, was on the front lines in the fight against Temelin. The paper, which has raised eyebrows abroad for publishing poems celebrating Adolf Hitler's birthday and criticizing miscegenation, led a massive campaign to urge its readers to sign Haider's petition. The paper's push for Haider's petition raised alarms in Austria's more staid newspapers. Profil published photos of Die Krone's publisher Hans Dichand and Haider walking arm in arm and smiling. Peter A. Ulram, a commentator for Die Krone's liberal rival Der Standard, compared Haider's relationship with Die Krone to Berlusconi's relationship with the Italian media: "We have already heard of a merger between politics and the media in Italy," he quipped in the Jan. 22 edition. A week later, Peter Pilz, in Der Standard (Jan. 29): "The biggest mass-circulation newspaper and the meanest party work hand-in-hand. This calls for a public outcry."

Austria has arguably gained more from the opening of Eastern Europe than any other country: Exports to the region have tripled since the end of the Cold War, leaving many of Austria's partners in the EU confused as to why Austria is so fervently opposed to opening the Union to countries from the former East Bloc. This has left Austrian commentators arguing that the country's policies are estranging it from the rest of the Union. "Our EU partners start to distrust us, and look down on us," Anneliese Rohrer wrote in the Jan. 24 edition of Die Presse. "Our neighbors don't respect us. Our internal political whirlwinds have had an ill effect on our foreign policy. Our continual metamorphosis from smart-ass to bully has had consequences. Our country is damaged."

Others within Austria laid the blame for the country's increasing distance from the rest of the Union squarely on Haider's shoulders. "[Haider's party] became the party of the young and the losers in the process of modernization," Austria's renowned political scientist Anton Pelinka, who has sued Haider for some of his more colorful pronouncements, quipped in an essay for the University of Minnesota's Austrian Studies Newsletter. "In the past, it was a much more bourgeois party, but now it has become a blue-collar party. The Nazi undercurrent is not responsible for Haider's success. The party's popularity can be seen as a protest of the people left behind by modernization, who are afraid of the future. This is the origin of the party's anti-immigration and xenophobic sentiments…. Party members are afraid of foreigners coming to Austria, of Europeanization, of EU enlargement." Pelinka's views are not without justification: When FPÖ's floor leader, Peter Westenthaler, was asked, in a Jan. 26 interview with Die Presse, if he was looking forward to the Czech Republic's entry into the EU, he seemed rather startled. "I will not have a party, if that's what you mean."

But all that said, Zurich's conservative Neue Zürcher Zeitung (Jan. 23) was less impressed by the latest commotion from Haider: "Haider has produced chain reactions and a lot of smoke, but unlike the power plant he opposes, no electricity."