Erfahrungen der österreichischen Gemeinden mit dem EU-Beitritt


The Experience of the Austrian Local Government Associations

Erich Pramböck, Secretary General, Association of Austrian Cities and Towns (Report based as well on a paper provided by Harald Dossi, Federal Chancellery of the Republic of Austria)

I became Secretary General of the Austrian Association of Cities and Towns 10 years ago. This allows me to give a first hand report about what happened in my country as to EU membership, particularly on the local level. I will report on our experience and my lecture - which is based as well on a report by Harald Dossi, Federal Chancellery of the Republic of Austria - will address four topics:

A) How to get a ,seat at the table' in partnership with the Central government, since formal deliberations will begin on EU membership in the near future.

B) What are the key Central government policy issues regarding EU membership, and which of these issues will have the most direct impact on the future of local government in the candidate countries?

C) What are the responsibilities and the benefits of EU membership?

D) Which are the key international associations which will require the active involvement of local government associations?

I will try to give very clear answers to these questions. Let me explain the Austrian experience.

A) How to get a seat at the table:

The question is: Who makes the decision to join the EU? Is it the Parliament alone, or will there be a referendum before the Parliament makes a final decision? If the result of the referendum is not binding, will it be taken seriously by the Parliament? Or will the outcome be binding? This was the case in Austria! Our Constitution says that a fundamental constitutional change is subject to a referendum. And it is quite clear: joining the EU is a fundamental constitutional change because after joining the EU decisions are made not in Vienna, Rome, Berlin or Budapest, but to a large extent in Brussels and will be the result of the common opinion of all the 15 or 20 members.

If there is a binding referendum, any wise government will look for those who can convince the electorate to vote in favour of the government's position. Mayors and councillors are opinion leaders in their municipalities, and their positive attitude could add another few percentage points to the results. These votes could be important because, due to the many changes which are incurred with EU membership, it is not certain the votes will be positive. Years of deliberations with the Commission and much discussion have brought the positive, and especially the negative, effects of EU membership to the public. Keep in mind there are winners as well as losers when the cold winds of competition blow and national protection is at stake.

So the argument that local governments can play an important role because they are closer to the people should help them obtain a certain qualified status in the process to start with! I'd like to add, however, that the new Europe can survive only with the support of the people and not just the support of the technocrats. The ,Europe of the Citizens' is a notion often mentioned, and it has to be filled with life.

I'd like to give you an overview of our preparations for joining the EU. I will refer to a large extent to a government paper entitled ,,Coordination of National Preparations in Austria for Joining the EU" and add my personal remarks.

First, there is a difference between:

  • constitutional-level measures taken to make membership possible (modification of fundamental principles, transfer of sovereignty), and
  • the measures necessary to adjust domestic legalities to Community law.

As for the first point, before the ratification of the treaty by which Austria became a member of the Community, the Austrian Parliament passed a constitutional law which authorised the appropriate agencies to conclude this treaty. This constitutional law had to be submitted to the Austrian people in a referendum because Austria's accession to the Community brought with it a total revision of its Federal Constitution.

In addition to this constitution law ("Beitritts-Bundes-Verfassungsgesetz") certain amendments to the Federal Constitution were necessary:

  • election of members to be delegates to the European Parliament;
  • special provisions for public employees who seek a seat in the European Parliament;
  • nomination of Austrian members of the Commission, the Court of Justice, the Court of First Instance, the Court of Auditors, etc.;
  • inclusion of the Länder, the municipalities and the Parliament regarding projects within the framework of the European Union and the participation of these national institutions in the decision-making process; and
  • Austria's participation in the Common Foreign and Security Policy of the European Union (CFSP).

I am not going to elaborate further on this first point, but will concentrate on the second point:

dealing with the necessary measures to adjust domestic law to the substantive provisions of Community Law.

In Austria's experience, these were essential preconditions for joining the EU:

1) Sufficient time for making preparations

Austria applied for EU membership in July 1989, but preparatory work at the national level started as early at 1987. Since Austria had already undertaken to adopt much (about 60 percent) of the acquis communautaire when it joined the European Economic Area (EEA) in January 1994, the preparatory phase prior to Austria's membership on January 1,1995, took about seven years. This period was, in principle, sufficient to familiarise Austrian administrative bodies with EU law and to amend Austrian legislation. But Austria is still struggling with the problem of transforming Community law into Austrian law, and three years after joining the Community there are still discussions with the Commission regarding this matter.

2. Sufficient personnel

Changing national law to conform to the EU involved considerable bureaucratic efforts because these changes had to be implemented in addition to the normal day-to-day administrative workload. Another factor which must be taken in to consideration in this context is that enough time must be given to personnel employed on EU preparations to get the necessary training and information to cope with the requirements of EU membership.

3. Involve as many people as possible

One crucial aspect is the early involvement in the process of all relevant administrative units at the ministerial level ( Bund and Länder), as they have legislative power, as well as municipalities, various institutions, and employers' and labour organisations.

In Austria, at the administrative level, the Working Group on European Integration was set up as early as February 1987. It consisted of representatives of all federal ministries, organised interest groups (employer and Iabour organisations, etc.), The Austrian National Bank, the Liaison Office of the Federal States (Verbindungsstelle der Bundesländer), the Austrian Association of Cities, and the Austrian Association of Municipalities. Fourteen subgroups, 40 project groups, and 300 people were involved in the project. To be quite honest, the municipalities participated only in a few of the groups, a decision driven not only by the subjects to be dealt with but also by the capacity of our organisations.

The Group's task was to make a comparative analysis of EC regulations and Austrian law, to work out concrete proposals for adapting Austrian law, and to suggest initiatives in opening negotiations with the EC. The final report was transmitted to the Parliament which discussed it in detail.

With a similarly broad membership, the Council for Questions of Austrian Integrations Policy was established in 1989 as an advisory body at the political level. In this body, Members of Parliament, the most concerned ministries, employer' and labour organisations, Länder, and the two associations of local authorities were also represented. The Council's task was to advise the federal government on questions of Austrian integration policy, to discuss and coordinate decisions in integration policy, and to exchange information in this field. This body was chaired by the Federal Chancellor.

The Länder have established a similar body, The Permanent Integration Committee (Ständiger Integrationsausschuss der Länder).

To represent the Austrian Association of Cities and Towns, a committee (Ausschuss der Europabeauftragten) has been created to involve and keep informed the individual cities. The most important action on the city level was organisation of three plenary meetings of our members in 1989, 1991 and 1994 just ahead of the referendum. The cities developed a common position and passed on the information to the decision-making people in the cities.

4. Acquire comprehensive information an EC law

A sine qua non of successful preparations for joining the EU is to inform those involved as quickly as possible about the corpus of existing Community law. A circular letter issued by the Federal Chancellery's Constitutional Law Service pointed out the availability of information from the Official Journal of the European Communities, the Director of Community Legislation in Force and Other Acts of the Community Institutions, and the European Legal Data Bank


It was left to each Ministry to obtain information relevant to its field of activities. Ministries were able to procure legal regulations and drafts via the Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs (e.g., copies of passages from the Official Journal of the European Communities or from microfiches) or from the Federal Chancellery where EC documentation had been systematically compiled. In addition, and independently, most Austrian universities established their own EC law information centres.

The Association of Austrian Cities and Towns asked even more questions of the government, particularly as to taxes or local services, such as water, waste water or dumps. Although we did a lot of research well in advance, we missed a few important topics.

5. Find out as early as possible what adjustment will be needed

A large body of EC regulations exist, so prior to beginning membership negotiations, start as early as possible to determine the need for reform or transitional provisions. In Austria, ,,Acquis Lists" were compiled based on the ,,Commission's White Paper on the Single Market." These lists were sent to each of the Ministries and Länder governments who were asked to make the required adjustments in their respective field and inform the Federal Chancellery.

Austria's participation in the European Economic area (EEA) (given the need to adopt about 1,400 EC legal acts) would require changing about 140 federal laws, about 140 federal executive regulations (ordinances), about 70 laws of federal states (Länder), and about 30 executive regulations in each of the nine Länder. At issue were provisions concerning business law, technology, small- and medium-sized enterprises, laws covering certain professions, and labour codes as well as legislation and regulations concerning food, health, consumer protections, intellectual property and land transactions, just to give some examples. Austria undertook to adopt about 60 percent of the Community law when it became a member of the EEA. Agriculture did not come within the domain of the EEA.

When joining the EU it was reported that some 450 laws had to be changed.

A Project Group on Legal Reform relating to EEA and the EU was set up at the Federal Chancellery to discuss implementation problems. The members of the group are the Federal Ministries, the state governments and the most important professional organisations. It continues to exist and still meets about every six months. The municipalities are invited to participate in these meetings.

6) Continuous checks on EU conformity

Proposed legislation also needed to conform to Community law. Hence, in a 1987 letter, the Federal Chancellery asked that explanatory comments on any draft law should always contain a note stating "whether there exists or is being prepared a European regulation in the field concerned and to what extent there is compatibility or contradiction between it and the proposed legislation." This circular letter was amended and completed in 1989 ("directive on conformity"). Sometimes, from the Austrian experience, the EU conformity was used to push some laws through Parliament that otherwise would have faced additional debate. It was difficult, in the few weeks usually left for commenting on draft legislation, to ascertain whether the EU had really required some very expensive regulations.

7. Training in European law

It is hardly possible to determine the need for implementation and to operate continuous conformity checks on planned legislation without having staff members with a profound knowledge of European law. When Austria announced its intention of becoming a member of the EC, the universities played an important role. As early as 1987, Community law was the subject of intensive discussions in lectures and seminars organised by universities (but accessible to a broad public) as well as in academic Journals.

Contributions of professional organisations and similar bodies sponsoring information forums were also significant. From 1990 the Federal Administrative Academy, which is responsible for training civil servants, offered a "Europe Programme" which, in 1992, led to the establishment of a special "Europe Academy." This institution enables civil servants of the Bund and the Länder to cope with the legislative challenges resulting from Austria's EU membership. Some courses (in Vienna and Brussels) were open as well to representatives from the local level. There was also a close cooperation between the Federal Administrative Academy and the European Institute for Public Administration (EIPA) in Maastricht. The Diplomatic Academy also played an important role.

8) Personal contacts with European institutions

Cultivation of personal contacts with members of EC/EU institutions proved extremely useful, both in terms of becoming better informed and reinforcing personal motivation. These activities ranged from personal approaches by individual administrative units or exchanges of information through regular 'group visits' to Brussels and/or Luxembourg, to the nomination of Austrian "stagiaires" for temporary attachment to an EC institution. Although the local level was also invited to participate, at least in some cases, the response was not sufficient.

Contact with other Associations were extremely important. We had regular contacts with the German Association of Cities (Deutscher Städtetag) and they regularly sent speakers to the annual meetings of the Austrian Association of Cities and Towns, thus giving a very important insight into EU activities. The contacts with other applicant countries, such as Sweden and Finland were important as well. We met regularly, as we are all members of the Council of European Municipalities and Regions (CEMR), and exchanged experience. I learned a lot and was able to avoid making mistakes.

9.) Legal framework for the local level and practical implications

The Associations of local authorities were involved in nearly all important preparatory and decision-making steps. But we were never members of a negotiating committee. The central government considered this their responsibility. Given the knowledge of European law required, we were not unhappy with this.

In 1988 both Associations were given special attention in the Austrian Constitution. Article 115, paragraph 3, states "The Austrian Association of Cities and Towns and the Austrian Association of Municipalities are called upon to represent the interests of local government." This became possible only because the two Associations were already negotiating partners with the government.

In 1989, when the Austrian government applied for membership in the EU and was eager to avoid any turmoil, the two Associations were given a seat at the Council for Questions of Austrian Integration Policy. Thus the local level was involved in practically all relevant decision making. In 1992 the Council of Ministers gave the local level the right to get information and to nominate, in the case of accession, delegates to the Committee of Regions.

After accession an amendment to the Constitution regulating EU issues had to be enacted. It regulated the nomination process for the Committee of Regions where Austria has 12 delegates and their deputies. The amendment states "... the Länder shall propose respectively one, the Austrian Association of Cities and Towns and the Austrian Association of Municipalities jointly three representatives." Article 23 d) Paragraph I reads "The Federation must inform the Länder without delay regarding all projects within the framework of the European Union which affect the Länder's autonomous sphere of competence or could otherwise be of interest to them, and it must give them the opportunity to present their views within a reasonable time to be fixed by the Federation. Such comments shall be addressed to the Federal Chancellery of the Austrian Association of Cities and Towns. The same holds true whenever the interests of the local governments are affected. Local government representation in these matters rests with the Austrian Association of Cities and Towns and the Austrian Association of Municipalities."

In practice the Associations are informed about all decisions to be taken by the Council of Ministers and the weekly meetings of the permanent representatives on the Ambassador level (COREPER). In addition one of thr staff of the Austrian Association of Cities and Towns became a member of the official Austrian mission to the EU in Brussels and has diplomatic status. She is part of the Embassy there, and has access to the information important to local government.

We are also members in some of the coordinating working groups at the ministerial level in Vienna (e.g., environment) and are members of the preparatory committee for the EURO. We are generally invited and are expected to comment on all important issues. We try to contribute positively.

B and C) What are the key issues for the central government and what are the responsibilities and benefits of EU?

The EU is a special club and has a membership fee, which must not exceed (at the moment) 1.27 percent of Gross National Product. In Austria, this means a payment of some 30 billion Austrian Schillings per year. The return from EU to Austria is only half that amount, which means that we are net-payers. Therefore, the Minister of Finance declared in 1989 that he expects the Länder and municipalities to bear part of this burden. When it came to joining we could not resist his charm!

Hungary would certainly be not a net-payer but net-receiver. The EU not only finances structural improvements, but also expects cofinancing by the receiving country. It is sometimes very difficult to find the cofinancing to get European money. Usually they expect at least 30 percent.

Out of the annual EU budget of some 90 billion ECU, 50 percent is devoted to agriculture and some 33 percent to structural policy. The rest is devoted to various international activities and the cost of administration. Structural policy can be subdivided into aid to regions with low income, aid to industrial areas in decline, aid for agricultural development, and aid to improve labour market and labour qualifications. The EU expects, particularly regarding regional aid, that projects should be developed by the government in partnership with the local and regional levels. Therefore, it is wise to have the local sector involved sooner rather than later.

Other important issues for the local level

  • # At the beginning Cities and Towns looked hard at the restrictions concerning major subsidies for the private sector, for example, to attract private companies.
  • Another important issue was public procurement. For example all construction above 5 million ECU or purchases of goods and services for more than 200,000 ECU have to be put out for European-wide bid, and there must not be any discrimination of foreign companies participating in the bid.
  • Capital flows freely. EU citizens can acquire land in any EU country without any restriction. This caused a lot of discussion, because many people were afraid that rich ,foreigners' would buy at any price in the most beautiful areas, leaving no chance for local people to buy land and build their own house. So we agreed on a transitional period and used principles of urban planning. But, of course, discrimination against EU citizens in the future is not allowed.
  • Another problem for western Austria is transit of heavy lorry vehicles. There as well a special arrangement had to be made in the Treaty with the European Union to restrict road transport.
  • One problem which was created in part before joining the European Union was the regulation concerning standards of water, waste water or dumps. Austrian municipalities will have to invest over a period of 15 years approximately 250 billion Schillings in this infrastructure. Part of the expense is due to Austrian regulation, but some is due to EU standards. This is an area you should be very careful about. It is another example where the local sector should be involved because it has a better chance to detect such problems have national government representatives. In the negotiations with the EU you should have at least a chance to discuss these issues and try to find solutions you can live with.

There are many other issues that concern local authorities. If you look at the work programme of the Commission for 1998 you will see that two-thirds of all new regulations have some impact on local authorities.

For me it is clear: the European Union is developing its structure. There is a saying, ,,It you can't beat them, join them." This is true here as well. It costs a lot of time and personnel and requires a strong political decision. If one wants the interest of the local level respected, one has to raise one´s voice.

D) European Associations

In my opinion there is only one association: the Council of European Municipalities and Regions (CEMR). It represents the various Associations and is a platform from which you can get to know the system you are entering.

There is also Eurocities. They are very active in giving advice on the availability of funds in the various programmes. But by far most of the funds from the EU will be managed in your own country, and there you will have to be strong.

There is the United Town Organisation. They organise networks of cities, particularly with the South.

The Council of Europe is an excellent forum for all kinds of exchanges of opinion and is a voice of local and regional governments with respect to their national governments.

The Committee of Regions is an auxiliary organ of the European Union to give advice on future EU regulations. It is important, and if you are invited you must attend. But this is a type of Parliament and is not as broad as you might wish. Delegates are there on a personal basis.

As the Associations are the key organisations in defending local self government, they need a forum of their own: it's CEMR.

Vienna, January 1998


ÖGZ Download