Refugees wait outside the refugee camp in Traiskirchen, Austria, Friday, July 31, 2015. (AP Photo/Ronald Zak)

Austria is a small country of only 8.4 million people in the heart of Europe. Post offices tend to confuse it with Australia, prompting Australia to once issue a special rubber stamp, requesting that letters be “redirected to Austria in Europe”. Almost 22 years ago, Austria had joined the European Union (EU) alongside Sweden and Finland, with 67 per cent of the Austrian population voting in favour of membership in a national referendum in June 1994 — the accession treaty was signed later that month.

There is no doubt that the Austrian economy has profited significantly from its involvement in the growing European single market. Some 70 per cent of Austria’s foreign trade is with EU member states. When 10 more states, most from eastern Europe, joined the EU in 2004 — adding 74 million people to the union — Austria and Germany insisted on a transition period of up to seven years in which they could exercise control over their labour markets. Eastern European states had less competitive economies, a lower gross domestic product per capita and significantly lower wages.

The considerable difference in income between “old” and “new” EU member states caused great public concern at the time. This fear of foreign competition in the labour market is one of the reasons why more than 40 per cent of Austrians now regret joining the EU.

For years, Austria saw itself as an isle of the blessed, a small, peaceful country that had full employment and next to no strikes, and whose beautiful landscape and cultural highlights attracted millions of tourists every year. Vienna has topped the Mercer Quality of Living survey as the city with the highest quality of living worldwide for the third time in a row. The effects of the global financial crisis, however, were felt in Austria too. Unemployment began to rise and is now about 9.4 per cent, bank troubles abounded, and those who felt their jobs were threatened began to look around for a scapegoat — and began to blame the EU for all their woes.

Historically, Austria’s reputation for taking in refugees has been excellent. During the Hungarian uprising of 1956, it had opened its borders to thousands of Hungarians. One has only to recall James Michener’s famous statement in his book The Bridge at Andau (1957), in which he chronicled the uprising: “If I am ever required to be a refugee, I hope to make it to Austria.” Much the same happened during the Prague spring of 1968 when Austria opened its borders to let in thousands of Czechoslovakians.

And during the Balkan war of 1995 it again took in thousands of people fleeing the former Yugoslavia. Religion was never a factor. Muslims from the former Yugoslavia were made to feel just as welcome as Catholics from Croatia or Orthodox Serbs. My parish took in 30 Muslims for several months at the time and I helped some of the children learn English. I remember how surprised I was when one of the mothers asked me if her three children could dress up as the three magi at Epiphany, when Austrian children from each parish go from house to house collecting money for the Catholic Three Wise Kings’ mission.

Apparently, they had always joined the Catholic children back in their homeland although they were Muslims. Our parish priest smiled and said: “The money is for a humanitarian cause and will help those in need, regardless of their religion, so of course they can.” One cannot imagine that happening today. While the refugees and migrants who poured over the border at the end of last August were made just as welcome, a general feeling of unease was only too apparent. The government and the thousands of voluntary helpers enthusiastically welcomed German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door policy, and the president of the Austrian bishops’ conference, Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna, rushed to the border to personally welcome the refugees, but a general scepticism about the people entering the country soon became apparent. As trains full of refugees crossed through Austria, it was evident that the women, babies and small children shown in press photographs were only a small minority.

The large majority were able-bodied young men of between 20 and 35. Many Austrians wondered how little Austria, whose migrant camps were already full to overflowing, could successfully integrate them and, above all, find work for them. At a memorial service for the 71 migrants who suffocated in a refrigerator truck found abandoned in eastern Austria, Schonborn made it clear that Europe was facing the greatest humanitarian challenge in decades, “which will change all our lives”. He deplored the failure of EU countries to share the refugee burden equally.

Many Austrians could not understand why the EU authorities in Brussels were not showing more solidarity with the people who were actually having to cope with the refugee problem.

The big turning point came when gangs of migrants sexually abused women on New Year’s Eve in Cologne. The news increased Austrians’ fears. But the then Austrian chancellor, Werner Faymann, and Schonborn continued to insist that the open-door policy would work and that borders must remain fully open. By the end of 2015, more than 90,000 people had applied for asylum in Austria, more per capita than Germany or Sweden (and more than the US and Canada put together). Faymann was forced to change his policy and Austria closed its borders. Now Europe and European bishops are more divided than ever on the migrant issue in which religion seems to play an ever more dominant role. EU countries in eastern Europe refuse to take in Muslim refugees .

The open-door policy of pope Francis and Merkel is meeting stubborn resistance in Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, while Austria has decided to erect border fences and restrict the number of asylum seekers this year to 37,500. The bishop of Burgenland, Austria’s easternmost province, recently refused to let Austrian authorities erect a border fence on church land, saying erecting borders was against the Gospel message — but only last week, he warned that Europe must not be “too naive” regarding plans to Islamise Europe. Vienna has long been a cultural melting pot and a centre for international cooperation and inter-religious dialogue.

It’s to be hoped that in its function as a bridge between East and West, it can contribute towards stabilising the truly dangerous situation the EU now finds itself in. It is crucial to stem the surging support for far-right parties, which play on fears of uncontrolled inflows of migrants, but also to bring the starry-eyed idealists, who insist on keeping the doors wide open, back down to earth.

— Guardian News & Media Ltd

Christa Pongratz-Lippitt is the Tablet’s correspondent in Vienna.