Salzburg, Austria - Is there really an Austria? Until last year that was a question Austrians could avoid. It cannot be avoided now: The reunification of Germany has made that impossible.
Joining ''Europe'' might seem the way round the question. Austria is near the head of the queue of countries applying to join the European Community. But public opinion is not convinced that this is a good idea.
There are several reasons why many Austrians don't want to join the Community. For one thing, rather than solving the problem of Austria's relationship to Germany, it seems to threaten even more German influence on Austria than already is the case, since Germany is the most powerful economy in the European Community.
There are practical objections. The Austrians claim Austrian ecological norms are higher than the Community's, and ecology is a big issue in Austria. European Community farm subsidies are lower than in Austria, which also is politically important.
A big local issue is transport. Austria's misfortune is to lie on Western Europe's main north-south and east-west routes, with borders on seven countries. The trucks and trailers pound through Austria's valleys and tunnels on their way to non-Austrian destinations. People fear that once in the Community there will be no way to regulate or restrict this traffic, or to force it onto the rails, as the Austrians want.
Community membership is also thought to jeopardize Austrian neutrality. Neutrality between what, one may ask, now that the Cold War has faded. Neutrality as such seems to be the answer, as in Switzerland. On Switzerland's example, a small country would seem to save itself a great deal of trouble by declaring itself outside power rivalries.
This works best, however, if you have cooperative neighbors and lie in a zone of inherent stability, which is not the case for Austria. In fact, Austria's big current complaint against the European Community is that Brussels is not intervening forcibly enough in Yugoslavia's power rivalries. The Austrians want Slovenian and Croatian independence recognized.
These objections to European Community membership do not add up to a coherent alternative policy for Austria. Hence they are unlikely to prevail, given reasonable political management of the issue by the government. But they do reflect the underlying problem of Austria's modern identity.
Before 1918, identity posed no question. Vienna was the seat of the great Hapsburg dynasty, successor in the 15th century to the crown of the Holy Roman Empire, at its peak of power uniting under one family Spain's empire with Austria's, the sovereignties of Burgundy, the Netherlands, Bohemia, Hungary, most of Italy, etc.
There was no real ideological or moral base for the Hapsburg system, however, once the age of absolutism was past. In the 19th century, liberalism and nationalism undermined the empire. World War I was the final shattering blow. After that, there was only Austria, a truncated German-speaking republic uneasily unconvinced of its right to an independent existence -- willing to hand itself over to Germany when Hitler beat the drum of ''Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Fuhrer.''
The postwar Austrian republic, however, has steadily gained popular support. Those identifying themselves as ''Austrians'' rather than ''Germans'' have risen to over 90 percent of the population today. Opinions can change, though, and in Austrian intellectual and political circles, one hears considerable concern expressed about both the rise of nationalism in unified Germany and the supposed fragility of national feeling in Austria.
Gerhard Botz of the University of Salzburg asks whether ''the German locomotive'' might not be ''already out of control.'' He concludes that the possibility cannot be excluded.
So long as there were two German states, West and East, and West German patriotic feeling seemed detached from specific nationhood, Austrians were under no pressure to consider who they were and why there was an Austria. Today, it is legitimate to ask what answers Austrians would give, were a united Germany to put those questions.
As Professor Botz says, ''How deeply anchored is this sense of Austrian nationality in reality? . . . Can we be sure that a liberal-democratic, socially and internally assured Austrian identity would prevail even in times of crisis?'' The fact that his questions have to be raised is troubling. The fact that they are being raised is reassuring.
One would nonetheless think membership in the European Community offers a solution, or at least the road toward a solution. If the choice were between Vienna as a German provincial city and Vienna as a European regional capital, the latter would seem the more agreeable outcome.
However, the ''Europe of Regions'' that would make this possible -- and that many elsewhere in Europe would like to see come about -- seems, on present perspectives, a trifle utopian.
It remains a Europe of nations. The Europe of the Six could aspire to become a federation. Federation is what the Europe of the Twelve says it intends today. But the Europe of the Twenty-Six (which is what ''Europe'' now could become, incorporating present candidates for membership, Eastern Europe, plus Malta and Cyprus) cannot become a federal nation.
It best it becomes a confederation or alliance of individual nations. That leaves Austrians (and the Germans as well) with their questions about nationhood unanswered.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.