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Austria: EU Breaks New Ground With Criticism

  • Ahto Lobjakas

The ultimatum presented to Austria by the European Union countries, threatening Austria's political isolation if Joerg Haider's right-wing Freedom Party enters the new government, has presented both Austria and the EU with a dilemma over what to do next. RFE/RL's correspondent Ahto Lobjakas looks at the situation.

Prague, 3 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The EU's warning to Austria to keep Joerg Haider's Freedom Party out of the government or suffer political isolation has prompted questions among analysts and observers about the longer-term implications of its actions.

Haider's earlier statements sympathetic to the Nazis raised fears in European capitals that his party is racist and anti-foreigner. All 14 of Austria's fellow European Union members have threatened to freeze relations with Austria if the Freedom Party joins in a government coalition.

The Freedom Party gathered 27 percent of the vote in the October 3 elections, sharing second place in Austria's parliament with the conservative People's Party (OVP). The country has been led by a caretaker government since those elections, and a new government is urgently needed to pass a new budget.

When coalition talks between the leading Social Democrats and People's Party failed last week, new talks began between the Freedom Party and the People's Party. EU countries responded on Monday, condemning the inclusion of the Freedom Party in coalition talks. Austrian President Thomas Klestil is expected to make a decision Thursday on whether to accept the coalition.

Austrians are offended at the EU's interference in its politics. Herbert Gottweis, a political scientist at the University of Vienna, says the blow has been so sudden that the chief feeling among the general public is one of confusion.

"A lot of people think 'What's going on here?' The FPO, [Haider's Freedom Party], got 27 percent of the vote and it might be part of the government -- but how does that translate into Austria's being a pariah state? Or being a country run by fascists and all that? So there is a great deal of astonishment, disbelief and anger, I think."

Gottweis said the immediate result of the EU ultimatum has been to further strengthen Haider's support.

What has surprised many observers is the suddenness and inflexibility of the European governments' message to Austria. The EU member governments have said that if Haider's party enters Austria's government, they will suspend all bilateral political contacts with Austria. This statement came before the proposed coalition had even released its platform.

Julie Smith is the head of the European Program of the London-based Royal Institute for International Affairs. She tells RFE/RL that the EU's reaction is partly due to very poor timing on the part of Austria.

"I think it was a response to a situation which occurred at a very sensitive time. In part, given [that] the heads of state and other ministers were at the Holocaust conference [in Stockholm], there was very much an insensitivity about the timing of the Austrian change of government."

Smith says other European governments feel extreme anxiety about what is known of Haider's agenda, particularly his stance against immigration.

France, Germany and Belgium, the countries that led the EU response, may also be spurred by a desire to set an example for their own extreme right-wing parties.

Analysts considering possible solutions to the crisis have so far remained pessimistic. Four months of attempts to form a government have failed, and if the coalition between the Freedom Party and the People's Party fails also, Austria will have to call elections. In such a contest, polls suggest, Joerg Haider and his Freedom Party would probably emerge as outright winners.

Analysts also doubt the viability of long-term political sanctions. Even though Austria's 14 partners have talked of bilateral measures, lasting political isolation would harm the European Union.

According to EU regulations, Austria, should it choose to do so, could actively stymie much of the work of the EU by boycotting key sessions.

In recognition of this, the European Commission, the EU's executive body, has distanced itself from the action of EU member governments. In a statement yesterday (Wednesday), the commission said: "The European Commission needs its institutions, and the institutions are going to keep working. There will be no paralysis of the European Union institutions, and certainly not of the commission."

A European Commission spokesman said he wanted to emphasize that the normal activities of the EU are different from the bilateral relations of member states.