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Western Press Review: Haider Discussion Marches On

  • Don Hill

Prague, 4 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The Western press fired off much of its ammunition against Austria's incipient right-wing government as the government's creation approached. After the fact, some of the commentary has quieted, but other publications take up the topic.

NEW YORK TIMES: Austria's partners can honor EU treaty principles by distancing themselves from Vienna

However, The New York Times, which till now has been editorially silent on Austria's swing to the right, says that Austrians have a right to vote for whom they choose, but that Austria's friends are not obliged to continue relations with a government that includes a xenophobic and intolerant party.

In an editorial, the newspaper puts it this way: "The European Union's founding treaty condemns racial and ethnic discrimination and envisions measures to combat these evils, which brought Europe so much suffering in the past. Austria's partners can honor the treaty's principles by distancing themselves from the new government in Vienna."

VOLKSKRANT: Isolating politicians only increases their attraction

The Dutch daily, Volkskrant, approaches the subject differently. It says that disapproval is not necessarily a good enough reason to isolate a politician, political party, or nation. Volkskrant says this in an editorial: "Austria is an example that shows that it does not make sense to isolate politicians. This only increases their attraction for those voters who are on the fringes of society. The political establishment, in other parts of Europe as well, should not be allowed to shut out others, but rather should open itself up to them."

Volkskrant continues: "The tendency of the big parties to develop themselves into technocratic, managerial, centrist parties, serves above all the wishes of the well-off middle class, and results in the losers seeking succor among radical parties where political passion is still to be found, albeit the dangerous passion of rage and prejudice."

FINANCIAL TIMES: The big question is how to define what is acceptable and what is unacceptable

The Financial Times says in an editorial that Austria's folly has become the EU's crisis. As the editorial puts it: "The big question at stake is how to define what is acceptable and what is unacceptable in the political ideology of the government of a member state. Is it acceptable for a communist party, or a fascist or neo-fascist party, to be part of an EU government? If that can be defined, then the members need to establish how they can and should react, from suspension of membership through to the ultimate expulsion of a fellow member."

The editorial suggests that the EU is reacting prematurely. In the newspaper's words: "All 14 fellow EU member states have declared that they will suspend bilateral relations with any Austrian government which includes the Freedom Party. However, thus far they have acted on an intergovernmental basis, outside the framework of the treaties. They have stopped short of any action to exclude Austria from the institutional workings of the EU. The distinction is critical: Austria has not broken any EU rules. Yet even so, the 14 are treading very close to the line of interfering in the democratic processes of a fellow member state."

L'ALSACE: Austrians are wrong to have kept their eyes shut for years

The French daily l'Alsace, published in Mulhouse, says the Austrians are not all Nazis, but that recent developments are dangerous nonetheless. An editorial says this: "The Austrians are not wrong in claiming that their country does not consist of 1.2 million Nazis who voted for the Freedom Party. They are neither wrong for wanting a change nor for saying that they are the masters in their own country."

The editorial continues, however, with this: "They are wrong to have kept their eyes shut for years ever since allowing an Austrian to be elected fuehrer of the Third Reich. They look today at their brown-tanned Carinthians (Haider is governor of Carinthia province) without seeing what is under the surface. The Austrians are wrong when they perceive the warnings of their European partners as threats. Austria is not Nazi, but was Germany when Hitler seized power?"

TIMES: Racism is more troubling than Haider himself

Also from London, The Times adopts one popular argument. It is that punishing Austria may be just, but it is unlikely to have the desired result. The Times editorial puts it this way: "The [Freedom Party's] Nazi roots are not in doubt. As for Herr Haider, his parents were keen Nazis long before the Anschluss, and the basis of his considerable fortune is an estate inherited from them, which was Jewish-owned until it was Aryanized in 1938.

"[Yesterday] President Thomas Klestil insisted that [Haider] sign a joint declaration of responsibility with Wolfgang Schuessel, the People's Party leader who will take the chancellorship. It condemns discrimination and demagoguery, says that xenophobia, anti-Semitism and racism have no place in Austria, somewhat too obliquely refers to Austria's 'responsibility arising out of the tragic history of the 20th century' and explicitly condemns horrendous Nazi crimes, singling out the Holocaust."

"Herr Haider may not believe a word of all this. But there is no gain, and some risk, in condemning what has not yet happened. Fears that other far-right parties will milk resistance to European integration underlie much of this week's uproar. Herr Haider feeds on racism because it is there. That is more troubling than the man himself."

WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE: The EU, not Haider, threatens Austrian democracy

Jacob Heilbrunn, a writer in Washington, puts similar thoughts more bluntly in a commentary published by the Wall Street Journal Europe. He says this: "The EU, not Haider, threatens Austrian democracy."

In the writer's words: "The threat Mr. Haider poses to Austrian democracy is grossly exaggerated. He is more opportunist than Nazi. Mr. Haider is a modernized right-winger who champions free-market economics, high-tech industry, and a crackdown on crime as well as hostility to a single European currency and further immigration."

Heilbrunn also writes this: "As financial scandals make Germany the latest country whose political class is being completely discredited, Mr. Haider's potency in Austria should serve as a wakeup call to government leaders across the continent too. They need to make Europe more, not less, democratic. However bad it may be for Mr. Haider to gain power, keeping him out undemocratically would be worse."

DAILY TELEGRAPH: Europe must beware of driving the younger generation into Haider's clutches

London's Daily Telegraph agrees that the EU is helping Haider. Here's its editorial approach: "The bluster from [EU headquarters in] Brussels has already boosted Joerg Haider in the polls to such a degree that, if an election were held now in Austria, his party might overtake the Social Democrats to become the dominant power in Vienna." The editorial concludes with this: "Fascism was fashionable in Hitler's day, and designer fascism could be so again. Mr. Haider's mesmeric hold over a disillusioned younger generation of Austrians is what makes him so dangerous. Europe must beware of driving them into his clutches."

(Jolyon Naegele in Prague contributed to this press review.)