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EU: Austria Will Not Be Totally Isolated

  • Roland Eggleston

Austria's 14 fellow members in the European Union have separately declared that they will restrict bilateral contacts following the appointment today (Friday) of the new coalition government including the xenophobic Freedom Party led by Joerg Haider. But as correspondent Roland Eggleston reports from Vienna, that does not mean that Austria will be entirely isolated.

Vienna, 4 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Isolating Austria from the international community would be a difficult task.

Despite the EU's criticism of Austria's new government, Austria remains chairman of the 54-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The new foreign minister, Benita Ferrerro-Waldner, is this year's chairman of the OSCE.

A spokesman at OSCE headquarters in Vienna -- who did not wish to be identified -- said Ferrerro-Waldner would perform the normal duties of the OSCE chairman, which include widespread travel to member countries and diplomatic contacts.

Other Austrians also hold important posts in international organizations, including the European Union. They, too, will continue to travel around the world on behalf of their organizations, despite the official quarantine in which Austria has been placed.

In Berlin, the German Foreign Ministry said such officials will, in the spokesman's words, "give the new Austrian government adequate opportunities for maintaining contacts with other European governments, though, of course, they will not have the same status as the normal, direct government-to-government contacts."

In answer to a direct question, the German spokesman said it is not the goal of the 14 European governments to bring down the new Austrian government. He said it is unrealistic to believe that the government would collapse because of foreign pressure.

The German government spokesman acknowledged there are indications that support for the Freedom Party might even grow because of hostility to what was perceived as outside interference in Austrian affairs. But he said it is important for the future of Europe that other European governments make clear that a xenophobic party with strong anti-foreigner policies has no place in a community of democratic nations.

The sanctions imposed by the 14 EU governments include severe restrictions on political and bilateral contacts. Austrian embassies will continue to be recognized but their ambassadors will in future be received only by senior government officials, and not by the foreign minister. And Austrians seeking senior posts in international organizations will no longer have the support of fellow members of the European Union.

NATO has already demonstrated its distance from Austria. The supreme commander in Europe, General Wesley Clark, canceled an official visit planned for today. The official reason given was that he had other engagements.

The European Union itself, however, will maintain normal relations with Austria, and Austria will continue to participate in the meetings of the Council of Ministers.

Under European Union regulations, Austria's membership can be suspended only for grave human rights violations or for offenses against personal freedom or the rule of law. Since the government has been in office only since midday today (Friday), it has had no opportunity to infringe these regulations. But the European Union has said it will "closely observe" the policies of the new government.

Political experts say it is unclear how the quarantine will operate at a day-to-day working level. The embassies of the 14 countries are expected to remain in Vienna and to continue working as normal. The Belgian ambassador said on Austrian television: "Belgians will still come to Austria for business or on holidays and we must be here to serve them."

For Germany, there are particular problems in implementing the quarantine of Austria. Edmund Stoiber, premier of the province of Bavaria, which is on the Austrian border, last night criticized the reaction of the 14 European governments. Stoiber said the provincial government in Munich supports some of Haider's views, particularly on the eastward expansion of the European Union. Haider has said expansion should be delayed for 10 years.

In his statement, the Bavarian premier said the European Union needs to initiate a discussion on the eastward expansion of the EU and review whether negotiations are proceeding too quickly.

The German government has said previously that Haider's position on EU expansion is one of the reasons it is concerned at the inclusion of the Freedom Party in the new Austrian government. It fears that the party will try to put a brake on the expansion of the EU and so encourage other opponents of eastward expansion.

In addition, as Austria's neighbor, Germany is particularly troubled by the breakthrough of the far right into national politics. Germany has a continuing problem with its own right-wing minority, which tries to exploit resentment towards immigrants and dismay with the course of European integration.

Polls conducted by German radio and TV stations indicate that many Germans believe the 14 governments have overreacted to the situation in Austria by imposing sanctions without waiting to see what policies the new government would follow.

And in Germany Friday, there appeared to be little sign that Austria would be boycotted by the people. On a sunny afternoon with more snow promised for the weekend, the Autobahn was crowded with cars carrying skis on top, heading for the Austrian slopes.