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Austria: EU Rejects Normal Relations

  • Tony Wesolowsky

Austria's controversial far-right leader Joerg Haider has resigned from his leadership of the Freedom Party. But the action has not altered the European Union's decision to isolate Austria politically as long as Haider's far-right party is in government. RFE/RL correspondent Tuck Wesolowsky reports:

Prague, 29 February 2000 (RFE/RL -- The European Union says it will not restore normal relations with Vienna after Joerg Haider's decision to resign as the head of Austria's far-right Freedom Party. The party's entry into a coalition government earlier this month sparked international controversy and an unprecedented decision by Austria's 14 EU partners to isolate it politically.

Monday night, Haider told a meeting of his party's leadership in Vienna that he would step down as party chief so as not to stand in the way of the new government's work. Haider is retaining his post as governor of Austria's Carinthia region.

Today (Tuesday), Antonio Guterres, prime minister of Portugal -- the current EU president -- said the EU has no plans to lift its sanctions against Vienna. Guterres said that the key issue is not Haider personally, but the nature of the Freedom Party itself.

At the time, Israel also recalled its envoy to Austria, but said he would not return so long as the Freedom Party was a part of the government. Today, Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy said Haider's resignation would not in itself change his government's attitude. The United States welcomed Haider's move, but said it would continue to "watch closely" the actions of Austria's coalition government. Washington had withdrawn its ambassador from Vienna briefly when the coalition was formed, but he returned shortly thereafter.

In the run-up to Austrian parliamentary elections last autumn, the Freedom Party campaigned on an anti-EU, anti-immigrant platform. And in the past, Haider has praised certain aspects of Nazi policies. He has also opposed the planned EU expansion to Central and Eastern Europe.

Belgium and France are the two EU members most opposed to the Freedom Party's participation in the coalition. A spokesman at the Belgian Foreign Ministry, Michel Malherbe, told RFE/RL today that Haider's resignation changes little for Brussels:

"The resignation of Joerg Haider hasn't changed the picture a lot, hasn't altered our strategy. The target of the sanctions decided by the EU is not the person of Joerg Haider, but the presence of the FPO [Freedom Party] within the Austrian coalition."

Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel was more outspoken. In an interview with the weekly "Journal du Mardi" published today, Michel said his country wants to see the current Austrian government fall.

Still, Foreign Ministry spokesman Malherbe said that Belgium and the rest of the EU did see Haider's move as a positive step:

"I would stress that ... when I read the reactions of other EU governments, it seems that all those reactions go in the same direction, which is to welcome this resignation. But, at the same time, to stress the goal, our common goal, which was said, and was expressed by the EU Portuguese president, hasn't been reached yet." Last night, Haider himself said explicitly that his resignation did not signal a departure from Austria's political world:

"I would like to make it clear that I am not running away from Austrian politics, but that we [that is, the Freedom Party] have found another constellation of leaders."

An important part of the new "constellation" is Susanne Riess-Passer, now Austria's vice chancellor, who takes over as party leader. The 37-year-old Riess-Passer's unwavering loyalty to Haider has earned her the nickname of "King Cobra." In addition, half of the ministers in the new government are Freedom Party members who owe their posts to Haider. All this suggests that, despite his resignation, Haider's influence on the party -- and, therefore, on the government -- is unlikely to diminish.

Many analysts see Haider's resignation as a strategic retreat, made to better his chances at winning what he really wants most: the Austrian chancellorship. Much of the Austrian press views it in the same light.

The daily "Die Presse" today describes Haider's resignation as a shrewd tactical move that will enable him to distance himself from unpopular government decisions like raising taxes, while positioning himself for the next election. And only yesterday, Haider himself told an interviewer he still hopes to become chancellor.