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EU: Austrian Spokesman On Monetary Union Forced To Resign

Vienna, 17 April 1997 (RFE/RL) - The Austrian Government has suffered an embarrassing setback in its campaign to persuade skeptical Austrian voters to support the European Union's coming monetary union.

The chief spokesman in Austria for European Monetary Union (EMU), Gustav Raab, has resigned less than three weeks after a newspaper reported that he signed an agreement with the EU's Executive Commission to promote only positive views about monetary union and its planned single currency, the Euro.

When Raab was appointed on April 1, the Government promised that he would give "balanced information about the advantages and disadvantages" of monetary union and not be just a propagandist in its favor.

The Austrian coalition government of socialists and conservatives is strongly in favor of joining EMU in the first round of eligible countries, at the start of 1999. Austria's currency, finances and trade are strongly tied to Germany, which leads the campaign to introduce monetary union and the Euro. However, recent opinion polls show that Austrian voters are less than enthusiastic. Only 15 percent are in favor of Austria joining EMU, with 39 percent against. This leaves 46 percent undecided.

Austrians voted heavily in favor of joining the EU in a referendum in June 1994. But public support for the Union dropped as the price of food and other goods rose and some Austrian regulations were changed to meet EU standards. The Austrian media has said frequently that many voters feel the Government was not honest in its campaign on behalf of joining the EU. Critics say that, by giving one-sided information that painted an unrealistically rosy picture of the benefits of membership, the Government distorted the issue.

The resignation of Gustav Raab followed an investigation by a provincial newspaper, the "Salzburger Nachrichten," which has often criticised the EU. The daily reported that Saab -- a banker -- was among 14 Austrian bankers and economists who had committed themselves to present only the EU's point of view in their public speeches. In return, the EU's Commission promised a fee of $340 for each appearance as well as better access to information on monetary union.

Raab has denied any wrongdoing and claimed that he cancelled the agreement with the Brussels Commission before taking on his new post. He said that he was resigning because the debate over the EU and monetary union should not be compromised over questions about his own role.

The Austrian government says a new spokesman for questions on monetary union will be appointed in a few days. But the opposition Freedom Party has demanded that the entire pro-EMU campaign be dropped. The party is led by the extreme Right-winger Jorg Haider, who opposes Austrian membership in the EU.

Austrian commentators say the disclosures about Raab have raised questions about the credibility of many of those making public statements in favor of monetary union. According to the Austrian press, about 180 economists and bankers across Europe have signed similar contracts with the EU's Executive Commission, promising to present only positive views on monetary union.