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Western Press Review: EU-Austria, Expansion, Hijack, Iran

Prague, 15 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Much of Western press commentary today focuses on the European Union's coming expansion and its recent decision to isolate member-state Austria after the far-Right Freedom Party entered a new coalition government in Vienna. There is also continuing comment on last week's Afghan hijack crisis, and well as on the prospects for reform in Iran.

INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE: The EU must put its own house in order

In today's International Herald Tribune, Roy Denman says that before the EU enlarges it must put its own house in order. The writer, a former representative of the EU's Executive Commission in Washington, says that much has been achieved in the construction of a unified Europe over the past 50 years. But Penman believes the building is only half-finished.

He writes: "The so-called Union cannot speak with one voice on foreign policy or defense, nor on economic and monetary policy. Moreover, the new Europe has not yet won the hearts and minds of its citizens. They regard its institutions as distant and bureaucratic and have demonstrated this by increasingly staying away from [EU] elections."

Penman also says that adding up to 13 new member states to the EU is certain to make the confusion only worse. He writes that the launching this week of an EU inter-governmental conference (IGC) on internal reforms will not get anywhere because there are too many divisions within the EU. He points to other major problems within the EU, including the reluctance of Britain, Denmark and Sweden to join its single currency.

INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE: Many EU officials regret the impulsiveness of their initial reaction to politics in Austria

Also in the International Herald Tribune today, columnist Reginald Dale says that the political isolation of Austria by the EU makes the Union institutionally confused and politically inconsistent. He says that while EU officials still worry about the new Austrian government, many regret the impulsiveness of their initial reaction two weeks ago.

Dale argues that the EU never really imposed sanctions, but that legally speaking Austria's 14 EU partners acted bilaterally, outside the Union's framework and its treaties. Technically, the actions of these governments had no effect on Austria's EU membership. And, says Dale, contacts between Austria and its fellow members within the EU have continued unabated.

Dales also argues that it would have been much better for the EU to issue a weighty warning to Austria to remember its EU obligations instead of imposing bilateral sanctions. He says that it's problematic to "overturn the outcome of a democratic election in the name of democracy." And he notes that bilateral action against Austria is perceived by some of the EU's smaller countries as another example of the tendency strong member-states to ride roughshod over weaker ones.

GUARDIAN: Austria should not infect other political systems in Europe

In the British daily Guardian, columnist Hugo Young expresses the hope that Joerg Haider's Freedom Party in Austria will not infect other political systems in Europe. Young catalogues other EU countries, assessing their vulnerability to the type of nationalist rhetoric espoused by Haider in Austria.

To Belgium, Young writes, Haider is a real and immediate threat because the Flemish separatist party Vlaams Blok (VB) pursues an anti-immigrant agenda similar to that of the Freedom Party. Young says that until now the VB has been carefully watched carefully in Belgium and kept out of power.

Young says the National Front party is France's equivalent of the Belgian VB and the Austrian Freedom Party. The National Front, he notes, has made gains in recent elections, even though it has been denounced by other political groups, including fellow rightists. But like Vlaams Blok in Belgium, the Front is anti - immigrant. Young says that both parties take comfort in the Freedom Party's legitimization in the new Austrian government.

As for his own country, Britain, Young says that it has different preoccupations but faces similar social issues, particularly immigration. According to the commentator, the reasons for Haider's appeal in Britain lies in the stoked-up fears he excites about domestic jobs being taken by foreigners. Those fears, he adds, were evident in the public response to the Afghan airplane hijacking that ended last week at Britain's Stansted airport with some two-thirds of the plane's passengers applying for asylum. Young says much of the British press has fueled the notion that "the world is full of hijackers with immigrant cargo and a global intelligence service homing in on Stansted."

WALL STREET JOURNAL: Straw is making a big mistake in passing up a high-profile opportunity to lead by example

An editorial in today's Wall Street Journal says that the reaction of British Home Secretary (interior minister) Jack Straw to the Afghan asylum applicants is far from what one would expect from the chief legal officer of such a "rich and historically tolerant nation." Straw has pledged to review each hijack victim's asylum application, but he has also said that he wants the passengers to leave Britain as soon as possible.

The editorial says that threats against the applicants by Afghanistan's ruling Taliban regime seem reason enough to open the asylum process. Straw, writes the WSJ, has gone so far as to echo the Taliban party line. Recently a Taliban official, said that a distinction must be made between political and economic asylum seekers. But the editorial says that in Afghanistan even this flimsy distinction doesn't work, and asks: "Are women who are not allowed to work or be educated in Taliban Afghanistan political or economic asylum seekers?"

The editorial concludes by saying that Straw is making a big mistake in passing up a high-profile opportunity to lead by example: "Britain should show the likes of Austria's Joerg Haider how civilized countries treat the dispossessed, not present him with an opportunity for accusations, however, unwarranted to accuse it of hypocrisy."

INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE: There are signs of real Iranian democracy

Three days before Iran's parliamentary elections, some Western commentators are assessing the state of reform in the Persian Gulf nation. Writing in the International Herald Tribune, columnist Philip Bowring argues that the upcoming elections may prove that Islam and democracy are in fact compatible.

Bowring says that the elections cannot be called free and fair. The candidates have been vetted by the religious establishment and all must accept the theocratic nature of the state. And the parliament, like the directly elected President, will still remain subservient to the unelected clerical power structure headed by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. But Bowring also believes there are signs of real Iranian democracy. He says that the fact that elections are happening at all illustrates that there are many in the clergy who believe that the spiritual elite have no divine right to rule.

Bowring looks at other Islamic states where, he says, it is apparent that religion is not the controlling political force. For example, in Indonesia Islam is diverse and has a tradition of tolerance and democracy. In Pakistan, despite its origins as a state specifically for Muslims, the challenges to democracy are from feudalism and the military, not from mainstream Islam. And in Turkey, the military's secular nationalism limits both democracy and Islam.

FINANCIAL TIMES: Elections will continue to promote change in the country

In Britain's Financial Times, Guy Dinmore writes that the upcoming Iranian elections will continue to promote change in the country. The commentator says that the beneath the reforms in Iran is an uneasy relationship between Ayatollah Khamenei and moderate President Mohammad Khatami.

Dinmore believes that Khatami needs the Ayatollah to help him push the wheels of change through Iran. Ayatollah Khamenei holds the real levers of power in Iran. He controls the armed forces, the intelligence services, the judiciary, the state broadcasting system and charitable foundations whose business links stretch everywhere. On the other hand, Khamenei needs the President, who is popular among the public, to ensure that he is one day named Iran's Supreme Leader.

Dinmore also says that the relationship between the political and spiritual leader has served to hold down much hard-line violence in Iran and allowed many reforms to take place in the country. Some of these reforms have impacted on Iran's relationship with other Arab countries and with the EU. Dinmore adds that if the U.S. made some friendly gestures to Iran, the country would respond wholeheartedly.