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EU: Enlargement Process Falls Under Austrian Shadow

This week marked the opening of two processes related to the eastward expansion of the European Union: the start yesterday of membership talks with six more candidate countries and the beginning on Monday of the EU's Inter-Governmental Conference on internal reform. But RFE/RL correspondent Breffni O'Rourke reports that both occasions have been marred by an EU row over the far-right Freedom Party entering government in member-state Austria.

Prague, 16 February 2000 (RFE/RL) - The far-right Freedom Party's entry into a governing coalition in Austria could potentially have a negative impact on the eastward enlargement of the European Union.

That's because every EU member state must vote to approve the entry of newcomers into the EU. And the Freedom Party, led by populist Joerg Haider, has been hostile to the expansion process and could, if it wished, set out to delay or block the accession of eastern neighbors to the Union.

Aware of this and other dangers of flirting with extremism, the EU's council of foreign ministers gave a frosty reception this week to Austria's new foreign minister, Benita Ferrero-Waldner. It was the first time the ministers had met in council since the Vienna coalition was formed between the Freedom Party and the conservative People's Party under Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel.

Ferrero-Waldner made an impassioned plea for Austria not to be shunned by its partners. She said that mainline politicians in her country had been unable to isolate the Freedom party, and so had sought to incorporate it -- to bring it "back on a pro-European path," as she put it.

That's an old tactic -- namely, seeking to turn a wolf into a lamb by bringing it into the fold. But research specialist Juergen Nunes-Ferrer, of the Brussels-based Center for European Policy Studies, sees some dangers in that approach:

"At the moment, their hands are tied, because the Chancellor (Schuessel) will not allow the Freedom Party to go too far. But if something goes wrong, and they obtain the power to do this, then yes, they can damage things and sour things, because they would have a veto power (over expansion), like Greece has one in relation to Turkey." Austria's 14 EU partners may have over-reacted in imposing bilateral penalties on Austria. Nunes-Ferrer says that move could backfire by stirring up a nationalist reaction among Austrians which could translate into more votes for Haider. And that would be dangerous. But he says that as long as the present coalition exists in Vienna the xenophobic instincts of the Freedom Party can be tamed:

"The pressure on them will be so high that they will not be able to do anything -- not for the present, unless many parties like them win in many countries of the EU. The Freedom Party remains in coalition, it is alone in its viewpoint, I don't believe therefore that the Austrians will be able alone to influence the enlargement issue." Another analyst, Bulgarian Krassen Stanchev, also believes that EU business -- including pre-expansion processes -- will go on as usual despite the furor over Haider. Stanchev, the director of the Sofia-based Institute of Market Economy, says he does not expect developments in Vienna to deter growing East-West links:

"I think it's a matter of mutual interest. During the time of (Bulgaria's) economic crisis and instability, Austria was one of the destinations of Bulgarian flight capital. And I cannot imagine that those who managed to export their capital to Austria would encounter difficulties in operating from Austria -- Austria has been a very liberal place. I don't think that Haider's party's election performance is somehow threatening ex-eastern bloc countries."

Stanchev points out that Austria must remain competitive with its EU partners in doing business in the east. Any attempt by Vienna to slow EU expansion would naturally put it at a trading disadvantage compared with other members such as Germany or France.