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EU: Austria Sanctions Overshadow Summit

The question of the EU political sanctions against Austria is not even on the agenda of the European Union's ongoing summit near Porto in Portugal. But the issue has cast a long shadow over the meeting, as Austria is suggesting that eastward expansion will stall if it is made to endure the sanctions much longer. Correspondent Breffni O'Rourke reports from the summit.

Feira, Portugal; 20 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The European Union's latest summit is being held (June 19/20) in a futuristic convention center set, for some unexplained reason, in the middle of a forest. Behind the marbled hall where the 15 EU leaders are meeting is a series of rooms, one for each national delegation, where the press can be briefed on summit developments. Most of these rooms, each with a flag at the door, are arranged along each side of a wide corridor.

But one of the rooms lies off in a corner by itself, out of the mainstream and less well lit. It is easy to guess which country has been banished to that room. It's Austria, which has been the black sheep of the union since it allowed the far-right Freedom Party to join in a ruling coalition.

Since February, the 14 other EU members have maintained bilateral political sanctions against Vienna in punishment for what they see as its attempt to legitimize the extreme right. The Austrians, for their part, say the government is simply a reflection of the people's democratic will.

At the Portuguese summit, the Austrians have been lobbying heavily for the sanctions to be lifted. Although Austria is being snubbed by its union partners, it remains the liveliest subject for the media at the summit, and everything the Austrians say finds a ready ear among the hordes of journalists.

On the first day, there was a "fairness for Austria" bus parked near the summit site, emblazoned with Austrian and EU colors. At one point, the scene took on a fairground atmosphere as Foreign Minister Benita Ferrero-Waldner gave a press conference in an open tent, speaking raucously into a microphone in a string of languages. She announced that Austria expects the EU to find a compromise and end the sanctions by the end of the Portuguese presidency, meaning within the next ten days (June 30).

Austria has one main lever to use against the EU -- the veiled threat that if sanctions continue, the Central and East Europeans can say goodbye to their hopes of EU membership soon.

Vienna's dynamic young finance minister, Karl-Heinz Grasser, made that link clear at a press conference today. He said EU leaders should use the summit to find a way out of the sanctions impasse:

"Because this is a counterproductive [situation] and because the issue of internal reform cannot be discussed or implemented in the present circumstances, nor can enlargement be discussed when we cannot even agree with each other inside the union, and not work amicably and constructively together."

The link could not have been clearer. Subsequently, however, Grasser cloaked it in more diplomatic language. He said that for Austria, being a constructive partner in shaping a European ideal is of great importance. Austria, he said, would never act to purposefully block something like EU enlargement, but he added that excluding Austria from consultations has caused an unbearable situation.

"Here at the summit, and also in Austria, it has become the number one media story, and it distracts from possible consensus and from reaching agreements on these important questions of institutional reform and enlargement."

The question facing EU members and candidates alike is whether Austria is bluffing or whether it would really block progress on enlargement. One clue might lie in the continuing disagreement at the summit over an EU tax harmonization package. Sources at the negotiations say Austria is the major objector, and is raising demands which are seen as impractical. Other EU members are asking, is this a sign of things to come?

Portugal has pledged to continue working for a solution in the final days of its presidency, but Foreign Minister Jaime Gama said that the present situation has little prospect of changing because the conditions that produced it have not changed -- the offending party is still in Austria's government. Incoming president France has been notably silent on the matter.