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EU: Relations With Austria Seem To Recover

Austria and the EU may be on the way out of a damaging five-month crisis, during which the 14 other EU members slapped political sanctions on Austria because of the inclusion of a far-right party in its government and Austria has threatened to block vital EU business. Visiting Brussels today, Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel sounded a conciliatory note and welcomed the appointment of an EU panel to study his government's policies. RFE/RL's Ahto Lobjakas reports from Brussels.

Brussels, 12 July 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Relations between the EU and Austria seem to be on the mend, at last. While technically the EU's executive arm, the European Commission, has never joined the boycott against Austria, the warm welcome afforded today to Wolfgang Schuessel by Commission President Romano Prodi must count as an encouraging sign.

Another encouraging sign was sent to Austria this morning by the European Court of Human Rights. Its President Lucius Wilthaber informed the representative of the French EU presidency, Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine, that the court had appointed a committee of three "wise men" to study whether Austria's government policy is in conflict with EU norms. The three men are Martti Ahtisaari, ex-president of Finland and a diplomatic mediator of global renown; former European Commission member Marcelino Oreja; and the director of the Max Planck Institute in Heidelberg, Jochen Frowein.

Speaking after his meeting with Prodi, Schuessel said Austria is keen to do everything within its powers to end the sanctions as fast as possible. He said it is important for Austria for domestic political considerations, but equally important for the European Union and its future.

Schuessel did make a point of saying, however, that accepting a committee of outsiders to judge the democratically elected government was not easy.

"I would like to say here very openly, from the very start, it's been very difficult to accept this idea. Ask yourself, in a self-critical way, whether in your countries, you would accept such a report, or such a commission, in a comparable case. Nevertheless, we have done it," he said.

There was nevertheless no doubt that this is a course of action that Austria welcomes more than many other EU members. Schuessel said the president of the European Court of Human Rights had made a "first-class decision" and called him "the fourth wise man."

Schuessel also welcomed the quickness of the decision and indicated he is pleased with the committee's makeup, especially with the inclusion of Ahtisaari. The Finnish diplomat has proven skill in mediating sensitive international situations, and Finland, together with Denmark, has consistently led calls within the EU for the lifting of sanctions.

Schuessel said repeatedly that the Austrian people have not lost their interest in and support for the EU.

"The Austrian population has absolutely passed a test, because after five months of sanctions against us, 71 percent of the Austrian population, thank God, supports membership in the European Union. This figure has not declined and has remained constant, and it lies above the two-thirds majority in the 1994 referendum that approved Austrian membership in the European Union."

The Austrian chancellor went on to say that his government has always acted with the core European values in mind. He went out of his way to disprove accusations of racism and Nazi sympathies, reminding his audience that Austria has the largest percentage of immigrants in the whole of the EU. Schuessel noted that Austria has agreed to pay compensation for slave labor used by its companies during World War Two.

Schuessel refused to speculate on what Austria would do if the report by the three wise men -- expected by early autumn -- were to prove negative for Austria. He said a planned referendum on Austria's relationship to the EU, which would then go ahead, should not be seen as a threat by Austria's EU partners. Consulting voters on important issues is part of being a democracy, he said, and nothing else should be read into it. He also pointed out that under Austria's constitution, the results of a referendum are not binding for the government.

Schuessel tried to calm fears within the EU that Austria would attempt to block vital EU business if the referendum were to condemn the sanctions. Sounding a conciliatory note, he said that regardless of the outcome, his government would be committed to avoiding any confrontation.

"The Austrian government was and is very patient and very moderate -- we place great value on that. Because words like 'blackmail,' 'threats' and 'veto' should not be used. We would naturally never relinquish our rights -- just as every other country has the right to propose ideas in the framework of a government conference," Schuessel said.

Specifically, the Austrian chancellor said his government does not intend to block EU enlargement. Austria welcomes enlargement, he said, as it would put Austria back in the heart of Europe, whereas it now occupies a place on its margins.

Going perhaps further than many had expected, the Schuessel called upon the EU to make the enlargement process more transparent and come up with a detailed accession scenario by the Nice summit, to be held in December. Such a scenario, he said, should include a tentative date of accession for the first group of candidate countries.