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EU: Austria Awaits Report Of Three 'Wise Men'

The three so-called wise men investigating the observance of human rights in Austria are expected to issue their report within the next few days. Their conclusions will be of key importance to the European Union and also to the Central and East European EU candidates, who stand to be affected by Austria's anger in the event of a negative report. Correspondent Breffni O'Rourke reports.

Prague, 6 September 2000 (RFE/RL) -- One of the basic principles of physics -- namely, that every action produces a reaction -- applies pretty well to politics also. If the panel of independent experts known as the three "wise men" submits a report critical of the Austrian government's human rights record, that would likely trigger a reaction from Vienna which could slow the process of the EU's eastward expansion.

Austria's EU partners appointed the wise men -- former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, former Spanish Foreign Minister Marcelino Oreja, and German lawyer Jochen Frowein -- to review the situation following the creation early this year of a government in Vienna containing the far-right Freedom Party.

Austria's 14 EU partners imposed bilateral diplomatic sanctions against Vienna after that government was formed. They sought to protest what they saw as the Freedom Party's racist and xenophobic tendencies.

The wise men's report is expected to go directly to the hands of President Jacques Chirac of France, the current EU president. He will then discuss it with the other heads of state or government.

A favorable report could lead to a lifting of the sanctions. That would offer a face-saving way out of a dilemma for the EU partners, who many consider to be on shaky ground, considering that the Austrian governing parties were democratically elected.

Peter Ludlow, director of the Brussels-based Center for European Policy Studies says:

"There is a general presumption, I think, that this [panel] was seen all along as a device to get the 14 off the hook on which they had hung themselves. So, if you like, there was a predisposition to find a solution, and leaked reports -- but they are only leaked reports, and one doesn't know if they are true -- suggest that the wise men are indeed moving towards a report which will enable the 14 to withdraw the sanctions."

Austrian officials are quick to point out that there has been few developments in their country for critics to fasten on, especially since the controversial figure at the heart of the row, Joerg Haider, has resigned as head of the Freedom Party. Florian Krenkel, the spokesman for Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel, put it this way:

"The central question is the work of the government, and there is absolutely no criticism [of that] -- have you seen any criticism of the government recently anywhere in Europe or in Austria itself? On the contrary, we are working on the European plane for the [EU's] enlargement."

But what if the wise men's report is less than favorable, or if the EU partners decide that it does not offer sufficient grounds for lifting the sanctions? That's the scenario that would trigger a reaction from Vienna. The government says it will hold a referendum in which Austrians would express their view of the sanctions, and on what Krenkel calls "the future of Europe."

The referendum would presumably give backing to the government to proceed with its long-standing threat to block eastwards expansion of the EU. Such is the momentum of things, that Vienna would find it difficult to back away from fulfilling its own threat. And that would open a new and serious chapter in the story.

Some analysts believe the EU partners acted too precipitously in isolating Austria, without thinking ahead to the broader collateral damage which could result from that decision. But Ludlow says there is a key lesson here to be learned for the future:

"What I think that this episode has done, which is more important, is that it has made clear that the European Union needs to think more clearly and systematically about how it deals with -- what would be a very serious problem -- with a state which actually commits breaches of the fundamental principles on which the union is founded."

No such mechanism yet exists in practice. Yet the case of Austria shows that difficult situations involving democratic principles can arise even among old-established EU member states -- not to speak of the eastern newcomers.