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Austria: EU Sanctions To Be Lifted Soon, But Whose Victory Is It?

The sanctions applied against Austria by its European Union partners appear on the point of being lifted, following a generally favorable report by the EU's so-called three "wise men" on Vienna's observance of human rights. RFE/RL correspondent Breffni O'Rourke says the report offers a face-saving way out of a dilemma for EU members -- at least in the short term.

Prague, 12 September 2000 (RFE/RL) -- France, the country which backed sanctions against Austria most strongly, has given the signal that they are to be called off. French Minister for European Affairs Pierre Moscovici said yesterday he expects that the 14 EU-member nations will end their diplomatic freeze on Vienna "within days or hours."

For that to happen, President Jacques Chirac -- who, as current EU president, received the three wise men's report last week -- must gain the agreement of his fellow EU leaders. But that should not be difficult, since most EU members will probably be relieved to see the end of the sanctions, which were imposed after the far-right Freedom Party of Austria, or FPO, joined a ruling coalition in Vienna in February.

That's because the dispute was about to enter a more serious phase, in which Austria might have gone through with its threat to block the EU's eastward enlargement. The Austrian party at the heart of the dispute, the FPO, is trumpeting the wise men's report as a victory. Party spokesman Karl-Heinz Gruensteidl, quoting remarks by the party's leading figure Joerg Haider, told RFE/RL:

"It is a victory of democracy and a victory for the Austrian people. The European Union has to become more democratic in its structures, with an aim to build a Europe of citizens, not of bureaucracy." The irony of the situation is that the FPO indeed democratically won more votes than ever before in last autumn's elections. That has enabled Haider to pose as the injured party standing out against pressure from interfering, autocratically minded neighbors.

Gruensteidl also says Haider believes the affair will have a tonic effect on the EU, giving the smaller states more stature in the union. He says:

"He (Haider) also thinks that now there will come more self-confidence in the union, more self confidence among the smaller member states."

But is it as simple as that? Have the 14 EU partners had to withdraw empty-handed from an insupportable position of their own making? John Palmer, the director of the Brussels-based European Policy Center, thinks otherwise. He told RFE/RL:

"The effect of the intervention of the 14 states, and the diplomatic disapproval they expressed, has had a significant impact on the public debate in Austria, about its past and about the values that its political parties adhere to. I think it has resulted in a much sharper and clearer focus on all the issues of concern when Haider's party emerged, I think as a consequence it has had a very healthy impact on Austrian public opinion." As to the broader charge that the EU partners were interfering in Austria's internal democratic processes, Palmer says his view is that it would have been "absolutely extraordinary" if a political party with some kind of sympathy with the Third Reich had been able to enter government "without some response from the union."

Palmer sees the longer-term impact of the affair as being not only on Austria, but also on its EU partners, and that things will never be quite the same again. He says:

"What the [EU] member states did was to draw attention to the fact that since the [1997] Treaty of Amsterdam, the union is now committed to certain basic values. Articles six and seven of the Amsterdam Treaty leave absolutely no doubt or ambiguity about the commitment of the union to certain fundamental values [having] to do with anti-racism, anti-xenophobia, and anti-discrimination, respect for minorities, etc."

Palmer therefore sees the EU-Austrian conflict, now coming to an end, as marking a watershed. For him, it makes clear that the European union is not merely some kind of common market or economic trade grouping, but is, he says, "above all" a political project with aims and values.