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Western Press Review: EU Lifts Sanction On Austria

Prague, 13 September 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Many Western newspapers carry editorials and commentaries about yesterday's lifting by the European Union of bilateral political sanctions it imposed against Austria earlier this year. EU members France and Beligum were the most eager to impose the mild bilateral sanctions after the far-right Freedom Party, formerly led by the controversial Joerg Haider, entered Austria's government as a junior coalition partner.

Several other EU members became uncomfortable with the sanctions. They seemed to be relieved when an independent trio -- called the "three wise men" -- appointed by the EU to examine Austria's human rights record said late last week that the sanctions were counter-productive.


In Austria, the conservative daily Die Presse in a commentary headlined "Day of Joy" says: "It was a moment of profound satisfaction for many Austrians when on Tuesday night the news finally came: An end to the sanctions! The past seven-and-a half months constituted a deep shock for the country and its people. It was," the paper continues, "in the end a heavy humiliation also for those who opposed the entry of the Freedom Party into the government. Even if one fully rejects much of what the Freedom Party did or said, it was never a threat to democracy or human rights."


The liberal Vienna daily Der Standard says that the sanctions had been ineffectual, anyway. It comments: "In reality, no one had felt the [the impact of the] sanctions in months. It was quite a while ago that the phantom turned into an optical illusion. [For] young people, not even that played a role. For older people, the sanctions may have brought back vague memories of the occupation period (1945 to 1955) of an Austria that was dependent on the Great Powers."


French pride has been somewhat wounded by the desire of most EU members to swiftly scrap the sanctions that Paris argued should be maintained or suspended rather than completely removed. The left-of-center daily Liberation says in an editorial that the imposition of sanctions was the first time the EU made a purely political decision that was a declaration of laudable anti-extreme right and anti-racist principles. It regrets the EU drawing back from its stern position and condemns the report which led to the sanctions being lifted, writing: "Concerning Austria, the decision of the three wise men legitimizes and ultimately normalizes the conservative right government -- and, in fact, the Freedom Party. Only a clear condemnation, a non-diplomatic one, could have avoided this situation."

Liberation goes on to say that the EU dodged its responsibilities by letting the wise men's report determine the issue. It writes: "Abandoning its own earlier audacity, [the EU] preferred to seek refuge in 'wisdom,' putting its destiny in the hands of three not very young gentlemen and their diplomatic skills. But wisdom is not a political category. Wisdom seeks to follow the mediocre path of the golden mean that makes everybody happy."


Another French newspaper, the Strasbourg-based Dernieres Nouvelles d'Alsace, speculates: "This Austrian episode could lead to the installation inside the European Union of a permanent tool to monitor anti-democratic currents. The three wise men advised that such a mechanism be created. That would lead to changes in the European treaties (that is, the obligations of the 15 EU members to one another)."

The paper's editorial sees the recommendation by the three wise men that vigilance be maintained against other odious political movements within the EU as something France can draw satisfaction from. It says: "For Paris, this clause on vigilance appears to be an honorable end."


The conservative Parisian daily Le Figaro points out how risky maintaining the sanctions had become. It comments: "[The EU] was almost at a dead end. As long as the sanctions were still valid, the Austrians threatened to hold a referendum to express their displeasure with the diplomatic blockade. If it had gone that far, Vienna would have been able to block all EU decisions."


In a commentary, the Italian daily Corriere della Sera questions what the sanctions actually achieved. It writes: "[The EU] has withstood a difficult test that [has] brought to light just how different are presumptions in individual member-states. In the end, the Freedom Party remains in the [Austrian] government, its ministers shrug their shoulders at the criticism of the wise men and the 14 European partners. [And] Haider scoffs at 'Napoleon's Europe' [a reference to Haider's characterization of French and EU President Jacques Chirac.]"


The Wall Street Journal Europe believes lifting the sanctions does not mean the EU's principled stand has crumbled. In an editorial, the paper writes: "[The lifting of sanctions] will be a disaster -- for Joerg Haider, for Austria's Freedom Party and for all of Europe's other intolerant, marginal parties, who can no longer use the sanctions to rally anti-EU sentiment." But the editorial goes on to say that the sanctions were misguided and put those defending them in an untenable position. That's because, the paper says, "if they had left the sanctions in place, they would have strengthened the Freedom Party and imperiled the case for EU enlargement. [The] time had come to act and the EU wisely decided to dump the sanctions."

The paper also says that sanctions were not the right way to deal with the problem and made the EU seem like a bully. They were also inconsistent, it writes, because the French and Belgians had previously welcomed the their communist parties, which also had distasteful histories, into governing coalitions. The editorial writes: "Democracy sometimes catapults troublesome people into high office. Elections, not sanctions, are the best way to remove them."


Commentator Tom Grant, writing in the Wall Street Journal Europe, is even stronger in his criticism of the sanctions. He calls them an "unprecedented intervention, [since] no-one doubted that the processes through which Austrians chose their government was both democratic and constitutional." Grant says that the way the EU proceeded raised fears among many about the powers accruing to Brussels and attempts to curtail sovereign rights by diluting individual EU state's rights to veto a decision. He writes: "Diminishing the right of veto and enlarging qualified majority voting would only ensure that decisions are shoved down the throats of many people."

Grant also writes: "Even in well-established federations such as Canada, the United States, Australia and India, the central government defers to the states or provinces on how they want to constitute their own governments. To be sure, there are limits governments may not transgress. But including in a coalition a party with leaders of odious viewpoints does not come close to the trip-wire for federal intervention."


The Swiss daily Tages-Anzeiger, in its commentary, expresses a very different point of view. It writes: "The gloating with which conservative politicians and commentators greeted the lifting of the sanctions is just as uncalled for as the hysteria of the left. [The EU's action] neither is evidence of a diplomatic debacle nor a blank check for Haider."

The paper explains why it believes the sanctions were justified: "The EU's instinctive reaction -- to greet the entry of Joerg Haider's Freedom Party into the government by pointing a moral finger -- actually proved to have worked out. The Austrian example has unleashed in other European countries as well a debate about dealing with right-wing radicalism and populism at one's front door."


The Spanish daily El Pais says the sanctions were implemented hastily, without fully considering their implications. It writes: "They have united the Austrians against the EU and strengthened Haider's influence. [The reasons for the sanctions were] rooted more in the sum of French, Belgian and German domestic considerations than in a common view about the risks of the rise of ultra-right ideologies."


But the Spanish daily ABC believes the episode has had a positive effect, writing: "Everything that happened in connection with Austria, from the adoption of sanctions to their lifting, shows that Europe is above all a political community founded on common values. [It] demands from its members a commitment to defend human rights and respect the dignity of the person."

(RFE/RL's Joylon Naegele and Aurore Gallego contributed to this report)