The year 2000 saw the European Union confronted with an unusual predicament involving one of its own members -- the formation in February of an Austrian government that included the far-right Freedom Party of Joerg Haider. Reaction was swift among Austria's 14 EU partners. Each of them imposed a diplomatic freeze on Vienna to show its rejection of the Freedom Party's perceived racist and xenophobic tendencies. But then the difficulties began: Austria threatened to block EU business. Questions arose about whether the EU partners had acted hastily and misjudged the problem, and about how they could end the freeze without openly backing down. RFE/RL correspondent Breffni O'Rourke examines the affair.
Prague, 15 December 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The case of Austria and the Freedom Party took the European Union by surprise. Here was a prosperous republic in the heart of Europe that had incorporated into its coalition government a far-right entity with sympathies apparently linked to the Nazi era. Reacting quickly, some would say hastily, each of the other 14 members froze its diplomatic ties with Austria.
Austria's officials and diplomats were ignored or reviled at EU meetings though the spring and summer. But Vienna did not endure such embarrassment for long without hitting back. It made clear that, among other important things, Austria might block progress towards the Union's planned expansion into central and eastern Europe unless the bilateral diplomatic sanctions were removed.
Confronted with an increasingly serious situation, the 14 partners started looking for a way out. They found it in a formula under which an independent panel of three so-called "wise men" would be convened to judge whether Austria's government was sticking to human rights norms. In the event, by the autumn the wise men issued a broadly favorable report. Heaving a collective sigh of relief, the 14 partners, led by France, provisionally lifted the sanctions.
Nicholas Whyte, research fellow at the Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels, tells RFE/RL that the collapse of the sanctions shows that EU mechanisms for dealing with such a predicament are not yet sufficiently developed:
"The importance, then, of the Haider situation in Austria was that it was the first time this question had come up with an existing member-state. And the alarming thing is how badly the EU botched it, because they imposed sanctions which were not really workable, and they had to go for a face-saving report from the three wise men, who basically said that the sanctions should be lifted immediately."
The affair left the Freedom Party, as before, in government, and it left Austria deeply aggrieved by the EU's interference. Florian Krenkel, the spokesman for Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel, says:
"It is certainly a matter to ponder in a democracy. When one has problems with one's partners, normally one seeks to talk and to overcome the trouble, and to clear up the undecided questions, and not to ignore the affected party and just slap on sanctions."
Krenkel also argued that the coalition government has done its job well. It has, he says, been able to revitalize the country's political system by, among things, producing a balanced state budget for the first time in 30 years.
"The greater part of the Austrian people are satisfied with the work of the government. And if the sanctions were intended to hinder this government -- as was said at the time -- then they were certainly not successful."
But on that point, analyst John Palmer -- director of the Brussels-based European Policy Center -- takes issue with Krenkel. Palmer told our correspondent that the quick and united action by the 14 partners has contributed to a new political awareness among the public in Austria, leading to a sharp decline in the popularity of the extreme right.
In addition, Palmer says, the affair provided what he calls "very useful lessons" for the EU itself. The freeze on Austria was imposed under articles 6 and 7 of the 1996 Amsterdam treaty which, as Palmer puts it, "leave no doubt or ambiguity" about the commitment of the Union to basic values of anti-racism and anti- discrimination. Under article 7 of that treaty, a member-state can be suspended from membership in the EU if it violates the norms and principles of democracy upon which the Union was founded.
Now, Palmer says -- with the experience gained in the Haider affair -- the EU has moved at its latest summit in Nice to refine a mechanism to deal more effectively with such situations. He explains:
"What we have in the Nice treaty is the possibility of a procedure under which issues can be investigated before the 'big guns' of article 6 and 7 of the treaties, which imply sanctions of some kind against members who fall out with the democratic values and culture of the Union. Before that is triggered there would be an earlier, more investigative stage, in which all the issues could be examined to their full extent."
That new mechanism, which involves consultation and arbitration with the affected party, could well be needed in future as the Union takes in eastern members.
In Romania for example, ultra-nationalist Corneliu "Vadim" Tudor emerged last month as the second most popular man in the country for the job of state president. True, Tudor was defeated by a two-to-one vote in the recent runoff for the presidency by former communist Ion Iliescu. But analysts find worrying the mere fact that he could have got so far.
Tudor, a tough-talking populist, has a history of verbal attacks on national minorities, whether ethnic Hungarian, Roma or Jewish. His main appeal to Romanian voters seems to have been his tough line on law and order at a time when that country is mired in crime and economic problems, and when hope is in short supply.
Romania is not yet in the EU, but that will not exempt it from conforming with EU norms when it does become a member. Analyst Nicholas Whyte argues that it is legitimate for the Union to tell Bucharest that it expects certain democratic practices will be observed, regardless of who is in power. Whyte tells RFE/RL:
"It's more a problem for Romania than for the EU at this precise point in time. But at the same time, it does send alarm signals to the EU in terms of the perceived political unreliability of some of the Eastern European states."
So, when it comes to affirming democratic norms, the EU is hardly likely to ease its standards when new Eastern members are admitted. That means that the case of Austria -- though it was the first -- may not be the last.