Rise of Austrian rightists irks Europe

Today, Austria's president may approve a new government that includes an extreme-right party.

Europe has talked the high-minded talk; now, can it walk the walk?

That is the challenge the Continent faces as Austrian President Thomas Klestil appeared set this morning to approve the formation of a new government including an extreme-rightist party, in the face of widely expressed outrage.

All of Austria's 14 partners in the European Union had warned that they would boycott any government in Vienna that included members of controversial populist Jrg Haider's Freedom Party, branding it a threat to democracy.

Having boldly drawn a line in the sand, the EU must now display the political will to stick to its hastily drawn guns. "My fear," worries Dominique Moisi, a leading French political analyst, "is that we may not be as resilient in our deeds as in our words."

The unexpected warning, issued Monday by Portugal, which currently holds the rotating EU presidency, broke dramatically with the European Union's normally cautious and cumbersome search for consensus. The 14 governments said they would freeze bilateral ties with Austria and halt political contacts with Austrian ambassadors throughout the community should Mr. Haider's party join a new government.

The EU has taken "a position that represents a symbol and a lesson for the world," said Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Guterres. "It is a battle for the ideals of tolerance, opposition to xenophobia, and against the mistreatment of foreigners in any country."

Haider earned his outcast status with a series of comments that appeared to play down the crimes of the Nazi regime in Germany (although he has since apologized for them) and by adopting a populist, xenophobic, anti-immigrant policy that sits uneasily with the European Union's ideals of tolerance.

That policy, however, earned Haider's party 27 percent of the vote at last October's inconclusive parliamentary elections in Austria. The conservative People's Party this week concluded a coalition government deal with Haider after the Social Democratic Party had spent four fruitless months trying to form a Cabinet.

In Austria, Europe's threat to isolate Vienna has gone down badly. A poll released yesterday showed that 58 percent of Austrians thought the reaction was excessive, while only 32 percent felt it was fair.

Voters "don't understand why they are being treated in such a harsh manner and they are angry," says Fritz Plasser, a political scientist at the University of Innsbruck, Austria. "There is a highly emotionalized situation ... because it has become a question of national identity."

Though President Klestil had the constitutional right to reject the offer by the People's Party and the Freedom Party to form a government, he was not expected to do so, since the coalition would command an easy majority in parliament. The only alternative would be fresh elections, and polls suggest that the electorate is so weary of politicking by the two traditional parties that Haider would triumph over both of them in a new vote.

"The consequences of such an electoral outcome would be unthinkable," says Professor Plasser. "It would be the ultimate crisis of state."

Europe's plunge into uncharted political waters, to stand up for its principles, appears to enjoy public support around the Continent, as an affirmation of democracy.

"The EU attitude is of a moral and political nature," says Dr. Moisi. "We have said that we deem it unacceptable that the extreme right should come to power ... because we are a club of values more than anything else."

That is not always clear to the union's 375 million inhabitants, who tend to see EU headquarters in Brussels as an impenetrable bureaucracy administering incomprehensibly technical policies. Now, however, "we are taking another step towards a political Europe, and that is essential," Nicole Fontaine, president of the European Parliament, said yesterday.

Some observers were more skeptical. "It is too early to brand this government as unacceptable," argues Peter Ludlow, director of the Brussels-based Centre for European Policy Studies. "To start shooting before you have something to shoot at" may prove unwise, he warns.

"It seems to me a rather premature gesture," he adds. "I wonder how long they will be able to maintain it, because you cannot run the multilateral (EU) system without the underpinning of bilateral ties" that Austria's partners have said they will suspend.

That threat will not affect Austria's membership in the union, which would be endangered only if Vienna was "in serious and persistent breach" of human rights, fundamental freedoms, and the rule of law, according to the EU's Amsterdam Treaty.

But it is bound, at least, to sour the atmosphere at EU meetings. And the community's executive Commission "will be watching every dot and comma" of the Austrian government's legislation "to ensure it complies with EU treaties," an EU official says.

*Sonya Yee in Vienna contributed to this story.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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