Austria waltzes back into EU good graces

The EU dropped diplomatic sanctions on Vienna Tuesday. Were they effective?

Austrians cheered, and political leaders elsewhere in Europe breathed quiet sighs of relief yesterday, as Vienna emerged from seven months of diplomatic sanctions, ending an unprecedented crisis in the ranks of the European Union.

But the question of how Europe will deal with the next of its governments to include an extremist right-wing party that openly espouses antiforeigner views remains unanswered.

With Jrg Haider's populist Freedom Party still firmly ensconced in Austria's coalition government, many politicians and analysts here are wondering what good the EU sanctions did.

"The balance sheet is very mixed," says Dominique Mosi, deputy head of the French Institute of Foreign Relations, a Paris-based think tank. "But on the positive side, Europe showed its will to define itself as a club based on values. We sent the right message to ourselves."

The European Union announced on Tuesday evening that it was lifting the diplomatic boycott that Austria's 14 partners had imposed when the Freedom Party became part of the Austrian government in February. The measure had been "effective," said the EU statement, and could now be lifted. But it urged "particular vigilance" over Mr. Haider's party and its role in government.

Haider, the Freedom Party's former leader and best-known figure, has made a number of statements in the past appearing to play down Nazi atrocities, and has made much electoral capital out of an anti-foreigner stance.

Austrian Chancellor Walter Schssel's decision to include the party in his ruling coalition rang alarm bells around Europe, where a number of countries harbor extreme right-wing, xenophobic political parties.

But an independent report commissioned by the EU from three "wise men" found that the diplomatic boycott "if continued, would become counterproductive," since it had already "stirred up nationalist feeling in the country." Even Haider's domestic opponents complained that the sanctions - little more than breaking bilateral political contacts and snubbing Austrian diplomats at EU meetings - were unjust. The report also gave Austria's human rights record under the new government a clean bill of health, and found that in certain areas, such as minority rights, Vienna has gone further than many of its EU partners.

"It is ironic that it took Freedom Party membership in a government to pass measures on slave labor and minority rights that had been ignored for 50 years," says Melanie Sully, who has written a book about Haider's rise to prominence. This summer, parliament passed a law compensating Austrians subjected by the Nazi regime to slave labor, and amended the Constitution to grant special rights to ethnic minorities.

"I don't think the government did anything it would not have done anyway, but they would not necessarily have put these questions at the top of their legislative agenda" without the heightened attention, suggests Dr. Sully.

At the same time, some observers predict the EU's readiness to act might have a preemptive effect in the future. "If you are optimistic, you might say that other EU countries will be hesitant now before taking extreme right-wing parties into government," says Dr. Mosi. A less generous interpretation, he says, is that "we tried to do something, but we were so divided over sanctions that we were happy to find a way out."

Certainly pressure had been building to seek a way out of the diplomatic impasse. Smaller EU members were nervous about the latitude the unprecedented boycott gave to large members to bully them. The Danish government, facing a close referendum on Sept. 28 on whether to join the single European currency, the euro, was anxious to see the boycott lifted before the vote.

In the future, the "wise men" recommended, the EU should amend its founding treaty to include a human rights monitoring mechanism to avoid the hurried, ad hoc nature of the sanctions that were imposed on Austria.

The next test could well come next year, in Italy, where conservative Silvio Berlusconi stands a good chance of winning parliamentary elections, according to opinion polls, but only in alliance with the successors to the Italian fascist party and the increasingly xenophobic Northern League.

Well before then, on Sept. 24, Switzerland will hold a referendum that could well put it at odds with its neighbors. The referendum, called by a public petition that attracted 100,000 signatures, will decide whether to limit the number of immigrants to 18 percent of the population. If it passes, the government will be obliged to expel some immigrants already in the country, since they currently make up 19.3 percent of the population, according to government figures.

Switzerland is not a member of the EU, which will have no recourse. But the Swiss government would undoubtedly be embarrassed if popular opinion obliges it to take xenophobic steps against foreigners.

The Cabinet would be ashamed if the proposal passes, Transport minister Moritz Leuenberger told a Swiss newspaper recently. "It would be hard to be a representative of a country with such tendencies," he said.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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