- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 1, 2000

The leaders of 14 European Union governments yesterday threatened to all but drum Austria out of the world's richest economic club if an anti-immigrant right-wing party joins a new coalition government in Vienna.

Portugal, which holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, issued a statement yesterday saying the heads of the other 14 EU countries had unanimously agreed to isolate Austria diplomatically if the populist Freedom Party and its controversial chairman, Joerg Haider, come to power.

The extraordinary decision would be the harshest sanction against a member ever issued by the 43-year-old economic union and would target a party that finished second in democratic elections last fall and is, by some new polls, the single most popular party in Austria today.

"At some point, we must take very determined action," said Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel. "Otherwise, tomorrow, how can we carry a European message of democracy, openness and tolerance?"

To his supporters, the 50-year-old Mr. Haider is an energetic crusader against the country's stagnant political status quo, calling for reforms of the heavily regulated economy and of an extensive system of political patronage operated by the country's long-dominant center-left and center-right parties.

To his many detractors, including many of the leftist and center-leftist governments in power across Europe, he is seen as a xenophobic far-right politician with a history of public statements seeming to minimize Austria's brutal Nazi past.

Still, the swiftness and the intensity of the EU reaction stunned analysts.

"I'm still trying to understand it," said Simon Serfaty, a professor at Old Dominion University and the director of European studies program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Teaching others how they should go about doing good government seems way beyond the mandate of the EU."

Mr. Serfaty said the action was likely to backfire badly, bolstering Mr. Haider's standing in Austria and increasing resentment by "Euro-skeptics" across Europe about the reach of the EU bureaucracy in Brussels.

Portugal said EU members would cut off all bilateral official contacts with Austria, oppose the appointment of Austrian nationals to international organizations, and meet with Austrian ambassadors only at a "technical level" if Mr. Haider's party joins the government.

Reaction from Vienna was swift and furious, with both Mr. Haider and Wolfgang Schuessel, head of the center-right Austrian People's Party now negotiating with the Freedom Party on a new government, denouncing the EU statement.

"I find it surprising that the 14 members of the European Union have come to such a decision without consulting Austria a member-state itself," said Mr. Schuessel, who is set to become chancellor if the two parties can agree on a platform this week.

"Austria is not a country in need of a lesson in democracy," he added.

Mr. Haider, who is not expected to take a formal position in the new government, also rejected the EU action.

"If the president and the parties allow themselves to be influenced by foreign attempts to pressure us, we can wave goodbye to democracy in this country," he said.

But EU diplomats say privately that Mr. Haider may have goaded the union to take the harsh step which leaves both sides with little room for diplomatic face-saving with comments over the weekend, calling French President Jacques Chirac incompetent and making a belittling reference to a child-sex scandal in Belgium.

Austria has faced diplomatic troubles before over its Nazi past. Kurt Waldheim, elected president from 1986 to 1992, faced diplomatic isolation after being accused of lying over his wartime role in the German army.

The Freedom Party finished second in the Oct. 4 ballot, behind the center-left Social Democrats but ahead of the People's Party for the first time ever.

After futile efforts by the Social Democrats and the People's Party to revive their 13-year-old coalition government, Austrian President Thomas Klestil reluctantly agreed to let the country's two right-wing parties try to hammer out a government.

Mr. Haider has apologized for his Nazi-related comments, but analysts say he may have caused even more anger in Brussels over his party's staunch anti-immigration stand. Austria borders a number of East European countries hoping to join the European Union, and the Freedom Party has attracted many voters fearful that freer immigration could result in a huge influx of low-paid workers into Austria.

"What is behind these concerns is a fear about what the Freedom Party's influence would be on the EU's enlargement," said John Palmer, an analyst at the European Policy Center think tank in Brussels. "It could send serious destabilizing signals throughout central Europe."

Under the EU treaty, countries that commit "serious, persistent violations" of EU laws on democracy and civil liberties can be stripped of all voting rights in the union. One-third of the EU governments would have to propose such a move, and the decision to suspend a member must be unanimous.

Many in Austria contend that the EU reaction also reflects the ideological sympathies between the Social Democrats, who have been in power in Vienna for 30 years, and center-left governments in control in Germany, France, Italy and elsewhere.

But Spain's conservative Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar supported the EU stand, as did Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has been careful in the past not to provoke his country's sizable bloc of Euro-skeptics.

The Clinton administration has taken a far more low-key approach, although it expressed its "strong opposition" to past Haider comments that "might be interpreted as expressing sympathy for the former Nazi regime or explaining away the Holocaust."

But a State Department statement added that the choice of a government in Austria is "one for the Austrians to decide."

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