- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 9, 2000

Democracy can be a most inconvenient form of government. Sometimes, it produces results that cause only trouble for everybody, including the voters themselves. And yet, should not their foolhardy choices be respected?

That is the question now facing the European Union (EU) as it struggles to find a way to deal with the rise to political power of the previously fringe right-wing Freedom Party. Despite fears expressed by Euro-skeptics here and in Europe, that the EU is running amok over the sovereign rights of Austria's citizens, the response has been bluster and little more. Given that the Freedom Party's leader, Joerg Haider, seems to be an odious fellow with some rather sick views, but no threat to international security, that is maybe all it can be for now. The reality is, though, that there's a lot of hot air blowing around the subject.

Mr. Haider has become a familiar face in recent weeks, grinning at us from newspaper front pages and television interviews like the cat that ate the canary. It certainly looks like Mr. Haider is enjoying the international attention. On the political spectrum, Americans will be able to identify him as somewhere in the neighborhood of Pat Buchanan or David Duke. Mr. Haider will not himself hold a Cabinet post in the new government led by conservative People's Party head Wolfgang Schuessel, but will continue as governor of the province of Carinthia. This has not prevented a huge international uproar, however.

There is reason enough to take offense at Mr. Haider's views, particularly as regards the Nazi period. To an audience of Austrian veterans he praised the Waffen SS, elite troops of Adolf Hitler's Schuetzstaffel (meaning literally "bodyguards") as patriots. It may be recalled that graves of the same units got Ronald Reagan and Helmut Kohl into perilously hot political waters at their walk through Bitburg cemetery in 1982. Mr. Haider has also expressed admiration for Hitler's employment policies this at a time when other Europeans, Poles for instance, are seeking compensation for being forced into slave labor by the Third Reich.

Talking of compensation, Mr. Haider said Sunday that the millions of Sudeten Germans, who were driven from Czechoslovakia after World War II in a classic ethnic-cleansing exercise, deserved compensation just as much as Austrian Jews persecuted by the Nazis. A lot of us will have trouble with that equation.

It is statements like these, even more so than his anti-immigration and anti-European Union policies, that has caused the governments of the European Union, the United States and Israel to recoil.

What to do about elected officials of a less-than-desirable stripe? Politicians protected by a popular mandate are not easily gotten rid of. We have yet to persuade the Serbian people that President Slobodan Milosevic has done their nation nothing but harm. Any number of other elected leaders in the former communist world make Mr. Haider pale by comparison. Russian President Vladimir Putin comes to mind.

Denunciations have come fast and furious. On Jan. 31, the 14 other EU countries, through the presidency of the European Union, stated they would not accept bilateral relations with any Austrian government including the Freedom Party. They refused to support Austrian candidates for international organizations, or accept Austrian ambassadors in their capitals, except at a "technical level." On Thursday, the European parliament adopted a resolution condemning the "xenophobic and racist statements" made by Mr. Haider. One effect of all this was for Austrian President Thomas Klestil to require Messrs. Schuessel and Haider to sign a document committing themselves to democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Which they duly did, whether sincerely or not.

What has been lost in the scuffle is that little has actually happened. It is only bilateral relations that have been suspended. On Feb. 1, another EU statement said, "At this stage the working of the European Institutions is not affected. In this context the Commission, in close contact with the Governments of the Member states, will follow the situation carefully, maintaining its working relations with the Austrian authorities." On Monday, Romano Prodi, president of the European Commission, actually sent a note of congratulations to newly installed Austrian Chancellor Schuessel, saying, "I look forward to a fruitful and constructive working relationship." Well.

This coming Friday, these fascinating policy developments will have their first test at a meeting of the EU social affairs ministers. Interestingly, Austria's new minister of social affairs, Elisabeth Sickl, is a member of the party executive of the Freedom Party, no less. Will the rest of them speak to her, one wonders? According to the European Commission's office here in Washington, business will take place as usual except all social events which have been canceled. Sounds grim. The upside may be that Austria by its mere presence at such meetings will impose new austerity and efficiencies on the EU by eliminating all after-hours drinkies, dinners and other jolly gatherings. How much all of this will do to change any minds in Austria, though, is very much in doubt.

E-mail: bering@washtimes.com

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide