- The Washington Times - Monday, July 10, 2000

Paris has Austria right where it wants it now that France has taken over the European Union (EU) presidency. The French say they have no plans to drop diplomatic sanctions imposed on Austria after the far-right Freedom Party came to power there. Austria responded in kind Tuesday by proposing that it would hold a national referendum this fall to ask its people whether the sanctions should continue, and what the future of European policy on sanctions should be. Though EU member states took the tentative referendum as an attempt by Austria to blackmail the organization into blocking EU expansion, the referendum itself should not be seen as a threat to the future of the union. Former Freedom Party leader Joerg Haider should.

The referendum itself never mentions expansion. Instead, the text focuses on rights of the states to democratic elections, the rights and responsibility of the union to treat all countries equally, and the separation of powers between European Union responsibilities and those of the states. Referendum questions such as the first, which asks the Austrian people if the unjust sanctions should be immediately lifted, are rhetorical at best.

The danger therefore is not that Austrian people may unite in opposition to sanctions, but that Mr. Haider who brewed up the referendum in the first place may use the referendum's results to unite the people behind him. Mr. Haider, who still controls the party though he is now officially only a state governor, has declared that he will push for blocking the expansion of the European Union if sanctions aren't lifted. He was already hungry to do so even before the union decided to cut diplomatic interactions with the country. If Austria decides to follow his lead, the country would use its veto to stop reforms of EU institutions needed before the union can admit new members. The reforms would be agreed upon in a meeting in December.

The Austrian Embassy did not see Mr. Haider's agenda as a problem. "The Chancellor has said enlargement is in our interest," communications director Martin Weiss said. "He is the one who holds the power in Austria," he said.

So far, Mr. Haider has shown otherwise. The Haider-inspired referendum was introduced in parliament Wednesday, and Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel has penciled in the referendum date as either Oct. 29 or Nov. 26 unless the European Union lifts the sanctions before then. And this, from a man who originally responded to Mr. Haider's referendum with caution when he proposed it in April.

Mr. Schuessel, himself a poker player, may be betting that Mr. Haider won't read the referendum results as an endorsement of Haider himself. Paris isn't so sure. How Austria would benefit from throwing another political temper tantrum is very hard to see.

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