- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 5, 2000

VIENNA, Austria The Austrian government announced yesterday that it would seek a popular mandate to allow it to block expansion of the European Union if sanctions against Vienna are not lifted soon.

In an escalation of the crisis that has set Austria against its 14 EU partners since February, Wolfgang Schussel, the chancellor, said a referendum on the sanctions will be held on Oct. 29 or Nov. 26 if normal relations are not restored by then.

The announcement will cause alarm in EU capitals where the admission of new members from Central and Eastern Europe is regarded as the union's principal challenge.

The first of six questions to be put to the Austrian people would, if backed by a majority, give the coalition in Vienna the people's backing to carry out its recent threats to prevent enlargement.

It could do so by blocking reforms of EU institutions that are necessary before the union can admit new members. The reforms are due to be agreed at a summit in Nice, France, in December at the end of France's EU presidency, but agreement can be vetoed by any one country.

The first question asks, "Should the government, as part of the impending reform of the EU treaty, ensure with all suitable means that the sanctions unjustly imposed on Austria by the other member states of the European Union are immediately lifted?"

Austria's 14 EU partners imposed sanctions which amount to a ban on bilateral meetings with its ministers in February after Mr. Schussel's conservative People's Party formed a coalition with the right-wing Freedom Party, led at the time by the populist Jorg Haider.

The announcement of a referendum is seen as a victory for Mr. Haider and proof that he and his party pull many of the strings in the government. Mr. Schussel is said to have been very suspicious of the referendum plan, preferring a more gradual, diplomatic route to end sanctions. But he was pushed into it by the Freedom Party, which demanded a tough approach against the EU.

After a meeting of coalition leaders yesterday, Mr. Schussel said he was frustrated that an EU plan to appoint "three wise men" to examine Austria's compliance with common European values was not accompanied by a timetable to end sanctions. He was also irritated that the incoming French presidency of the EU had suggested that there was no end in sight to sanctions.

While Mr. Schussel is strongly in favor of EU expansion, he has kept open the option of applying a veto on the enlargement process.

He made his position clear during a trip to Germany over the weekend.

"The tensions within the European family have to be removed before an enlargement," he said.

Yesterday he backed up the comments, saying, "There is, of course, the danger that if tensions within the family are not resolved soon, then certain technical or day-to-day work simply becomes more difficult."

Unlike most referendums, the result of this one would not be binding on government policy. Mr. Schussel said the vote would concern "the development of EU law to ensure equal rights and democratic rights of all EU member states and to guarantee basic rights and freedom in the EU."

In a wave of international protest, Mr. Haider stepped down as Freedom Party leader on May 1 but remains the party's key policy-maker.

He has led calls for a referendum and said in blunt terms that Austria should thwart enlargement if the sanctions were not ended.

• Toby Helm, in Berlin, contributed to this report.

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