- The Washington Times - Friday, June 2, 2000

Austrian Carinthian State Gov. Joerg Haider's aversion to the European Union (EU) isn't winning him any friends with the 15-member international organization. Neither are his jaunts to Libya to visit his friend Moammar Gadhafi. The problem is that the EU obviously does not know where to go from here, following the decision of the other 14 members to impose sanctions on Austria in February. Mr. Haider is no longer even chairman of the Freedom Party, whose inclusion in Austria's governing coalition caused the whole uproar in the first place. By now it seems it is the rest who are looking for a way to back down and looking a little sheepish in the process.

True, Mr. Haider made offensive remarks about the nobility of Hitler's Waffen SS, and his anti-immigrant policies can only be considered obnoxious. His recent "personal visit" to Mr. Gadhafi, when his party has had shady connections with the Libyans in the past, also provides fodder for strong criticism. Especially when a week after his return, he was able mysteriously to cut oil prices in his province by 12 percent (in comparison to normal pump prices). At the same time, he is causing bureaucrats to sputter about another of his recent outlandish notions: taking legal action against any government official who supports the sanctions and fining them.

On one level, clearly, the initial outcry did serve its purpose; Mr. Haider stepped down as party leader, and Austria was forced to confront its attitudes toward immigrants. And this it did with a vengeance; the week the Freedom Party was sworn in, at least 17,000 protesters turned out to rail against the political group. Within a week of coming to power, the new Austrian coalition also pledged to compensate those who were forced to be slave workers under the Nazi regime.

However, four months later, the EU still isn't happy. Democratic principles must be kept, after all, they say. "Tolerance is the basis of every society. We must then act against the political parties that spread negative ideas," said Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Guterres, whose country currently holds the presidency of the European Union. But the question still has not been answered as to what kind of precedent the EU action has set. Does the EU expect its members to become of one political mind? What happens if neo-fascists are elected to power in Italy, for instance? Will a large country be equally subject to punishment?

In one month the EU presidency will be taken over by the French who have led the campaign for sanctions. The big players in this controversial issue France, Belgium, Portugal and Germany are not about to back down from their initial sanctions-friendly position. Other countries such as Italy and Finland are talking of modifying their stance. It would be well worth it for the EU members to deliberate seriously before July 1 over whether they should continue their punishment of Austria. While there is no guarantee that Mr. Haider will suddenly turn from xenophobe to polished diplomat, the EU must remember its job is to deal with a country, not one deluded individual. More importantly, it must consider whether to punish a member country the next time it votes in a party affiliated with a personality it doesn't find palatable.

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