- The Washington Times - Friday, May 26, 2000

It was 14 against one, and now it is the 14 who are looking for a graceful way to back down.

A 3-month-old campaign to punish Austria for including a far-right party in its governing coalition has produced widening divisions within the European Union, while the party of Austrian conservative Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel is enjoying its highest approval ratings in almost 15 years.

Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Guterres confirmed this week that he was canvassing Austria's 14 EU partners on whether to modify or end the diplomatic freeze imposed on Austria in February.

Led by France and Belgium, which have sizable rightist minority parties of their own, the EU imposed the sanctions after Mr. Schuessel invited the anti-immigrant Freedom Party and its controversial chairman, Joerg Haider, to join a coalition government earlier this year.

At the time, many leaders of Europe's primarily center-left governments said Austria's ostracism would last as long as Mr. Haider's party remained in power in Vienna.

But six EU members Finland, Ireland, Denmark, Italy, Spain, and Greece have already said they are willing to discuss "modifying" the sanctions, and the issue will be on the agenda when EU leaders huddle next month in Portugal.

Mr. Guterres, whose country holds the EU's rotating presidency until June 30, revealed this week that he had started "a range of contacts" with his partners "to define the position on Austria at an EU level."

Several of the EU's smaller members, sympathetic to Austrian complaints that the sanctions amount to bullying by the continent's major powers, have been even more outspoken.

Sauli Niinisto, Finland's conservative finance minister, has called for an immediate end to sanctions, saying they were imposed hastily without justification under EU rules.

"We cannot afford to endanger the credibility and reliability of the EU," said Mr. Niinisto.

Separately, 115 lawmakers and officials of Germany's opposition Christian Democratic Union announced plans for a "solidarity trip" to Vienna this week. Although German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder backs the sanctions, opposition conservatives in Germany have spoken out against them.

"We're absolutely convinced that the sanctions are not justified," said Markus Kaufmann, a spokesman for CDU lawmakers in the Berlin legislature.

The Clinton administration, which took a negative but more muted stance toward the new Austrian government, said Wednesday there was no change in U.S. policy.

"Our position has been one of meeting with members of the [Austrian] government when it's in our mutual interest to do so, but to meet at a reduced [diplomatic] level," said State Department spokesman Philip Reeker.

Despite a frankly anti-immigrant platform and string of past comments by Mr. Haider suggesting sympathy with Austria's Nazi past, the Freedom Party finished second behind the center-left Social Democrats in parliamentary elections last November.

It then formed a governing alliance with Mr. Schuessel's third-running People's Party in February, ending decades of government by the center-right People's Party and the Social Democrats.

Analysts said the EU action had shown little promise of forcing Austrians to overturn the results of the November election.

"Not to defend Haider, but the elitist, anti-democratic way the EU went about this was just breathtakingly arrogant," said John Hulsman, a senior analyst for European affairs at the Heritage Foundation who recently returned from an extended trip to the continent.

"Right now, there's a big scramble in the EU to find a way to back down without looking like that's what they're doing," Mr. Hulsman said.

Max Riedlsperger, an expert on Austrian politics at Cal-Poly State University in San Luis Obispo, Calif., said that shock and resentment felt in Austria over the sanctions benefited Mr. Schuessel's party, which had fallen to third place for the first time behind the Social Democrats and the Freedom Party in the November vote.

"Schuessel has come out of this the real star," said Mr. Reidlsperger. "The sanctions have helped his party more than any other domestically."

Having fallen below 20 percent in some Austrian opinion polls at the beginning of the year, the People's Party now vies with the Social Democrats with just under a third of the vote.

Mr. Haider's party, which grew steadily in its years out of power, has dropped from 27 percent in November to about 24 percent now, according to recent polls.

"Anybody who was angry with the government used to look first to the Freedom Party," said Mr. Riedlsperger. "Now the Freedom Party is part of the government."

Mr. Haider, who resigned as party chairman this month to deflect international criticism of his leadership, still harbors ambitions of power and still has the capacity to shock.

Earlier this month, Mr. Haider, who remains the governor of the province of Carinthia, called for legal action against any Austrian government official who defended the EU sanctions.

France, Germany and Belgium remain strongly opposed to a softening of the stance against Austria.

"I see no fundamental element that would justify modifying these measures," said Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel, among the most hawkish EU leaders toward Austria.

The diplomatic flurry over the sanctions comes as France prepares to assume the presidency of the EU on July 1 for six months, which could make any policy change for the alliance difficult.

The EU has been able to function despite the blackballing of Austria, but many worry that delicate debates over enlarging the union and reforming its internal governing structure could grind to a halt if the split continues.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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