- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 2, 2000

Austria's two rightist parties, defying international pressure, concluded a deal yesterday to bring the populist, anti-immigration Freedom Party into the nation's ruling coalition for the first time.

The Freedom Party and its provocative chairman, Joerg Haider, remain at the center of an international storm after Austria's 14 European Union partners warned Monday they would isolate Vienna politically and diplomatically if Mr. Haider came to power.

Mr. Haider is the son of a Nazi official of an earlier era and has defended Nazi storm troopers of World War II as "victims" and not "criminals."

Mr. Haider, who was the governor of Austria's southern province of Carinthia, said yesterday at the conclusion of the talks: "Two equally strong parties have agreed to work together to try and bring much-needed reforms after 30 years of socialism."

Austria has been without a permanent government since the Freedom Party finished in second place behind the center-left Social Democrats in elections Oct. 3.

Even as Austrian President Thomas Klestil ponders whether to accept the governing program hammered out between the Freedom Party and the center-right Austrian People's Party, the Clinton administration yesterday said it was weighing sanctions against Austria.

Like the European Union, U.S. officials cite the Freedom Party's anti-immigration stands and a string of past comments by Mr. Haider that minimize Austria's Nazi past.

"The entry of the Freedom Party in the Austrian government would affect our bilateral relationship," said National Security Council spokesman David Leavy. "Should this occur, we would examine carefully the range and depth of our bilateral relationship, and consider similar steps to those identified by the Europeans."

The State Department said yesterday that Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, on a visit to Moscow, called People's Party Chairman Wolfgang Schuessel set to be the chancellor in the new government to express U.S. misgivings.

Mr. Schuessel, the foreign minister in the outgoing government, rejected international complaints about the makeup of the new government.

On Monday, the leaders of Austria's 14 EU partners vowed to isolate Vienna diplomatically, slash bilateral contacts and oppose the appointment of Austrian nationals to international organizations such as the United Nations if Mr. Haider's party joined the government.

The move, pushed publicly by center-left politicians in France, Italy, Germany, Belgium and Italy, provoked a swift backlash in Austria, where polls indicate the Freedom Party may now rank as the nation's most popular party.

The stunning action also proved divisive within Europe itself, with many arguing it was a politically motivated and legally questionable move to punish Austria's conservatives as well as those with harsher views, and would likely backfire.

"This was clearly a political decision, not a legal one," said Peter Moser, Austria's ambassador to the United States, in a telephone interview yesterday.

He said the EU's actions would boost Mr. Haider within Austria, where the party's rise in the polls is seen as having been accomplished within democratic practices.

"The European Union has to backpedal on this," Mr. Moser said. "This is a dead end that leads us nowhere."

The EU action "only plays into the hand of Joerg Haider," said Karl Lamers, the foreign policy spokesman for Germany's center-right Christian Democrats. "A possible role in government would offer the chance to break Haider's spell as a right-wing populist and media phenomenon," he said.

The EU Council, the Brussels-based executive arm of the 15-nation alliance, conceded yesterday there was no legal basis for sanctions against Austria, even as council members said they "shared the concerns" expressed by their national leaders Monday.

Despite the threats issued by the EU leaders, the council said yesterday that Austria's standing in the multilateral Brussels bureaucracy had not changed.

"At this moment, no one can point to any breach of democratic rights in Austria," said Ricardo Levi, a spokesman for EU Commission President Romano Prodi. "No one can say the election in Austria was anything but democratic."

Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal, in an interview on Dutch radio, said Mr. Haider is an overrated populist who poses "no danger" to democracy in Austria.

"Haider is a populist of the right, and populists of the right always speak out against foreigners," Mr. Wiesenthal said.

But socialist and center-left leaders across Europe defended the harsh tack. "Europe has standards and values which forge unity, and if these are put into doubt, Europe has the right to state its views," argued Italy's leftist Prime Minister Massimo D'Alema, a former Communist, in a radio interview.

Mr. Haider's staunch anti-immigration and nationalistic views run directly counter to two cherished goals of the EU hierarchy "broadening" the union by inviting more than a dozen East European and Balkan states to join and "deepening" the alliance by coordinating Europe's economic, security, regulatory and social policy increasingly through the supernational bureaucracy based in Brussels.

Originally founded as a basic trade alliance, the EU now issues its own currency, oversees a continental army and has recently ordered Germany's military to allow women in combat roles and Britain's armed forces to allow homosexuals to serve openly.

Mr. Haider apologized for several remarks praising aspects of Hitler's Third Reich. Doubts lingered, but he nevertheless tapped fears in Austria of the intrusive EU bureaucracy, which has issued continentwide standards on everything from the design of condoms to the amount of vegetable fat in chocolate.

"We are a small country, and there are times when we benefit from being one of 15 and times when it is a burden for us," Austria's ambassador said yesterday.

"But the precedent of interfering in a member country's democratic process is amazing to us. How would the French government react if Europe said it was unacceptable if [far-right politician Jean] Le Pen joined the government?"

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