- The Washington Times - Monday, February 7, 2000

For all the right reasons, the European Union has done the wrong thing over Austria. Wrong, unnecessary and dangerous.

For the first time in its history, the EU has told one of its member states how it should conduct its internal politics.

In the name of democracy, we have told the Austrians that they cannot even consider inviting a party that commands 27 percent of the popular vote into a coalition government.

In the name of freedom, we have told them that Big Brother Europe does not permit them to think certain thoughts or cast certain votes.

However odious Jorg Haider and his party may be (and the man is a hateful opportunist), this is a dreadful mistake. A philosophical mistake; and a tactical mistake.

We are not in the 1930s, as the French foreign minister, Hubert Vedrine, remarked on Monday, before he drew the wrong conclusions from his own remark.

Europe has a political, economic, social and institutional stability that it did not have 70 years ago. The far right is a menace that should be combated by all legitimate political means. The far right is not an overwhelming threat. There is no need for hysterical suspension of political wisdom and judgment.

The European Union should know its democratic limitations and be more confident of its own latent power. In the early 21st century, the European institutions, the European treaties, and the integration of the European economies erect practical barriers to the implementation of far-right policies.

Any government in the European Union that tried to enforce policies of racial hatred, market protection or suppression of democracy would fall foul of specific European laws and rules. It would pay a price, in terms of gradual political and economic exclusion, which would make its own democratic survival doubtful.

An EU statement reminding Austria of these facts would have been a sensible and legitimate response to the coalition negotiations between the Christian Democrats and Mr. Haider's "Freedom Party."

We could and should have said Austria had a perfect right to choose its own democratic government. But we could have warned that any Haider-inspired lapse in its commitment to free trade, free movement for all European people (and races) and free speech would be dealt with, severely, within EU law. This would have been a measured warning from a position of strength.

Instead, we have tried to bully the Austrians from a position of weakness. We are telling them we hold a right of moral veto over whom they elect and which parties enter their coalition government.

If the Austrians allow Mr. Haider's far-right party into power, we will not talk to their ambassadors, except on "technical matters" (in other words on those issues on which we may have something to lose ourselves).

We will treat them as a pariah nation, like Iran or Iraq (albeit one that continues to sit in the EU Council of Ministers in Brussels).

There is nothing in EU law, or precedent, to justify such an attitude.

When Silvio Berlusconi formed a populist right-wing government in Italy in 1994-5, there were two far-right parties in the coalition.

A few ministers from other countries refused to shake hands in Brussels with ministers from the frankly racist Northern League and the once overtly fascist National Alliance. But there were no formal EU threats or sanctions.

Mr. Berlusconi's government soon collapsed, precisely because it was unable to square the tedious, complex realities of modern political and economic life with its simple campaign slogans.

Since then the Northern League has all but disappeared as a credible political force, while the National Alliance has been sucked further into the Europhile, democratic, conservative mainstream.

On this precedent, the best way to check Mr. Haider's rise might be to allow his party to be confronted by the limitations and the compromises of power.

This may, admittedly, be an oversimplification. All EU countries (thankfully) are different. In Italy, there is an overwhelming consensus in favor of Europe that does not (yet) exist in Austria.

What is certain is that the spectacle of the EU bullying "little Austria" when it declined to bully big sister Italy can only help Mr. Haider.

There is every reason to be deeply concerned about the rise of Haiderism in Austria. The other EU countries had a right, and duty, to react in a measured way. But direct democracy remains, legally and morally, the preserve of the member states.

The EU does not (yet) have direct popular support and accountability nor the legal basis to interfere in the internal politics of its members.

The Austrian people's party (the Christian Democrats) are wrong to consider a coalition with Jorg Haider. The Christian Democrats may hope to swallow Mr. Haider; he hopes to swallow them.

The EU should crack down harshly on any act of such a government that breaks European Union laws or principles.

Until then, it is for the Austrian people, and for democratically elected Austrian politicians, to decide who sits in an Austrian government.

John Lichfield writes for the The Independent newspaper in London. 2000 The Independent, London. This article was distributed by New York Times Special Features.

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