- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 19, 2000

GENEVA Europe is preparing to end sanctions against Austria with a formula described by diplomats as a face-saving "exit strategy" that would end a standoff with Vienna that had threatened to paralyze the European Union.

Under the plan being considered by EU members, the Austrian government would scrap a proposed referendum on the sanctions and give a formal promise not to veto EU policy initiatives or block its expansion eastward.

In exchange, Austria no longer would be ostracized because of the participation in its government of the far-right Freedom Party, which many Europeans consider to be neo-fascist.

Austria has yet to commit itself to such a solution, diplomats say, and the European Union has been unable to muster a consensus for dealing with the divisive issue, which marks an unprecedented intrusion into the domestic affairs of a member state.

The union, which is dominated by left-leaning governments, has been snubbing Austria since February following the formation of a coalition government in Vienna, which includes Joerg Haider's Freedom Party.

Austria's 14 EU partners immediately accused the Freedom Party of neo-Nazi tendencies and of violating the Western concepts of democracy and human rights. The accusations were based mostly on Mr. Haider's past provocative statements, including a claim that the Nazi era had had some positive impact on Austria.

Mr. Haider subsequently apologized and resigned from the party's leadership, but his influence on the government has remained considerable, if not dominant.

The EU decision to isolate Austria by limiting contact between officials of member states and Vienna was regarded by some specialists as heightening that country's nationalism. The referendum, suggested by Mr. Haider, has been described as "blackmail and provocation."

Nonetheless, a number of EU member countries have been uneasy, concerned that the sanctions might become counterproductive.

Under the policy of sanctions, the European Union has banned official visits to Austria and decided to oppose Austrian candidates for senior posts in various international organizations.

Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schussel in turn has accused the rest of Europe of treating his country as a pariah.

Mr. Schussel in effect has given the European Union an ultimatum to modify its attitude by the time of the December summit meeting in Biarritz, France.

Should the sanctions continue, he said, Austria easily could block EU expansion as well as measures to streamline its decision-making.

Pervenche Bares, a French member of the European Parliament, described Austria's attitude as "a case of extreme populism."

A British government spokesman brushed aside various recent statements by Mr. Haider, saying, "the Freedom Party is still in the government, it is still extremist."

During its 13-year existence, the Freedom Party has become the most successful extreme-right party in Europe since World War II. Its share of national vote has grown from 9.7 to 27.2 percent.

The party has been critical of Austria's liberal immigration policy and claims it defends the interests of average citizens and protects their jobs.

The European Court of Human Rights has appointed a special committee to report on the situation of refugees, immigration and minorities in Austria. Its report will have strong influence on how the European Union deals with the problem, perhaps causing acute embarrassment across Europe, which shares similar concerns over immigration.

Mr. Haider has also mounted a series of successful lawsuits against prominent left-wing critics.

Yesterday an Austrian court ordered the Union of Socialist Youth to pay damages of $340 for having described Mr. Haider as part of a "tradition of fascism" in its newspaper.

Others convicted of defaming him include Anton Pelinka, a professor of politics at Innsbruck University, who compared Nazi propaganda against Jews with the use by the Austrian politician of the word "parasites" to criticize immigrants; the leftist weekly news magazine Profil; an editorial writer for the daily Der Standard, the magazine supplement of the German daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung; and the president of the Jewish community in Austria, Ariel Muzicant.

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