- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 13, 2000

The European Union, in full diplomatic retreat, yesterday unconditionally lifted sanctions imposed on Austria seven months ago after a far-right party joined the government in Vienna.

French President Jacques Chirac, a staunch supporter of the sanctions who holds the rotating presidency of the 15-nation bloc, announced the decision in Paris after support for the unprecedented blackballing of an EU member-state crumbled in recent days.

"The measures put in place by the 14 [states] were useful," Mr. Chirac's government said in a statement. "They can now be lifted."

But the conservative Austrian government headed by Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel hailed the decision as a complete vindication. The far-right Freedom Party, whose inclusion in the coalition government in early February sparked the sanctions, remains a part of the government today.

"The removal of the sanctions has come without ifs or buts or any other conditions," Mr. Schuessel, who heads the center-right Austrian People's Party, said in a television interview yesterday. "Some states just wanted a suspension of the sanctions, so it's a great triumph."

Vice Chancellor Susanne Riess-Passer, the most senior of six Freedom Party members in the Austrian government, said the reversal affirmed that individual EU states "have the right to determine their own government."

The sanctions were approved at a hastily called meeting of Austria's 14 EU partners in Lisbon on Feb. 4, the same day the Schuessel government was sworn in. The penalties included sharp limitations on bilateral political contacts with the Austrian government, blocking Austrian nationals from top EU jobs and curbs on school trips, cultural exchanges and other contacts.

The Clinton administration announced its own, more limited sanctions, briefly recalling its ambassador to Vienna and saying Austrian government officials would be met at a "reduced diplomatic level."

The target of the sanctions was the anti-immigrant Freedom Party and its leader Joerg Haider. Mr. Haider, the charismatic governor of the southern state of Carinthia, has attracted international criticism for a string of remarks over the years attacking foreigners and appearing to make light of Austria's Nazi past.

The most critical comment on the EU move yesterday came from Israel, where Prime Minister Ehud Barak's office condemned the decision to lift sanctions.

"It would have been worthwhile to continue with them as long as a party such as the Freedom Party, with neo-fascist tendencies, remains in the Austrian government," Mr. Barak said in a statement.

But analysts said the ostracism had created major institutional headaches for the EU while stiffening sentiment within Austria against what many saw as bullying by Europe's large, center-left governments against one of the EU's smallest states.

"The EU obviously couldn't sustain the sanctions, and it was never clear in any case what it was they expected Austria to do," said Clay Clemens, a specialist in European politics at the College of William and Mary.

"This was one of the most poorly thought-through diplomatic initiatives from an organization that's had a lot of them over the years," Mr. Clemens said.

"No matter how they spin it, this is a massive climb down for the European Union," added John C. Hulsman, senior European policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation.

The analysts said the sanctions had backfired on several fronts.

Mr. Clemens said the action was undermining support in Denmark for a Sept. 28 referendum on whether to adopt the EU currency, the euro. Anti-euro forces in Denmark have cited the sanctions as bullying by the EU's leading members.

Several smaller states inside the EU also complained of the sanctions, openly calling for their suspension in the days before yesterday's action.

And, with public resentment stiffening inside Austria, Mr. Schuessel's government had threatened that Austria would use its veto to block internal reforms at the EU summit in December and prevent the addition of Eastern European states seeking membership in the world's wealthiest economic club.

Hans Betz, a political scientist at Toronto's York University who has written extensively on right-wing parties in Europe, said Mr. Haider issued increasingly pointed threats to block potential new EU members as the sanctions stalemate dragged on.

The 14 EU states acted yesterday after a panel of three "wise men" headed by former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari presented Mr. Chirac with a report Friday concluding that the Austrian record on human rights and treatment of immigrants was, in many cases, better than that of other EU members.

The sanctions were now "counterproductive" and should be lifted, the report concluded.

But supporters of the sanctions policy, primarily the center-left governments of France, Germany and Belgium, defended the campaign yesterday even as they backtracked. All three governments have expressed concern about the growing appeal of far-right elements on their own domestic political landscape.

The French statement characterized Mr. Haider's Freedom Party as a "right-wing populist party with extremist characteristics" that still requires "particular vigilance."

"These measures showed that the EU has reached such a level of political maturity that the defense of values written in its treaty is a common responsibility and must from now on be actively watched," said Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel, one of the most avid backers of the anti-Austria effort.

EU diplomats also contended the sanctions prevented Mr. Haider and his party from trying to implement some of the anti-immigrant proposals contained in its electoral platform.

But Heritage's Mr. Hulsman said the outcome of the campaign against Austria may chasten the bloc's major players.

"Schuessel didn't back down, and now his party is more popular than ever," he noted. "I do think the EU will be less liable in the future to shoot first and ask questions later."

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