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Thursday, 3 February, 2000, 15:41 GMT
Analysis: EU differences in spotlight

Joerg Haider and Wolfgang Schuessel Joerg Haider and Wolfgang Schuessel


By diplomatic correspondent Barnaby Mason

Amid the moves to bring the far right Freedom Party into government in Austria, there are indications of some differences among the other 14 members of the European Union about how to handle the situation.

The implications of their unprecedented threat to impose a limited political boycott of Vienna are still unclear.

All 14 governments are committed to the decision to break off bilateral political contacts with any Austrian Government containing the Freedom Party.

But public statements, or the lack of them, suggest clear differences of emphasis.

Germany, France and Belgium have been especially outspoken in their repeated condemnation of the Freedom Party's leader, Joerg Haider, with Italy and Spain not far behind.


Joerg Haider Freedom Party's Joerg Haider

The German Government says he is seeking to create a new nationalistic, xenophobic right which would threaten European integration.

The French Government says EU countries must keep up their guard against future breaches of European law.

Both France and Belgium have worries about their own far right parties, and Germany's Nazi past makes it particularly sensitive.

Silence

On the other hand, a number of other governments have kept silent, including Britain.

Senior British officials said they felt nothing needed to be added to Monday's statement by the 14: there was no evidence that public condemnation of Mr Haider was helping anything except his opinion poll ratings - it was not a worthwhile activity for Britain to indulge in.

It is still not clear how the break in bilateral contacts will work out in practice. The decision was taken by the 14 heads of government after a rapid series of telephone calls, and ministers have not discussed collectively how to implement it.

Intimate organisation

No action by the EU as an institution has been decided, so Austrian ministers will continue to take part in EU meetings.

If their colleagues refuse to talk to them in the corridors outside, it will inevitably disrupt community business, since many things are settled in informal discussions in small groups.

Some officials doubt whether you can draw a line between multi-lateral and bilateral contacts in an intimate organisation like the EU.

But British officials suggest there would be no problem in talking to Austrian ministers from Wolfgang Schuessel's People's Party rather than those from the Freedom Party.


Wolfgang Schuessel Wolfgang Schuessel

The limited boycott so far agreed is a warning shot in response to fears about what Mr Haider's past anti-foreigner, even pro-Nazi remarks may mean for Austria's future policy on freedom of movement, immigration and the enlargement of the European Union to the east.

EU governments will now watch carefully to see if further action is needed. France as well as the European Parliament has publicly raised the long-term possibility of suspending Austria's voting rights in the EU.

Under Article 7 of the European Union Treaty, that could be done if the other 14 unanimously decided that Austria were in serious and persistent breach of the principles of liberty, democracy, respect for human rights and the rule of law.

Such action is remote at present. The prospective coalition has formally committed itself to those principles and acknowledged Austria's share of responsibility for Nazi crimes.

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See also:
31 Jan 00 |  Europe
EU threat to isolate Austria
28 Jan 00 |  Europe
Austrian far-right prompts EU fears
26 Jan 00 |  Europe
Haider's rise 'highly disturbing'
26 Oct 99 |  Europe
Big gains for Swiss right-wing

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