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Thursday, 24 February, 2000, 15:33 GMT
Viewpoint: Judge Austria by deeds not words
BBC News Online asked Franz Fischler, Austria's European Commissioner for Agriculture and Fisheries, whether he thinks European countries are right to isolate Austria over the role of the far-right Freedom Party in government. This was his reply:
When you think of Austria, you think of Mozart, waltzing, and apfelstrudel; maybe the Sound of Music; perhaps even a little admiration for the economic prosperity of this small country in the middle of Europe - not to mention its performance in downhill racing.
But you also think of Hitler. the Mauthausen death camp and the active role played by Austrians in the darkest chapter of 20th-Century European history.
This strikes me as both natural and justified. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that it is healthy.
Now Austria is again in the spotlight. The inclusion of the Freedom Party in Austria's new national government has provoked great international concern.
This, too, I find understandable. The reaction of the international community, especially from the other 14 EU member states, was to be expected, maybe not in its severity, but in its substance.
On the other hand one should try to understand how this looks through the eyes of an average Austrian.
The Austrian people simply do not understand the reasoning behind the threat to isolate them. They do not understand what 'crime' they have committed that should be punished by sanctions.
This is obviously a major source of tension, provoking all kinds of sulky reactions.
"Why Austria?", they ask. Is it not unfair to single out and stigmatise Austria and its citizens, while elsewhere in the EU similar social and political difficulties exist?
Have not politicians in other EU countries also capitalised on intolerance against immigrants? Have we not seen extremists and populists taking to the streets throughout Europe and political parties courting such sentiments with a view to electoral success? Of course.
But this is not the point. In fact this is part of the problem.
Clumsy attempts to set one's own problems in relation with the neighbour's trouble do not change the facts.
Austria has to face its past
Austria has a specific responsibility, both for its past and its present, or any connection that might be there between the two.
Austria cannot escape its history. Nor should it.
We Austrians have to live up to the dark sides of our past, and we have to live with the fact that, as a consequence, we are subject to intense scrutiny by our international partners who apply the highest standards vis-à-vis a country that wants to be member of the 'First Club'. Again, quite rightly so.
In Austria much has been pushed aside and forgotten. Remembering was and still is not a 'cosy' thing to do.
Indeed, for a long time the international community has also tended to see Austria as Hitler's first victim, thus creating the popular myth of Austrian innocence.
The effect of this collective lack of awareness has now become striking.
The party of a politician, who has never found the courage openly to come to terms with Austria's past but who has obfuscated Austrian history - for example by putting Churchill on the same footing as Hitler - has become part of the Austrian Government.
Nobody would seriously accuse Austria of being a stronghold of fascism and intolerance, even though some parts of the media give this rather biased impression.
'Austria is a functioning democracy'
Austria is a functioning democracy. My fellow countrymen, as the free people of an independent state, naturally have every right to make up their own democratic minds.
That is what has taken place, whether one likes the results or not.
One part of my responsibility is to convey the present international concern to my countrymen and to explain that the European Union is not turning against Austria as a country or a people.
The Union has made clear that its basic values - tolerance, solidarity, respect for human rights - have to be fundamental for every member state.
No Austrians who care for their country would choose to disagree with me on this.
I also see my role as trying to build bridges in a difficult situation, unprecedented in the history of the EU, in order to prevent a country cutting itself adrift from the rest of Europe.
The European Commission has a duty as guardian of the EU treaties and is determined to exercise that role to the full, remaining watchful and quick to reprimand any breach of EU law.
However, it is not the Commission's place to isolate a member country.
This is why the Commission must and will maintain its working relationship with Austria.
Government to be judged by deeds
The Austrian Government programme is a first step to dispel international mistrust.
Its introduction contains a definite 'no' to discrimination, to xenophobia and to intolerance.
It also contains a clear commitment to enlargement to the East, to European integration in general and to shared responsibility among Austrians for the holocaust.
I can only hope that this is an unambiguous signal that the Freedom Party has broken with its past.
But words alone are clearly not enough. This Austrian Government, as no other, will be judged by its deeds.
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