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Wednesday, 9 February, 2000, 12:22 GMT
Royals dragged into Haider row

Joerg Haider: sparked protests across Europe

By BBC News Online's political correspondent Nick Assinder

If the cancellation of Prince Charles' visit to Austria has proved one thing it is the impossibility of keeping the Royals out of politics.

Many would claim that the very existence of a monarch, with the power to approve the creation of governments, is a political issue.

And members regularly have to take advice from the government of the day on sensitive issues.

Prince Charles, of course, has also shown an ability to get personally involved in political matters.

His hard-line against GM food has irritated the government and he caused further embarrassment recently when he refused to attend a banquet given by visiting Chinese President Jiang Zemin.

Unlike the Austria trip, the decision to snub President Jiang was a personal one sparked by the Prince's support for the Dalai Lama.

Critics claim that he should never take such personal decisions because they inevitably pitch him directly into the political arena.

And there is little doubt that his continuing desire to take personal stands on key issues will keep that controversy boiling. The Austria trip, however, is different.

Purely political

The Prince was to visit Vienna in May in an official capacity to open a Britain Now trade fair.

The government has called off the event in protest at the inclusion of far right-winger Joerg Haider's Freedom Party in the ruling Austrian coalition government.

It has been explained that, as the event was cancelled there was no reason for the Prince to visit - so the decision was a purely political one, made by the British government.

Tony Blair had been coming under intense pressure to follow the line taken by other EU states in protest at the coalition, and the trade fair was an obvious target.

But the decision, and the Princes' involvement, has opened up a fierce political debate about the entire issue.

Critics of the government claim Britain should not be interfering in the affairs of another sovereign state, particularly over the composition of a democratically elected government.

They point out that contacts are kept with other countries with far more unpleasant regimes in control.

They also point to the European parliament which includes members of other far right groups such as the French National Front.

Visit unthinkable

Conservative MP Nicholas Winterton, chairman of the All-Party Group on Austria, led those critics, declaring it was "impertinent" of the government to deem the democratically-elected government of Austria unacceptable.

"It appears that anything right-of-centre and Eurosceptic is unacceptable, but anything left-of-centre is acceptable.

"I don't see the Foreign Secretary advising members of the Royal Family not to visit China or Zimbabwe and not to entertain their heads of state when they come to Britain.

"All the alleged sins of Mr Haider pale into insignificance compared to those of these countries' governments."

But supporters of the decision insist it would have been unthinkable for a member of the Royal Family to visit the country while Mr Haider's party was part of the government.

The Dutch Royal family came under attack at home after taking a skiing trip to Austria at the height of the controversy.

Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman Menzies Campbell summed up the views of those supporting the action, saying: "The Austrian government is on probation. Normal service cannot be resumed until it has proved its good faith."

So, once again, Prince Charles has found himself at the centre of a political row - this time, however, it is purely of the government's making.

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See also:
09 Feb 00 |  UK
Charles' Austria boycott attacked
07 Feb 00 |  Europe
Austria's racial paradox
08 Feb 00 |  Europe
Riot police guard Austrian parliament

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