EU Sanctions Will Not Eliminate Right-Wing Austrian Party

4 February 2000

By Stentor Danielson

In the Third Reich, they had an orderly employment policy," said Austrian politician Jeorg Haider. Although he later took back his comment, the xenophobic and sometimes Nazi-like philosophy of his Freedom Party remains. That philosophy propelled the party into power in Austria's election late last year.

Leaders in Europe and elsewhere were quick to condemn the possibility of a coalition government that includes the Freedom Party. The 14 other members of the European Union (EU) and Israel have threatened to sever bilateral diplomatic ties with Austria if Haider or his right-wing party are allowed to be a part of the coalition government. The United States has also expressed its concern over the clearly dangerous developments in Austria. Unfortunately, the diplomatic sanctions that have been threatened are a poor move in both principle and practice.

Haider's political views are unpalatable, to say the least. He warns his constituents and supporters of the "over-foreignization" of Austria. Despite his conciliatory commitment to a policy of "yes on Europe," EU members worry that the Freedom Party will try to prevent the EU from expanding eastward. It is hard to blame the EU, United States and Israel for wanting to take action to prevent Haider's beliefs from damaging progress and cooperation in Europe. They have a right to criticize developments that threaten their interests.

Yet Haider's party came to power through a democratic election. The Austrian people have spoken and a large percentage of them have spoken in favor of the philosophies advocated by Haider. Diplomatic sanctions are meant to coerce current Austrian president Thomas Klestil into rejecting the proposed coalition government, which is led by conservative People's Party leader Wolfgang Schuessel and incorporates members of the Freedom Party alongside the People's Party and Klestil's Social Democrats.

There is no good alternative for Klestil. If he wishes to avoid the EU sanctions, his best option is to attempt to hold a new election. But a democracy in which those in power can force a new election whenever they do not like the results is not real democracy. In their rush to show disapproval for Haider, other nations have dealt a blow to Austrian democracy.

New elections, however, can be no more than a stall tactic. The first election, in which the Freedom Party claimed its place alongside the People's Party and the Social Democrats, were held democratically. So if the second elections are also held democratically and honestly, they will likely yield the same results.

EU members hope that their threats will serve as a disincentive to proponents of Haider's isolationist, anti-foreigner policy. In actuality, they are more likely to bolster those philosophies.

The Freedom Party bases its message on a distrust of non-Austrians. Immigrants are an anathema to Haider. He advises that immigrants already in the country learn to speak German and essentially become Austrians. He maintains that multicultural nations are doomed to failure.

The EU gives Austrian ultraconservatives an excellent example of menacing foreigners. "The EU is trying to interfere with our nation," they reason, "so it is all the more important for us to keep Austria firmly in the control of Austrians." Observers have reported that Freedom Party support is already strengthening in response to foreign threats.

The meddling nature of the threats also helps Haider. Haider's basic philosophy is isolationist. And the EU proposes to isolate Austria. If the Freedom Party has no need for foreigners, severing diplomatic ties will not alarm the party. Isolating Austria in this fashion will help to insulate its people, allowing Haider to spread his rhetoric and consolidate his power further.

It is a safe bet that Haider will use foreign threats for his own purposes. He has a history as a shrewd and opportunistic politician. He has repeatedly made pro-Nazi remarks, such as the one quoted at the beginning of this article, and then withdrawn them when it was to his advantage.

His dealings have paid off so far, as attested to by the rise in power of the Freedom Party, from five percent support at the polls when Haider assumed party leadership in 1986 to its second-place finish in the elections just a few months ago. He will make sure that by trying to force Austria to the left, the EU will wind up making it move to the right.

The threats made by the EU and Israel have put Klestil between a rock and a hard place. On one side, he faces a mandate from the Austrian people to include the Freedom Party in the nation's government, a directive which one man cannot effectively oppose. On the other side, he risks cutting his country off from contacts that could help draw Austria into the international community and take the steam out of Haider's rhetorical engine.

The EU is moving to protect its own interests, as well it should. But its current plan is remarkably ill-informed. Blocking the Freedom Party now will not alter the political views of the Austrian people, who ultimately have the decision as to who their leaders are. And at worst, diplomatic sanctions will bring more support to Haider in his battle against foreigners. Count on him to turn the EU's hard-line stance into a rallying cry for xenophobia.

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