TOPICS > Politics

Update: Austria vs. Europe

February 24, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: On Saturday, the streets of Vienna were filled with an estimated 150,000 protesters. Their target was Austria’s far-right leader, Joerg Haider, whose Freedom Party has joined the government’s ruling coalition. Some chanted ‘No to racism’ in protest of Haider’s anti-immigrant statements. Others compared Haider to Adolf Hitler, after he’s made, and then apologized for, comments considered sympathetic to the Nazis. (Boos)

Haider himself is not a member of the new Austrian cabinet, but remains Freedom Party leader. And the party, which won a best-ever 27 percent of the vote in last fall’s parliamentary elections, now controls half of the cabinet posts. The new government has drawn the ire of Austria’s fellow members of the European Union. They downgraded relations with Vienna, and last week EU ministers snubbed Austria by skipping the customary photo and handshake sessions.

LOUIS MICHEL, Foreign Minister, Belgium (speaking through interpreter): Austria is fully in its right to choose its government, and it is the EU’s right and obligation to take a position when a country is not within the principles of the union.

RAY SUAREZ: Official American displeasure was voiced by Secretary of State Albright.

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: There is clearly no place inside the governments who make up the Euro-Atlantic community in a healthy democracy for a party that does not clearly distance itself from the atrocities of the Nazi era and the politics of hate.

RAY SUAREZ: Throughout the controversy Haider has been unrepentant.

JEORG HAIDER, Austrian Freedom Party: And it is stupid to imagine that the whole world is afraid of Mr. Haider. He is the leader of a 27 percent party in Austria. It’s unbelievable that the whole world is afraid. Mr. Clinton is afraid of Mr. Haider? Perhaps he is afraid that I take a competition with him at the marathon in New York. Then he has to be afraid, because I am much quicker than he.

RAY SUAREZ: Haider has taken to the European press to bolster his democratic credentials. In an editorial Tuesday in a British newspaper, Haider claimed ‘amazing similarities’ between himself and (British) Prime Minister Tony Blair. Beyond diplomatic sanctions, European leaders are divided over what to do next about Haider and Austria.

RAY SUAREZ: We get four European views on Haider and Europe. Anneliese Rohrer is the domestic affairs editor for the Austrian newspaper Die Presse; Hugo Young is a columnist for the Guardian newspaper in Britain — his new book on Britain’s relationship with Europe, This Blessed Plot, was recently issued in the United States; Dominique Moisi is deputy director of the French Institute for International Relations — he also writes for the Financial Times; and Stefan Kornelius is deputy Berlin bureau chief for the Munich newspaper Suddeuetsche Zeitung.

Anneliese Rohrer, how is that reaction being seen inside Austria?

ANNELIESE ROHRER: Well, it’s being seen as an overreaction, which it really was, and in the end we have to say that it’s, it has been counterproductive. The two parties, the conservatives and the Freedom Party, came to an agreement much faster because of this outside pressure than they normally would have done. And, quite apart, I think there is a realization in Austria that this reaction of the other 14 EU (European Union) member states makes Haider bigger than he and it blows up his ego. So really as far as development in Austria is concerned, it’s counterproductive and people realize that.

RAY SUAREZ: Dominique Moisi, is the reaction considered proportionate in France?

DOMINIQUE MOISI: Yes, on the whole. I mean I think what we are creating is a sense of moral, political unity in Europe. I mean what it is about is not so much about Austria, but about ourselves. It’s about our identity as a democratic entity. And in a way, what we are saying to the Austrians is that you are part of us, and you have violated some kind of contract. And by saying that, we are also saying a contradiction. How can we isolate some element of us? That’s really the basis of the European dilemma today.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, when you say that the reaction was proportionate, was there ever any real fear that Austria could spin out of the orbit of European democracies?

DOMINIQUE MOISI: No, but there was a feeling that of course the comparison between Haider and Hitler is extremely negative — counterproductive; I would agree. In a way it is an insult to those who have suffered from Hitler.

But what we are saying that the revisionism in historical terms, which is practiced by Haider, is eroding the very core of the European project, which was based on Franco-German reconciliation. Haider is saying, ‘Well, of course, the Jews have suffered, the Resistance have suffered.’ But the Germans, the Austrians have suffered too and by equating the two kinds of suffering is really irking the very heart of the European project, which was based on the fact that the Germans of course had suffered — had been victims — but victims of themselves.

RAY SUAREZ: Stefan Kornelius, your country is next-door neighbor with an intertwined history. You heard Dominique Moisi. Is it because it’s Austria and because of Austria’s particular history in the last 50, 60 years that this development has gotten such a strong reaction?

STEFAN KORNELIUS: It definitely is one of the reasons, but one other reason is that you have emerging far-right powers within Europe, which might be threatening to the whole European project. And as the German conservative side is disintegrating these days anyway, there was a growing concern that this virus might spread. That is why they put a stop to it or at least tried to put political pressure on Austria and isolate the country diplomatically.

But, however, the country — the German government — now has realized that they might have overtoned it a little bit and what they are trying now is to ease tensions by stressing that these measures taken against Austria have to be put into proportion and that Austria’s rights and Austria’s ability to act within the European Union is not limited at all.

RAY SUAREZ: Hugo Young, Joerg Haider has compared himself to Tony Blair. Has that story been getting a lot of coverage, been followed closely in Britain?

HUGO YOUNG: It’s been given coverage in the right-wing press, which is where Joerg Haider made his most distinctive statement of this coincidence of values. I don’t think it’s much appreciated by Tony Blair. The British were the slowest of the European countries to react to the Haider business — I think for two reasons: One was that we don’t have a far-right party, unlike France, unlike Belgium and unlike other places, which would make us aware of how what began as a fragment could become a really significant political force.

And secondly it is a reflection of the underdeveloped sense in this country of what Europe means. I mean the idea that there could be a sort of political virus in Europe as a whole, which we as a member of the European Union should pay the closest attention to, is somewhat difficult to grasp. The government has after a bit of a delay, the government really got into this and made strong statements — Foreign Secretary (Robin) Cook — and we are very much proud of that.

But I think that the fear which probably there is here is quite how we get out of it. What happens next? How do the Austrians make themselves, put themselves in good order with the European Union? How do we show, how do we know that Europe can now accept Austria? How many years will this go on for? These are problems for diplomats and politicians, which I think in none of our countries have we really thought through.

RAY SUAREZ: Anneliese Rohrer, are they asking that same question in Austria itself?

ANNELIESE ROHRER: Yes, a little bit rephrased. The question that is being asked here is ‘How do you get down from the tree you climbed up so far?’ But it means the same thing.

Could I just slightly disagree with Dominique in Paris — because he said Austria had violated European principles — can I remind him that the sanctions and the reaction was in place — we didn’t even have a government yet which could violate anything. And we now have a government that, you know, still hasn’t violated anything because it hasn’t done anything yet.

The real question — and you know I’m sort of moved by the concern of one of the other panelists about that Austria might threaten Europe — I ask him to consider that the real question is ‘What does all this mean for European integration?’ Some of you might have heard about Poland saying OK, this is how Brussels treats small countries, we might reconsider our application. So in actual fact, this sort of reaction and the quality of reaction might, you know, slow down the European integration process. And I think that is nor detrimental than having a democratically elected government being watched by the others and see what it does. So I see personally, I see a real dangers for European integration, not so much for any fascist movement coming out of Austria.

RAY SUAREZ: Dominique Moisi.

DOMINIQUE MOISI: Well, I find it slightly ironic because in a way, Austria is one of the last countries to have entered the European Union. And if you were listening to Austrian officials and diplomats, they were quite ready to close the door behind them and to let the other parts of their former empire stay outside of the European Union — and I find in a way, I’ll repeat, ironic, that today Austrians could say ‘Well, if do you that maybe other people will not come very soon in the European Union. ‘

I think to return to the sense of the discussion, I mean there is a moral constitution of Europe which is slightly appearing thanks in a way to the Haider crisis. And we don’t have the legal constitution but there are elements of a moral constitution within a democratic Europe, you don’t accept in power people who are not clearly condemning some elements of the past and who are keeping repeating outrageous things about history.

RAY SUAREZ: Stefan Kornelius, how do you answer the question that has come up, ‘Where does this end?’ Does Europe have to put up with an Austrian government including the Freedom Party, and short of another election, how does this all end?

STEFAN KORNELIUS: I think it will actually increase the awareness in the rest of Europe about the importance of that project — and this is where I don’t agree with Anneliese, I think it will actually increase the speed of integration because for the first time now especially in Germany the public is debating about the nature of this European Union and people are getting aware that the union has become very different especially within the last year where we introduced the common currency, the euro, and agreed on a common defense identity which might result in common troops. We are now talking about giving up sovereign rights to a far greater extent than would have ever been imagined.

From that perspective it actually strengthens the awareness of how important Europe has become and how important enlargement to the East has become to find a new balance on the continent where Germany was always in the middle — always isolated, always sort of forced into this position against all its neighbors. Now this is a continent which has to work together, and this poison Haider might set off by playing off each nation against others is too dangerous and this is why the staff was correct and I think Austria has to change and Haider has to prove he is not a dangers to the union, otherwise those diplomatic sanctions which have to be upheld.

RAY SUAREZ: Last thoughts, Hugo Young.

HUGO YOUNG: I think a lot depends now on what the Austrian government does. Whether Haider and his colleagues in the government, he is outside the government, have taken a message from this which does assert — and I agree with both my French and German colleagues here — is asserting a moral order for Europe which to those of us who want to advance the idea of Europe is very encouraging — the idea that here, for once in a political dimension the voices have spoken. I think Haider’s objective is to try and divide the European Union.

And it seems to me that the demonstrations going on in Vienna and the sense one has that a significant part of the political clout in Austria is pretty appalled at that semi-ostracism — to use a most appropriate word perhaps — the effect of that is bad. And we will now watch I suppose for how this coalition with its minority Freedom Party actually reacts to that.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Anneliese, in response to Hugo’s thoughts, who speaks for Austria? Should we be paying attention to the protesters in the streets or the people who sit in the seats in parliament right now?

ANNELIESE ROHRER: Could I just bring this whole thing down from the moral level to the more practical level? I completely disagree with my colleague in Berlin. Have you thought this through? If Austria is isolated and under European leader, still it will be asked to take the decisions that are necessary for Europe. But the information to take these decisions are withheld from the country.

I mean, all of this is totally impractical, and I think Brussels and Vienna will have to find a way to get out of this because you can’t ask the country or you have to kick Austria out. But you can’t ask the country to take part in decisions about which you don’t give the information. So all of this is, you know, it is a blind alley if people don’t sit down and try to find a way out of it.

RAY SUAREZ: Guests, thank you all for being with us.