Austria’s Raw Deal

At last, the European Union has found a face-saving way to release itself from the sanctions its members imposed upon the Austrian government five months ago. Put in place to express general disapproval of the inclusion of Jörg Haider’s anti-immigration Freedom Party in the Austrian ruling coalition, the sanctions have been, quite frankly, a failure. They certainly haven’t harmed Haider or his party, which was skeptical of  the European Union to start with and is now probably more so. On the other hand, they’ve caused a lot of upset and irritation in some of the smaller EU nations, which perceived them as a form of bullying; provoked many to ask uncomfortable questions about just how far the EU is supposed to interfere in the affairs of its members; and, in a year in which many European institutions are supposed to undergo reform, raised the horrifying prospect of Austria vetoing all reforms with a vengeance. The hitherto meek and submissive Austrian prime minister, Wolfgang Schussel, has been dropping hints to that effect and has suddenly begun sounding a lot angrier. Worse, they have been a protocol nightmare. If you can’t meet an Austrian official formally, can you meet him informally? Are you allowed to chat about the weather? No one knows the answer and as a result heads of state across Europe have gone to elaborate measures to avoid accidentally running into Austrian ministers, while Austrian ambassadors have been struck off guest lists and dodged at parties. One sees them standing in the corner of the room, fiddling with the ice in their drinks.

Late last week, however—just as Kremlinologists used to detect shifts in Soviet policy by watching the changes in the seating arrangements at the May Day parade—Euro-watchers made much of the fact that the Austrian ambassador was present at the Bastille Day celebrations, actually on the same viewing stand as the French president. More substantially, the EU itself also just named a panel of experts—a former Finnish president, a former Spanish EU commissioner, and a German academic—to examine “Austria’s human rights record” to see if it warrants admitting Austria back into the fold. Now, however, it is time to start worrying whether the cure will be worse than the disease. For if the expert panel takes its job seriously (which it may well not) it will need to ask tough questions about Austria. But what if someone ever decided to put those same questions to other European states?

Here, for the record, is a rough list of the charges against Austria—and the way that some other European countries would, if the same criteria were applied by the same expert panel, be forced to answer them:

1. The Freedom Party is anti-immigration, and therefore racist. If being opposed to immigration and angered by recent increases in numbers of asylum-seekers counts as racist, then virtually every European country has at least one party, often quite a powerful party, that qualifies. In the smaller but influential category are the French National Front, which is openly anti-immigrant (its flashy Web site  includes the words “Immigration … Insécurité … Corruption … Défendez-Vous!“) and has more than 200 regional deputies; the Belgian Vlaams Blok, which is expected to win up to a third of the vote in national elections next autumn; the Norwegian and Danish Progress Parties, as well as Sweden’s New Democracy, all of which have or have had parliamentary representatives.

Nor is this everywhere a minority issue. Mainstream parties that openly oppose immigration include Britain’s Tory party, whose leader, William Hague, has completely turned around his image, thanks largely to the “bogus asylum-seekers” issue; Germany’s Christian Democrats, whose sidewalk petition campaign against a more liberal citizenship law caused fistfights and protests; Ireland’s Fianna Fail, one of whose parliamentarians recently objected to refugees on the grounds that they are “carrying on a culture that is not akin to Irish culture”; Italy’s Alleanza Nazionale, whose recent anti-immigration press release noted that “a good part of the crimes carried out in Italy are committed by foreigners.”

2. The Freedom Party’s leader, Jörg Haider, has appealed to the constituency in his country that admires old Nazis. Bad news again for Italians, where the Alleanza Nazionale, an odd hybrid party descended from what was left of Italy’s fascists after the war (it boasts Mussolini’s granddaughter as one of its parliamentarians) is the second-largest opposition party in parliament and could easily be part of a future conservative government. Recently, when the German Chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, suggested that “Europe should intervene if the neo-fascists are allowed back to the table of government in Italy,” a storm of protest broke out in Rome, where it hadn’t occurred to anyone that the precedent set by Austria might apply to them.

Although, so far, no one has protested about former Communists taking part in government coalitions—and these are, after all, people who openly supported totalitarian regimes as opposed to expressing heavily camouflaged sympathy for them—if the tide should turn in that direction, some other countries would be in trouble, too. Among others, the previous Italian prime minister, Massimo d’Alema, is a former Communist, and Communists participate in the current French ruling coalition, too.

3. Austria, under pressure from the anti-foreigner Freedom Party, is dragging its feet on the EU enlargement issue, i.e., the induction of new Eastern European members. So is everybody else. Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic were originally promised entry in 2002. Now there isn’t a deadline, and Europe is refusing to set one. Nor are the Austrians the real problem: Blame, rather, the French, the Spaniards, the Portuguese, and other Mediterranean countries who are afraid the East Europeans will wreck their agricultural cartel (I promise to explain this sometime, in a very slow week). There is a long tradition of Western Europe being sniffy about Eastern Europe—it was a British statesman, I believe, who described Czechoslovakia as “a faraway country … of [which] we know nothing”—and it survives to this day.

Now, perhaps, it is easier to see why so many Europeans dearly wish this issue would quietly go away—and why I suspect that, perhaps during a very quiet moment over the summer, it will.