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Europe D66 European Parliament

Austrian sanctions regime clashes with European values

   Thu 23/03/2000

When fourteen European countries imposed sanctions on Austria for allowing the far right FPÖ into government, they left citizens puzzled. Can European values be established by ad-hoc decissions, taken inconsequently? Europe should take a more durable approach if it want to be a union of shared values.

When fourteen European countries imposed bilateral sanctions on Austria for allowing the far right FPÖ into government they tried to define a new border between what is acceptable in a democracy and what is not. Apparently, this borderline exists regardless of written laws being violated. This historical step, which redefines Europe into a union of shared values - rather than a solely economic one - may have been well intended, but leaves Europe in a state of confusion. In their desire to take the moral highground, the governments failed to look beyond the immediate urgency of the situation. They failed to stop and ask themselves what they wanted to achieve beyond a mere expression of outrage. One month later, neither the threat nor the application of sanctions has had the desired effect. Instead it leaves puzzled citizens with an ambigous Europe build on ad-hoc decisions.

Consider the following questions heard not only in Austria: Would the member states have reacted the same way if Haider had happened in one of the large member states? Did they not keep quiet when right wing parties joined the Italian government? Why is a party like the FPÖ tolerated at regional level (Haider is governor of the Austrian province of Carinthia) and not nationally? It seems hypocritical that the EU member states unanimously approved Haider taking place in the Committee of the regions , one of Europe’s official institutions, only one year ago, when now they will not tolerate less extreme members of his party in a national government.

Applying the sanctions in real life has proven complicated. Should ambassadors who have worked with their Austrian counterparts for years, in many cases even consider them friends, now give them the cold shoulder, merely because they are Austrian? In the meantime, Austrian Prime Minister Schüssel is forced to fly to Brussels for an EU meeting, since the Portugese Presidency refused to speak with him in Vienna. However when the Belgians are sending the inviations, such as to an upcoming defence meeting, the Austrian Defence minister is not welcome in Brussels. Naturally, Austria's vote was needed for Germany's new IMF candidate Köhler, so the sanctions were comfortably ignored, until all was settled. Continuing this confusing status quo can hardly be considered condusive to Europe's credibility.

Right after the sanctions were announced a high level Turkish diplomat involved in preparing Turkey for EU membership expressed his mocking delight with the situation: “In the past Turkey has tried to prevent democratically elected parties from joining the government. The EU would then condemn us for interfering in democratic processes. I guess those days are over now that you are doing the same.” At the same time, what are the candidate countries supposed to think of joining a club that does not even have a rule based system for dealing with violations of basic principles? Choosing bilateral sanctions rather than using the European provision in the Treaty, is a clear vote of no-confidence in the European legal system. The signal therefore that we are sending to the countries lining up for EU membership is muddled and unclear. All this cuts short the often heard argument that the sanctions are needed with a view to enlargement. Our future member states need to understand what is and what is not acceptable in Europe. But if there is one thing that we are not achieving at this moment it is precisely that.

Consequently, Europe now needs to take a number of urgent steps in order to move forward. Most importantly, we should start by making a distinction between boycotting the Austrian government and boycotting the Austrian people. The situation in Austria can in no way be compared with apartheid dominated South Africa, which justified a full blown all out boycott. Last week in Strasbourg, Austrian schoolchildren were jeered and chased out of participation in a pan-European game by children from the other member states. Ironically, the game was meant to promote European understanding. Such scenes are shocking and saddening in post-war Europe. They symbolise the exact opposite of what Europe wants to achieve: respect for the individual rather than condemnation on the basis of a group characteristic. Schools, universities, artists and businesses should be encouraged to keep open the dialogue. This would be not merely a recognition of the 73 percent of Austrians who did not vote for Haider, but it can also prevent that majority from turning to him because they feel unjustifiedly isolated.

In addition, the EU now needs to think about a way to prevent similar situations in the future. The line that was drawn in the European political sand threatens to remain fuzzy if it is not clarified under which circumstances this exercise would be repeated. If we do not establish clear rules, we will always be vulnerable to accusations of political opportunism. Article 7 of the Treaty of Amsterdam allows for sanctions in case of violations of human rights. That the EU decided to impose bilateral sanctions instead of using the Treaty is a motion of no-confidence in the existing system. Article 7 needs to be rewritten to involve a due process of enquiry, a possibility of reconciliation. At the same time the Charter on Fundamental Rights currently being drafted (by a convention that includes Austrians) should strenghthen safeguards against abuse of the power of the EU. Several clauses will seek to combat discrimination on the grounds of racism and xenophobia. And it is important to insist that the Charter becomes justiciable in the European Court of Justice. This would provide the constitutional framework so obviously missing from the ad hoc solution the governements resorted to this February.

When they imposed sanctions, the EU fourteen sent a clear signal that Europe is not merely an economic union but also a union of shared values. We must now avoid that that message will be lost in the quagmire that is Europe's policy towards Austria. The EU leaders meet in Lisbon this week. That is the time to start showing leadership on the way ahead. If this is not done quickly, the situation will further degenerate into a morally satisfying but politically counterproductive show. All of Europe will be the loser.