European Affairs

Sanctions Against Austria Pose Troubling Questions for the EU     Print Email

The entry into Austria's governing coalition of Jörg Haider's Freedom Party presented the European Union with an unprecedented situation: participation in the government of one of the member states of a party widely considered "undemocratic." The response of Austria's EU partners was equally unprecedented: lacking the means under the EU treaties to mark their concern, they impulsively imposed diplomatic sanctions as 14 "like-minded states."

The European Community, as it was originally called, was founded by countries governed under systems of representative democracy and sharing similar political values. They did not deem it necessary to spell out the member states' adherence to democratic principles. Nor did it occur to the original members that the domestic politics of a member state would be considered an appropriate subject for comment - let alone action - by the others.

Acceptance of and adherence to Western democracy were key elements of the EC's enlargement in the 1980s. Democratic regimes had emerged in Greece after the overthrow of the colonels, in Portugal after the death of Salazar, and in post-Franco Spain. Although genuine doubts were raised as to whether these countries were sufficiently developed economically for accession, a counter-argument prevailed: it was both the EC's duty and in its interest to bring these countries into the Community so as to protect and nurture their incipient democracy.

Similar considerations played an important role after the fall of the Berlin Wall, as the European Union (as it had then become) faced the prospect of enlargement to include most of the countries of Central and Eastern Europe formerly dominated by the Soviet Union. One of the criteria for membership established at the Copenhagen European Council in 1993 was that candidates had to have "achieved stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities."

For that reason, the EU refused to open enlargement negotiations with Slovakia while the clearly undemocratic Vladimir Meciar controlled the government, and it added Slovakia to the negotiating countries only after his defeat at the polls in 1998. It was with the example of Slovakia in mind that the EU added the first explicit mention in the EU's treaties of general principles previously accepted only implicitly: the 1997 Treaty of Amsterdam, building on language in the preamble to the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, declared that the EU was "founded on the principles of liberty, democracy, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and the rule of law."

During the Cold War the perceived danger to the democratic system in EU member states came from the left, although the United States was far more inclined than European countries to voice concern about communist parties joining EU governments.

Parties on the right of the political spectrum with at best questionable commitments to democracy have appeared at various times in a number of EU member states, such as Belgium and Germany. However, for the most part, their numbers and national influence have been limited.

More significant was the entry of the right-wing National Alliance into the Berlusconi government in Italy in 1994. That was viewed benignly in Europe because the party's leadership had striven to remove the traces of its fascist past and to portray itself as a respectable center-right party. In any case, it was clearly a junior member of the government coalition.

The rise of the Freedom Party in Austria was seen as a different matter - particularly after the previous governing parties opened the door to Mr. Haider by failing to resurrect their former broad-based coalition. The populist, demagogic Mr. Haider had engaged in bullying rhetoric, enflamed anti-foreign sentiment, and accepted at least part of neo-Nazi revisionism. Many in the rest of Europe were horrified at the prospect that such a party would join the government, essentially as an equal partner.

The concerns of some member states - particularly Germany, France and Belgium - related very directly to their own domestic politics. The National Front in France shares many attributes of the Freedom Party, and both the governing Socialists and the Gaullist President Jacques Chirac, feared the "demonstration effect" of the entry of the Freedom Party into government.

Next door in Germany the implosion of the Christian Democratic Union as a result of its party financial scandal has led to serious concern over what will fill the vacuum, in particular the possible resurgence of the far right. In Belgium, many are afraid of the Vlaams Blok, a right-wing party seeking Flemish independence.

But what could the other 14 member states do? Under the treaties, nothing. The Treaty of Amsterdam provides that the heads of state or government, acting by unanimity and with the concurrence of the European Parliament, may determine that a member state has engaged in a "serious and persistent breach" of the EU's democratic principles. In such a case, they may decide, by qualified majority, to suspend voting and/or other rights of the country in question. Clearly, no such "breach" had taken place.

Operating under a severe time constraint, the 14 EU member states undertook a hasty attempt to persuade Austrian President Klestil to reject the proposed coalition. Led by Portugal - acting unofficially, though speaking explicitly as President of the Council - the 14 countries informed Austria that if the Freedom Party were to enter the government, they would take three steps: not accept bilateral contacts at a political level with the Austrian government, provide no support to Austrian candidates for positions in international organizations, and receive Austrian ambassadors in their countries only at a technical level. When the Freedom Party entered the government a few days later, the member states made good their threat.

Although in a formal sense the 14 member states acted as independent governments, in effect they acted as member states of the EU. In so doing, they set an important precedent: they added to the range of issues addressed by the EU by adopting a position on the composition of a member state government - a subject hitherto regarded exclusively as the business of the member state in question. In addition, their "joint reaction" (as they termed it) was a way of getting around the national veto that Austria would have applied if the action had been proposed in accordance with the EU Treaties.

The action of the 14 member states raises several questions:

Standards: Against what standards should member states judge political parties in other member states? What constitutes "anti-democratic" behavior? Do the standards apply equally to parties of the far right and far left (NB the government coalitions in France and Italy include communists)?

To put it another way, given that 11 of the 15 EU countries currently have center-left governments, would the same action have been taken against Austria if the majority had been from the center-right?

Circumstances: Under what circumstances is it appropriate for member states to concern themselves with the composition of another member state's government? Is it appropriate for member states to penalize a fellow member state for the participation of a political party on the basis of its prior statements rather than actions in office? Is it appropriate to seek to block the entry into government of a party that has gained over one-quarter of the votes in a free, democratic election? Would the member states contemplate analogous action against a large EU member, for example France with respect to the National Front?

Objectives: Are the actions taken by the 14 member states likely to lead to the desired result (the Freedom Party's exclusion from the government) or the opposite (an increase in its strength, as is widely predicted)? Alternatively, will the actions contribute to forcing the Freedom Party to be on its "good behavior"? How great is the likelihood that, as often happens with economic sanctions, the 14 member states will find themselves locked into actions that they will subsequently want to terminate but cannot because they lack an exit strategy?

Effect on the EU: The Portuguese Presidency has stated that there will not be "business as usual" with the Austrian government. Can there be "EU business as usual"? The 14 member states' actions clearly run counter to the "Community spirit" that is an important ingredient in the operations of the EU institutions. Would their actions have been possible if Austria had held the EU Presidency? Will the ostracized government - in this case Austria - adopt a hostile attitude, which could impede work in the EU?

As these questions indicate, the implications of the actions taken by the 14 member states extend well beyond the particular case of Austria in February 2000. Without the luxury of contemplation or advance planning, the EU has established ground-rules in an entirely new area. Before embarking down that path, it would have done well to consider the wisdom of a more restrained approach - for both the present and the future.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number I, Issue number II in the Spring of 2000.

  • Organized Labor in U.S. and Germany—Will it Survive?

    By Michael Mosettig

    To the union leaders who occupy offices inside, the big white building just north of Lafayette Square in Washington is known as The House of Labor. Encased on marble, with a view of the White House, it exudes the power that once belonged to leaders of American labor unions to help pick and elect Democratic Party presidents and push their agendas through Congress.

    Read more ...

UMD Jean Monnet Research Project

Infrastructure Planning and Financing: Lessons from Europe and the United States

The University of Maryland has received a Jean Monnet grant from the EU to conduct a series of policy exchanges between Europe and the US on filling infrastructure needs and the utility of public/private partnerships as the financing mechanism. If interested in participating in or receiving more information about these exchanges, please contact Rye McKenzie (

Read more ...

New from the Bertelsmann Foundation

The Bertelsmann Foundation is an independent, nonpartisan and nonprofit think tank in Washington, DC with a transatlantic perspective on global challenges.

"Brussels & Berlin | October 2020e" by Nathan Crist

"Trade War 2020" by Emily Hruban


Summer Course