European Affairs


For some, the Freedom Party represents a step backwards, reminiscent of the events that occurred before and during World War II. The first question is whether 27 percent of the Austrian electorate supported Haider because of statements he has made about National Socialism, which he later corrected or denied, or because of his hostile attitude towards foreigners and minorities?

Judging by the reaction of politicians in the other 14 countries, one might think that this is exactly what they did, and that there is a danger that these retrograde tendencies will gain ascendancy in Austria and spread to other European countries. That could present a grave danger to the EU and to its democratic development and stability. Critics say that Austrians have never fully come to terms with Nazism and World War II. If this is the case, the warnings of the international community would be fully justified.

Many others, however, believe that the Freedom Party achieved its electoral success above all because of the weaknesses of the two traditional governing parties, which had failed to prevent the rise of right-wing populism. More than anything, it would appear that Haider exploited the political and bureaucratic inertia of the Austrian establishment, successfully challenging it with populist rhetoric. A substantial number of voters were perhaps taking a stand against political inertia and incompetence rather than supporting a clearly defined political alternative.

Although the two major political parties in Austria had secured solid progress and a relatively high standard of living for the country during their long period in power, they also allowed a lack of political motivation to grow. The sharing out of political and official positions between the two parties, the constant battling for every millimeter of influence and the occasional political scandals allowed room for dissatisfaction and exasperation to develop.

Perhaps it is on this point that the reaction of Europe's politicians is even more understandable. There may be a conscious or unconscious fear of similar populist exploitation of political paralysis in other European countries. Many traditional European parties are in difficulty, shaken by corruption scandals, often rigid and perhaps incapable of adapting to people' s expectations and demands.

The European institutions in Brussels are themselves under increasing pressure as demands grow for improved transparency and efficiency. They, too, could be subject to populist attacks in the future. In many places European citizens have a sense of alienation, not only from their national governments but also, and more particularly, from Brussels.

A revolt against outmoded and paralyzed political parties and structures that was xenophobic, intolerant and retrograde on the one hand, and antibureaucratic and populist on the other, could be very dangerous. Perhaps it is precisely this that so alarmed Europe's politicians when the Austrians voted in their new government.

It seems almost as if Europe needed a Haider because of the accumulated domestic fears in certain European countries. And, in the end, it is no longer important what Haider says or does today. Europe has already responded to his populism in a populist manner. Just as right-wing populists demonize either foreigners or a minority population or some external threat, today European democrats are demonizing Haider.

The paradox is that the new Austrian government has not done anything yet. It has not hurt anyone, nor violated any human rights. The stance taken by some other European countries towards foreigners is at least as restrictive as that of Austria. In many places there is a fear that EU expansion will bring an influx of people and workers from the East. Is the EU not increasingly becoming a fortress which non-Europeans find it harder and harder to enter? Although there is support in principle for enlargement of the EU, will the practical difficulties and conditions placed on the applicants perhaps be greater than anything so far contemplated in Austria?

We have to ask what is the best way to confront the dangers of such populism and the political challenge presented by the Haider phenomenon. Is the political isolation of the Austrian government, of which the Freedom Party is part, really the right reaction? Is it better in such cases to try to prevent such governments being formed at any price? Or is it better to let them go ahead, in the expectation that their populism will lose its charm once it is confronted with reality, and that the populist politicians will become ordinary politicians who have to tackle day-to-day problems?

The EU has opted for isolation and the suspension of political bilateral dialogue with the Vienna government, although Austria still participates in EU meetings. With all the accompanying political demonstrations and media attention, the Austrian situation could be an important precedent, a warning for all other similar cases.

I believe that the EU's preventive action is important. The question is whether it would have been enough merely to issue a very serious warning, and then take action in specific cases if there were any violations of human rights or any other intolerant acts.

Furthermore, one might ask what effect the reaction of the international community will have on Austria's internal politics, and whether it will be positive or negative. Do not the Austrians see this as unjustified meddling in their internal affairs, in the democratic decision they have taken?

Another important aspect, which quite wrongly has remained in the background, is the matter of making corrections to the post-war arrangements in Europe. The Austrian coalition is raising the question of the Sudetenland Germans expelled from Czechoslovakia and ethnic Germans evicted from Slovenia, then part of Yugoslavia, after the war.

Responsibility for compensating losses incurred by Austrian citizens through the confiscation of assets in Yugoslavia was formally assumed by Austria, instead of paying war reparations to Yugoslavia. The settlement of these issues was regarded as a long-term guarantee of peace and stability in Europe. Trying to revise these arrangements could jeopardize the basis of the European international system - and, yet, that is exactly what the Austrian coalition has been doing.

The reopening of post-war issues that had been settled by international treaties has a precedent from the period of the right-wing Italian government of 1994 and 1995. At that time the Italian government demanded that Slovenia return property that had been nationalized after the war, even though the matter had been settled with the Osimo and Rome accords between Italy and Yugoslavia and financial compensation had been paid. The Italians linked the acceptance of the Association Agreement between Slovenia and the EU to the return of this property. That was, in effect, an attempt to correct the post-war legal arrangements.

For two years, Italy blocked the signing of the Association Agreement and Slovenia's potential accession to the EU. But the EU did not react to this reopening of post-war historical issues or to the link with EU accession. It was only when a new Italian government, headed by Romano Prodi, came to power that we were able to resolve the issue by means of a compromise involving the gradual opening up of the property market in Slovenia, while Italy lifted its objections to Slovenia joining the EU.

The EU did not react to a very clear case of linkage and blackmail. At the time we warned strongly of the danger of allowing such a precedent to be set, that it could spread to other cases (German-Czech, Czech-Austrian or German-Polish relations), and that compensation had been provided by treaties, which had also settled border issues and other vital matters.

This is why the reopening of post-war legal arrangements is such a dangerous road to go down and, moreover, conflicts with the very foundations on which the EU is built. Nazism and fascism in World War II caused untold suffering and horror, and maybe the legal arrangements imposed by the victors after the war are not equitable in every little detail. But reopening these questions introduces tension into European relations, opens old wounds, and incites the old emotions to flare once again.

When the EU considers the actual policies of the new Austrian government, it would be well-advised to give special attention to this issue, and to head off any direct or indirect inclusion of such questions in the enlargement negotiations. If the countries concerned are able to resolve any questions that remain open, then they should do so bilaterally. EU member states should not attempt to block or slow down the entry of an applicant country, which may then be forced into making unjustified concessions.

All this shows that there is a very thin line between acceptable and unacceptable behavior in the EU, and that this line is movable. It is quite clear that playing with ideas and emotions that are not so very far from Nazism, fascism or revanchism is unacceptable. This is the most solid point of the European response to Haider.

The horrors of World War II must not be repeated at any price. The Yugoslav war provides all the proof we need that today's Europe is not immune to such events. Ethnic cleansing, the slaughter of people from different ethnic backgrounds, genocide - it is all still possible today. The nations of Yugoslavia were not at a level of culture or civilization so very different from that of many other European countries.

Policies based on the establishment of either a Greater Serbia or a Greater Germany lead to catastrophe. Politicians who incite such emotions, who seek to repair historical injustices committed against their people, are playing with fire. Sooner or later the flames will take hold. This is why preventive action and reaction make sense, even if they are excessive as in the Austrian case. It is better than not reacting at all. On these issues, Europe and the wider international community must be firm and decisive.

Another issue is attitudes towards foreigners. Tolerance is one of the fundamental democratic European values. Yet intolerance of foreigners is a common phenomenon in European countries. The EU itself (and some individual countries even more so) is introducing a range of restrictive measures aimed at limiting immigration. Hence, the flow of people, and especially workers, between the EU countries and the rest of Europe, including certain EU applicants, is becoming a major problem.

Europe is taking preventive measures because of the fear that at some point a spontaneous reaction will occur when a certain threshold of immigration is exceeded. The problem is compounded when politicians stir up emotions and hostile reactions towards immigrants.

While most European politicians continue to express their tolerance of foreigners, minorities and different religious groups, ways must be found of ensuring that practical reactions to the problems of immigration are consistent with these principles. This will be one of the more difficult tasks facing the European Union and Europe as a whole in the future.

The issue is intimately linked to the enlargement process. The EU must gradually expand and take in those parts of Europe that have the same goals and values. If part of Europe were to be excluded, and a sharp boundary created between the EU and the rest of Europe, the line between stability and instability would cause new tensions and threats.

This is a difficult and very important issue for the future of Europe. The EU has slowed down the enlargement process and tightened the conditions for applicants because it is concerned about its own absorption capacities. But anyone who seeks to develop from this a policy against EU expansion - against foreigners - begins to threaten the very foundations of the European idea.

Another issue is that of the transparency and effectiveness of the workings of the democratic structures in the EU countries, and particularly in the EU itself. Antibureaucratic populism may be hard to distinguish from normal pressures for greater effectiveness and transparency.

It is in the nature of a democracy that the opposition will always look for errors and seek to exert pressure, and it may do so in a way that is populist - it may simplify things and it may be entirely unrealistic. This usually becomes evident once such politicians or parties enter government themselves and are confronted with reality.

Here again, Europe's politicians and bureaucrats face a difficult task. A constant battle for greater effectiveness and transparency will need to be fought. If not, sooner or later, politicians offering a program directed against the EU, against its alleged alienation of ordinary people, its lack of transparency and its bureaucratic inefficiency, will be victorious in one of the member countries.

Haider may no longer be the official leader of the Freedom Party. But he has shown himself capable of exploiting populism, the mistakes of the establishment, and the sluggishness of politics. But his goals are probably not extreme. In a way he has been making them up as he goes along. He has even begun to renounce them, probably partly as a result of the European reaction.

He has highlighted a danger, and many Europeans have been shaken by fear. But some good may come of it. Events in Austria, and the reaction to them, have given all European politicians an opportunity to reflect seriously on our values, goals and policies.

 

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