Austria' bad boy

Sanctions: Europe cannot credibly punish a member government until it does something wrong.

February 05, 2000

NOW that Austria has a government embracing extremist xenophobes in coalition with traditional conservatives, statesmen of Europe are eating half their words.

Joerg Haider, an anti-immigrant demagogue who sounds like a neo-Nazi some of the time, led his Freedom Party to second place in last October's election. Despite the distaste of Austrian President Thomas Klestil, parliamentary democracy gave him no options.

The new regime is headed by a reasonable conservative, Wolfgang Schuessel, with Mr. Haider tactfully staying out. The two repudiated Austria's Nazi heritage before the swearing-in, however insincerely on Mr. Haider's part.

European governments, having warned of ostracism in bilateral relations if this happened, had their bluffs called. They are carrying out that threat, one by one.

They are haunted by their failure to face up to the coming of German Nazism in 1933 and, more cogently, by the growth of move

va04 ments similar to Mr. Haider's.

But while it is easy to downgrade diplomatic representation, the 15 members of the European Union are faced with the reality that Austria is one of them in a single market and is linked to 10 of them in a common currency.

The European Union may expel a member, but only unanimously, after a lengthy process. It may punish Austria for what it does next, not for what its leaders said in the past. EU members cannot hurt Austria, economically, without harming themselves.

Mr. Haider earned the opprobrium that Austria encounters. But Europe is testing whether it is ready for the supranational institutions it adopted. Meanwhile, Austria has not actually misbehaved.

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