Foxing with Joerg Haider

Austria: Right-wing leader pretends to step down, still looking for his main chance.

March 01, 2000

ISOLATING Austria within the European Union, for including the xenophobic Freedom Party in government, may boomerang. It could provoke the national self-pity needed to propel that party's playful demagogic leader, Joerg Haider, into the chancellorship, or prime ministry, of Austria.

But the policy is having a positive effect in EU countries, isolating ultra-nationalist parties in France, Belgium and Germany. There is no sign that the ostracism of Austria's ambassadors will end just because Mr. Haider stepped down as the Freedom Party's leader.

The party is made in his image. Its members of Austria's cabinet are his proteges and parrots. This is especially true of his successor as party leader, Susanne Riess-Passer, vice-chancellor of Austria.

Mr. Haider remains governor of Carinthia province. The ethnic minority group threatened by him there is the Slovenes. The bigger issue is Mr. Haider's appeal for ethnic purification versus Austria's commitment to pan-Europeanism.

Slovenia, Hungary and the Czech Republic, all of which border Austria, will negotiate membership in the EU next. Slovakia, another neighbor, comes after them.

Membership in the EU brings free movement of goods, capital and people. Citizens may work and live in each other's countries. Austria enjoys a high standard of living and low unemployment. But Mr. Haider's friends warn Austrians of an influx of Hungarians, Czechs, Slovenes and Slovaks willing to work for less money.

It is difficult to imagine rational Austrians choosing contemporary Serbia or Croatia as a model for national development rather than the Netherlands or Belgium. But that is where Mr. Haider would take them. In last year's election, slightly more than one-fourth of the electorate followed.

Mr. Haider is not Adolf Hitler. He is an Austrian Pat Buchanan with a touch of David Duke. Mr. Haider will bring Austria to a showdown between narrow nationalism and the pooled sovereignty of Europe if he can. Europe would survive the secession of Austria better than Austria could.

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