Off the Hook

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From the start it was an unhappy solution, and for months Europe's leaders have searched for a way out. Last week the European Union was presented with the most inviting opportunity yet to lift the first set of diplomatic sanctions ever imposed against a member state. A panel of three statesmen appointed by the E.U. issued a report recommending that Europe end its seven-month isolation campaign against Austria, which began following the inclusion of the far-right Freedom Party (FPO) in the country's elected coalition. The report said that Austria's sound record on immigrant and minority rights and its commitment to "common European values" remained intact. On Friday the "wise men," as the three panel members were dubbed, gave their findings to the government of France — the current holder of the E.U. presidency and the most aggressive advocate of sanctions. The measures could be lifted within weeks.

News of the wise men's conclusions brought sighs of relief in many European capitals, not least in Vienna. If the sanctions are lifted, the Austrian government will no longer need to hold a planned referendum on them which could force the government of Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel to use its vote to disrupt E.U. business. The sanctions have affected popular Austrian attitudes to the E.U. — a July poll found that barely one-third of Austrians now support membership.

The report could let other E.U. leaders off the hook too. The sanctions hardly dented business and tourism in Austria, but the tensions they created within the E.U. threatened to impede plans for enlargement. Pointedly, the wise men's report criticized the Freedom Party and indirectly its former chief, Jörg Haider, saying that some party statements "could be interpreted as xenophobic or even racist." But Haider seized on the report as proof that "...nobody has got anything on the FPO and its participation in government." He may even decide that it opens the way for him to resume leadership of his party, at which point Austria's most adroit politician will have completely confounded the not-so-wise men who imposed the sanctions in the first place.— Reported by Angela Leuker / Vienna