Austrian chancellor wolfgang Schüssel is caught in a trap. Committed to European unity, he finds himself in the position of threatening the European Union. Never mind that the trap is of his own making — a direct consequence of his political partnership with the Freedom Party formerly led by Jörg Haider. To try to bring his country out of the humiliating political isolation imposed by its 14 E.U. partners in February because of that relationship, Schüssel last week raised the stakes. Apparently capitulating to Freedom Party demands, he announced that if progress was not made on lifting E.U. diplomatic sanctions against Austria, his government would hold a referendum later this year to seek public support to use "all suitable means" to end them.
Schüssel was at pains to point out that nothing in the proposed six questions to be put to the referendum will seek approval for Austria to block E.U. decisions that require unanimity — such as letting more countries join the Union. But Haider has repeatedly warned that Austria could and would veto E.U. legislation if the isolation looks set to continue.
The referendum appears to many in Brussels as both hostile and counterproductive. E.U. external relations Commissioner Chris Patten was quoted as saying, "I don't think the Austrian government have helped themselves. The decision to have the referendum is depressing."
Although denying that the referendum was about a veto, Schüssel did earlier hint at a tougher line. "If the E.U. states' sanctions against Austria continue, this threatens to poison progress on the work of the Union from within," he said. His attitude stems from being unable to initiate a thaw in relations during Portugal's presidency of the E.U., which ended on June 30. Instead, it was announced that a panel of "three wise men," to be appointed by the European Court of Human Rights, would observe Austria for an unstipulated period and report to the E.U. on the government's human rights commitment. It would also watch the evolving political nature of the Freedom Party, seen by the E.U. as a threat to those rights.
President Jacques Chirac of France, which now holds the rotating presidency, says the panel will set its own schedule, meaning that no lifting of sanctions can be considered yet.
With that, Schüssel allowed himself to follow the hard line approach taken by Haider, who responded to Chirac saying: "Now that France has said nothing will change during the French presidency, we say quite bluntly that nothing will move either."
When he joined the Freedom Party in a coalition government in January, Schüssel said he believed his People's Party, with its democratic traditions, could counterbalance any threat from Haider's far right tendencies. But after last week's referendum decision, many, both within and outside, were again wondering who exactly is in charge in Austria.