Warming Things Up

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The image was enough to warm a few million Austrian hearts. Splashed across the pages of national newspapers, it showed the country's petite Foreign Minister, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, taking shelter during an E.U. summit in the Azores under the umbrella of German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer while her French counterpart Hubert Vedrine stood nearby. After a winter of being left out in the cold, an Austrian official again seemed to be taking her place in the European club. "Europe is listening to us again," said Ferrero-Waldner. Diplomats confirm that 100 days after the E.U. slapped sanctions on Austria for including the hard-right Freedom Party in its government, up to seven members, including Greece, Italy and Finland, have now begun looking for a graceful way out.

The warm breezes follow an Austrian diplomatic offensive. It has called for the sanctions — which include a freeze on bilateral political contacts — to be suspended while a monitoring system is set up to determine whether the government is indeed straying from E.U. norms. If after several months nothing is discovered, full relations would resume. Failure to agree to that plan would trigger retaliation. Officials in Vienna warned that they would hold a referendum later this year asking for Austrians' opinions on the sanctions, and also raised the possibility of vetoing E.U. measures requiring consensus. Karl-Heinz Grasser, the Finance Minister, has even talked of withholding Austria's E.U. contributions.

E.U. leaders bridled at these threats, but several agree that the policy needs to be re-examined. Italian Foreign Minister Lamberto Dini warned that if the impasse goes on too long it will "compromise the work of the E.U." Austria's monitoring proposal is not unlike a recent one from Belgium, designed not for the benefit of Austria but to prevent similar problems from arising with E.U. expansion. It favors a "yellow card" system in which a country is warned before being frozen out. In Austria's case, E.U. officials say the most likely scenario is a "structured dialogue," or timetable of consultations and assessments leading to a formal re-evaluation. Austria's goal is relief at the June summit in Portugal; after that meeting France assumes the E.U. presidency, and it is notably unsympathetic.

Recent polls in Austria show 51% support the government, while 85% oppose the sanctions as meddling in Austria's affairs. And for Jörg Haider, the ostracism is a tonic. Last week he followed his characterization of French President Jacques Chirac as a "pocket-sized Napoleon" by calling Germany's Gerhard Schröder an opportunist. After he stepped down as party leader earlier this month, his replacement, Susanne Riess-Passer, vowed: "This is still Jörg Haider's party!"

All of which makes plain that whatever happens with E.U. sanctions, the underlying problem remains. The real question, says Norbert Stanzel, political editor of the Kurier newspaper, is whether the Freedom Party will "mutate into a responsible center-right party, or will remain a right populist desperado party with a careless attitude towards the past." It's a worry that the E.U. does not seem to have the power to resolve.

Reported by James Graff/Brussels and Angela Leuker/Vienna