Haider all smiles as EU lifts its sanctions

Seven months of diplomatic isolation ends in climbdown after 'wise men' said restrictions were fuelling nationalism
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The Independent Online

European Governments last night lifted sanctions on Austria, ending seven months of diplomatic isolation despite the continued presence of the far-right in the Vienna government.

European Governments last night lifted sanctions on Austria, ending seven months of diplomatic isolation despite the continued presence of the far-right in the Vienna government.

"The measures put in place by the 14 (states) were useful. They can now be lifted," said a joint statement released in Paris by the French presidency of the European Union.

Because the far right Freedom Party - whose dominant figure is Joerg Haider - remained cause for "serious concern", the statement added, the 14 partners believed it was necessary to maintain "especial vigilance" on both the party and the influence it exerted on the Austrian ruling coalition.

But Denmark's foreign minister, Niels Helveg Petersen, underlined the extent of the climbdown by saying the 14 EU countries had agreed the end of sanctions would not be accompanied by any formal surveillance of Austria.

The cave-in, which follows the report of three "wise men" claiming the sanctions were "counter-productive" because they were fuelling nationalism, is an embarrassment for France and Belgium which drove the policy of isolation.

Wolfgang Schuessel, the Austrian Chancellor, had rejected any attempt to link the restoration of normal links to a new system of monitoring developments in his country. Yesterday he told a press conference that it was now up to the French government, which holds the EU's rotating presidency, "to draw a line under this rather sad chapter".

Welcoming the agreement, Austria's foreign minister, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, said there would be a complete lifting of the sanctions followed by a review of measures to combat racism and xenophobia throughout the European Union.

Mr Haider, infamous for his praise of Nazi employment policies, has resigned the leadership of the FPO, but is still governor of the Austrian province of Carinthia and an influential figure in a party which remains part of the governing coalition.

Over the weekend, Mr Haider taunted the main architect of the sanctions, French president Jacques Chirac, saying that the man he has described as a "Little Napoleon" had finally met his Waterloo.

In January, when the new Austrian government was formed, France, Belgium and Germany led the campaign to ostracise Vienna largely because of domestic political sensitivities to the far right. Mr Chirac's brand of Gaullism has been characterised by fierce opposition to France's National Front and Belgium faces pressure from the separatist Vlaams Blok.

But since January, the row has become a running sore as Vienna hinted it might block the EU's next treaty changes, and threatened to hold a plebiscite in Austria on the sanctions imposed by the 14 member states.

In fact, the report of the panel of "wise men" set up to examine Austria's human rights record and the nature of the Freedom Party left little room for manoeuvre when it gave the government in Vienna a clean bill of health.

It called explicitly for the removal of sanctions, arguing that, while they had served their purpose by sending a political signal, their continuation would be counter-productive.

Significantly, the "wise men", chaired by former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari, also criticised the Freedom Party for appealing to "xenophobic sentiments" and promoting "openly anti-foreigner" language. That echoed a leaked report from the Council of Europe which emerged last week and which also made severe criticism of Mr Haider's party.

But the distaste for the FPO in many capitals has not been outweighed by European realpolitik. Those countries which have urged an end to Austria's isolation range from Italy, which fears it may have to accommodate far-right parties in its next government, to Denmark, where the EU's interference has played badly in the referendum on the euro. Yesterday Tony Blair said he believed sanctions should be scrapped.

One reason for the speed with which Paris moved to end the diplomatic impasse has been pressure to resolve the issue before polling in Denmark on September 28.