JÃ¶rg Haider, the driving force behind Austria's far right Freedom Party yesterday stoked Vienna's confrontation with the European Union, launching a bitter attack on European nations and suggesting that their sanctions may help him become Chancellor.
During a fractious visit to Brussels, his first since the far right came to power in Austria, the maverick politician criticised the French president, who has led calls for the isolation of Austria. He also suggested that Austria could paralyse EU business if the sanctions remain in force.
The uncompromising performance, which was twice disrupted by a protesting French politician brandishing Nazi propaganda material, confirmed Mr Haider's reputation for unpredictability. In a surprise move he made an upbeat appraisal of his prospects in politics which contradicted earlier suggestions that he intends to remain in the background, as regional governor of the Austrian province of Carinthia.
Asked about his ambitions for the leadership of his country Mr Haider said that the decision by 14 EU member states to suspend bilateral political contacts with Vienna was playing into his hands. "If European policy continues, the tendency to follow the situation we have now", he told journalists, "there will be no need to make an election campaign because the people will vote for me, and say: 'he's right'".
Austria, he added, was "not accustomed to being dealt with by other member states like a subordinated colony" as he rounded on France. "The EU is more than the French president", Mr Haider said, renewing his war of words with Jacques Chirac and adding that, if normal relations are not resumed before France takes over the presidency of the EU, Paris will have "bad luck" and "bad results" from its six months in the EU chair.
Mr Haider, who stood down as leader of the Freedom Party shortly after the election which propelled it to power, is notorious for his praise of Nazi employment policies and for members of the SS. The Conservative People's Party decision to admit the Freedom Party to a coalition government prompted sanctions.
Franco-Austrian relations reached a new low last week when France excluded Austria's ambassador to Paris from a briefing for EU diplomats on the French presidency.
That move prompted a threat by Austria's foreign minister, Benita Ferrero-Waldner that Vienna may slow the EU's decision-making process. The Austrian Chancellor, Wolfgang Schussel, has hinted that Vienna may take the issue to the European Court.
Mr Haider's visit to Brussels appears to have set back any prospects of a rapprochement. He avoided demonstrators by arriving earlier than expected in Brussels on a private jet. But his appearance before the Committee of the Regions was disrupted when a French Socialist member of the committee, Marc Bellet, brandished a copy of a comic from the Third Reich called "Maus", depicting Jews as mice and Nazis as cats.
Mr Bellet, who said his mother had been deported to a concentration camp, failed to get the agenda of the meeting changed to discuss Mr Haider's presence. Instead, the former leader of the Freedom Party sat through a debate on anti-discrimination measures. Later Mr Bellet burst into Mr Haider's press conference, causing him to leave quickly, surrounded by security guards.
The former leader of the Freedom Party is a member of the Committee of the Regions, a talking shop since 1994, which has to be consulted on legislation affecting EU regional policy. Albert Bore, leader of Birmingham City Council and president of the Party of European Socialists group, called for his resignation.
Yesterday's meeting overshadowed a plea from Austria's president, Thomas Klestil, for political sanctions to be lifted.Reuse content