Austria: Is The European Union Fanning Right Wing Flames?

Austria is one of Europe's smaller countries. But the prospect of Jorg Haider's populist Freedom Party entering a coalition government is sparking a crisis in the entire European Union. The Freedom Party's ascension to power would be a watershed--the first time since the end of World War II that a far-right party has played a key role in any government in Western Europe.

The risk is that the EU's horrified reaction could accelerate the crisis instead of solving it. Haider's Freedom Party, which vigorously opposes immigration and EU expansion and includes Nazi sympathizers in its ranks, may soon form a coalition government with the country's mainstream conservative party. "We must take concrete action if this happens," says a spokesperson for French President Jacques Chirac. "Europe must make sure that all its members share its common ideals." On Jan. 31 the EU said its members would break off contacts with any government that included the Freedom Party.

But some leaders wonder if the EU is just fanning the flames. "I don't like Haider's policies, but he got a lot of votes in a democratic election," says Vaclav Klaus, chairman of Parliament in the neighboring Czech Republic. "If the EU gets involved like this, it could easily make matters worse."

"TREAD CAREFULLY." By ostracizing Austria, the EU may give a further boost to Haider's right wing. Haider's popularity has soared since the EU started rattling its saber. Politically, the Freedom Party could emerge even stronger if the country were forced to the polls again, which is bound to happen if President Thomas Klestil rejects the coalition proposal that the People's Party and Freedom Party presented to him on Feb. 1. Austrian polling institute IMAS calculates that the Freedom Party now has the backing of 33% of voters, up from the 27% who voted for it in October's general election.

Just as bad, the EU's condemnation could revive the far right in other European countries. France's National Front, which has gotten up to 15% of the vote at general elections, was quick to condemn criticism of Haider. "The far right in other countries could use the whole thing for propaganda purposes," says an Austrian-born executive at one leading German company. "The EU needs to tread really carefully." An organized far-right movement in Europe would campaign hard to stop the EU's expansion east and seal Europe's borders against immigrants.

Some conservative politicians in Germany have come out against EU involvement. Their reasoning: The Freedom Party has no experience of power and few talented members, so it may be better to step back and let Haider's followers self-destruct in government. "Giving them political power will undermine rather than strengthen them," says the Austrian businessman. "It will take the wind out of the windbag."

Proponents of the EU's stance say it's vital to fight extremist forces head-on, regardless of the consequences. Europeans still harbor painful memories of fascism and the acts of appeasement that helped it grow. Whatever happens, it will be hard to silence Haider, who says he's no Nazi. He has tapped into the mounting anger many Austrians feel at the way socialist and conservative politicians have divvied up the top jobs in state-owned industries and other spoils of power between them. Now, this dysfunctional political culture is giving Haider's nasty strain of right-wing populism an opportunity to disrupt European politics in potentially dangerous ways.

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