Vol 2, No 11
20 March 2000
C E N T R A L E U R O P E A N N E W S:
News Review for Austria
All the important news from Austria
since 13 March 2000
Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel (People's Party - ÖVP) on Monday met Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Guterres in Brussels. Portugal holds the presidency of the European Union for the first semester this year and a summit of European heads of states takes place in Lisbon on 23 and 24 March.
Schüssel saw the meeting with Guterres as a first step "to begin a dialogue" after the imposition of bilateral sanctions against Austria by its 14 EU partner states. The Austrian chancellor will also present and defend the Austrian position during the summit, even if he stated, in an interview for the magazine Profil, that he will not travel to other European capitals before the summit. Guterres rejected calls for an end of bilateral sanctions and the French president Jacques Chirac also said on Friday that the condition for the "normalisation" of relations with Austria was a firm commitment of Schüssel to put an end to the alliance with the Freedom Party (FPÖ), a political force "which [is] by nature extremist and xenophobic." France will hold the EU presidency for the second semester of 2000.
The Finnish Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja however struck a more positive note and declared in an interview (in the Finnish daily Demari): "the [Austrian] government was formed under democratic conditions. If it does not render itself guilty of illegal actions after a sufficiently long period of observation, the measures [sanctions] should be reevaluated." (Quoted on ORF, 17 March 2000)
The sanctions have provoked a major controversy within Austria. On Tuesday, the parliament examined two motions, one from the governmental coalition and another from the leading opposition party, the Social democrats (SPÖ). The ÖVP/FPÖ motion purported to condemn the sanctions against Austria as being xenophobic and racist and urged the government to take legal actions against the measures. The SPÖ proposed the creation of an "observation group" which would report how well the principles defined in the preamble of the ÖVP/FPÖ coalition pact are being respected. This commission was to consist of nine members: three appointed by the government parties, three by the opposition parties and three by the president Thomas Klestil. The fourth parliamentary group, the Greens, refused to support these two motions.
The beginning of a consensus between government and opposition however seemed to emerge after the chairman of the SPÖ, Alfred Gusenbauer, agreed to meet Schüssel and Vice-Chancellor Susanne Riess-Passer on Monday 20 March to discuss the possible adoption of a common position condemning the sanctions.
Gusenbauer emphasised, in a written answer to Schüssel and Riess-Passer's invitation, that he is ready "to discuss measures that protect our country and the Austrian population from unfair attacks (such as aggressive behaviour against Austrian citizens or the limitation and cancellation of exchanges of pupils and students, twin towns partnerships, scientific and economic contacts, etc)." He however stressed that the root of the problem was, according to him, the participation of the Freedom Party in the government.
The issue of EU enlargement has also been this week the subject of heated debates. The infrastructure minister, Michael Schmid (FPÖ), has repeated his scepticism towards European enlargement, arguing in the magazine Format that enlargement was probably not in the interest of Hungary and Poland: "in Hungary, the difference of wage levels between West and East is as important as [the wage level difference] between Styria [a Land of Austria] and Western Hungary."
In sharp contrast, the foreign minister, Benita Ferrero-Waldner (ÖVP), confirmed on Thursday that Austria will say an "absolute yes" to EU enlargement and is aware of its "historical responsibility" in Central Europe. She emphasised that the enlargement should be a security and cultural project as well as an economic undertaking. Ferrero-Waldner also noted that gaining full membership of the Western European Union and NATO should be the long-term objective of Austria's foreign policy, even if these are remote prospects at the moment.
On the domestic front, a parliamentary debate about privatisation took place on Tuesday. The government's plans to privatise several state-owned firms was criticised by the leader of the Social-Democrats, Gusenbauer, as endangering the viability of Austrian firms, which could be bought by foreign investors.
The leadership of the Freedom Party on Tuesday came to an agreement on the issue of the limitation of the net income of their leading politicians. FPÖ elected politicians previously had to allocate their earnings above a threshold of ATS 60,000 (about euro 5000) to the party social fund (for charities essentially). Following the discontent expressed by Finance Minister (and party member) Karl-Heinz Grasser, the threshold is to be raised to ATS 66,000.
Magali Perrault, 17 March 2000
Some Useful Websites (in German)
http://www.orf.at (Austrian TV)
http://www.apa.at (Austrian Press Agency)
Copyright © 2000 - Central Europe Review and Internet servis, a.s.
All Rights Reserved