Vol 2, No 12
27 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 20 March 2000
A meeting on Monday between Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel (ÖVP), vice-Chancellor Susanne Riess-Passer (FPÖ) and the chairmen of the two opposition parliamentary parties, Alfred Gusenbauer (SPÖ) and Alexander van der Bellen (the Greens), failed to produce an agreement on the idea of a "national closing of ranks" (Schulterschluss).
The goal was the drafting of a common declaration in which all political forces would have called for an end to bilateral sanctions against Austria, described as "unjustified, exaggerated and contrary to the European Union treaty". The talks collapsed after the Social-Democrat and Green leaders refused to be associated with the governmental initiative. Gusenbauer stated that the SPÖ expressed its "solidarity with the population, but not with the government" and stressed that the participation of the Freedom Party in the government was the reason for the sanctions. Van der Bellen rejected the idea because it amounted to accepting the governmental line: "who is not for us is against Austria." (ORF, 20 March 2000)
On Tuesday, it was the turn of President Thomas Klestil to attempt to mediate between government and opposition. Klestil suggested a meeting of the four party leaders to prepare a common statement addressed to Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Guterres (Portugal holds the presidency of the EU for the first half of 2000).
The idea, however, came to nothing when Freedom Party Leader Riess-Passer announced she would not participate in the discussions. Before the Lisbon summit held on 23 and 24 March, Klestil sent a letter to Guterres, denouncing the sanctions which, according to him, "showed that a clear division between the bilateral sanctions and cooperation within the EU was in practice not possible."
The Portuguese presidency had warned in advance that the European summit was not devoted to a discussion on Austria, and the agenda indeed largely focused on economic issues. Schüssel addressed his counterparts on Thursday evening, pleading for an end to the sanctions, but Guterres, speaking in the name of Austria's fourteen partners, answered that the "nature" of the Freedom Party had not changed and the sanctions would remain in force.
Following the threats of Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhostadt, French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder to boycott the traditional "family photograph" because of the presence of the Austrian chancellor, a very diplomatic compromise had to be found. The Mexican president (travelling to Lisbon for the signature of a free trade agreement with the EU) was invited to participate in the photograph, now symbolically called a "group" rather than a "family" photograph.
Schüssel hailed the summit as the start of a "dialogue" between Austria and its EU partners and stated that he was hopeful that "the next weeks and months" would see a normalisation of the relations between Austria and its EU partners. However, it seems to many observers that the sanctions are likely to remain in force until at least the end of the year, since France, who has taken a hard stance against Austria's governmental coalition, will assume the presidency of the EU for the second half of 2000.
The Swedish finance minister, Bosse Ringholm, has furthermore declared that his country (which will hold the presidency for the first half of 2001) will neither lift nor strengthen the sanctions against Austria.
This week also saw the presentation of the first budget of the new legislature by finance minister Karl-Heinz Grasser (FPÖ). The state net deficit is due to amount to AUS 62 billion and 2.2 percent of the gross domestic product (in line with the Maastricht criteria). The opposition criticised the planned tax increases as socially unjust, whereas Grasser defended them as necessary and associated with savings and structural reforms in the administrative sector.
Finally, the trial in Vienna of 84-year old psychiatrist Heinrich Gross started and was suspended indefinitely on Tuesday after only thirty minutes when the accused was reported to suffer from dementia and deemed unable to follow the proceedings. Gross is accused of having participated in a wartime National-Socialist programme of euthanasia for disabled children.
Magali Perrault, 24 March 2000
Some Useful Websites (in German)
http://www.orf.at (Austrian TV)
http://www.apa.at (Austrian Press Agency)
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