Wednesday 13 April 2000 was "Austria's day" in the European Parliament in Strasbourg, and, in Brussels with the (unrelated) visits of the president Thomas Klestil and the governor of the Land (region) of Carinthia, Jörg Haider.
Klestil spoke in front of a plenary session of the European parliament in Strasbourg and emphasised the "firm bond of Austria with the European Union". He denounced all the forces which are trying to make political capital out of the exploitation of people's fears. He reaffirmed Austria's commitment to the EU "as a community of values" and denounced "unjust" criticisms against Austria and its population.
He stated that Austria has not departed from its democratic parliamentary traditions and that he would continue to be the custodian of the respect for these democratic and European values. He therefore pleaded for the end of the political sanctions against his country.
Klestil's speech was interrupted by hecklings from French and Belgian European MPs, which caused the President to react and remark that it was a part of the democratic mindset to listen to the opinion of others.
The president of the European Parliament, Nicole Fontaine, angered Austrian Euro-MEPs from the People's party (ÖVP) and the Freedom party (FPÖ) when she stated that she hoped Austria "will again" become a fully-fledged member of the EU.
A few hours later, it was Haider's turn to attend a meeting of the Committee of the Regions in Brussels. In a press conference, Haider demanded the end of the sanctions and added that Austria "was not accustomed to be being dealt with by other member states like a subordinated colony".
Haider specifically accused French president Jacques Chirac of using the sanctions to further his own domestic political interests, and added that Austria should in this light reconsider its financial contributions to the EU budget.
The ÖVP received help from the German Christian democrats of the CDU on Tuesday, when the party conference in Essen adopted a resolution calling on the German government to campaign for the end of the bilateral sanctions against Austria.
The leader of the opposition Green party Alexander Van der Bellen stated during a visit to Italy that the sanctions should not be directed against the Austrian population and that he saw few chances for improvement during the French presidency of the EU (in the second semester 2000).
During talks in Paris with his French counterpart Jacques Chirac on Friday, the Slovak president Rudolf Schuster supported and praised France's "hard-line" attitude towards Austria.
However, Austria did receive some support this week when the Finnish Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja called for an end of the sanctions during a press conference he held in Helsinki on Thursday. According to Tuomioja, the sanctions are problematic since they also hinder the work of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), an institution whose presidency this year is held by Austria.
The Austrian foreign minister Benita Ferrero-Waldner visited Russia on Thursday and Friday. She met the newly elected Russian president Vladimir Putin and made a short (and closely supervised) trip to the Chechen capital Grozny.
A suggestion by Chancellor Schüssel (ÖVP) to scrap an article of the federal constitution which states that "all ethnic groups [Volkstämme] of the state are equal and every group has an inalienable righ to the preservation and cultivation of its nationality and language" (Art 19) provoked angry reactions among Carinthia's Slovene minority.
A report from the European commission (quoted by the ORF) forecast that Austria's deficit will reach 1.7 percent of the GDP this year , below the deficit criteria. The Austrian economy should grow by 3.2 percent (the average growth in the 11 states of the Eurozone is estimated at 3.4 percent).
The government's project to reform pensions (which would include, for example, the rise of the age of early retirement by one and a half year for both men and women) came under strong criticism from both the opposition parties and their social partners. The negotiations are due to continue next week.
According to a public opinion poll conducted by Market and published on 10 April 2000, Austrians consider the pension reforms the main priority of the government (66 percent), followed by the defence of the neutrality (57 percent), the crime reduction (54 percent) and the end of the EU sanctions against the country (54 percent).
Finally, the former president Rudolf Kirchschläger who died on 30 March was buried on Monday afternoon in Vienna Central Cemetery following a religious ceremony in the cathedral of St Stephen. The ceremony was attended by Kirchschläger's successors, Kurt Waldheim and Thomas Klestil as well as the majority of the members of the government.
Magali Perrault, 14 April 2000
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