In an interview for the Austrian press agency on Monday, Chancellor Wofgang Schüssel (ÖVP) once again denounced the bilateral political sanctions imposed on the country by its 14 EU partner states. He contended that Austria should defend its rights even if he excluded the possibility of Austria breaking EU treaties. He also argued that since the sanctions were bilateral and enforced by individual member states, it would be possible for one of the states to give up the sanctions without waiting for all the other states to do it.
In the newsmagazine Profil, Vice-Chancellor Susanne Riess-Passer (Freedom Party- FPÖ) provoked controversy when she raised the idea of a "referendum" on the sanctions. Foreign minister Benita Ferrero-Waldner (ÖVP) dismissed the idea and criticised the Freedom Party for its ambiguity on the European issue.
On Wednesday, the government parties (ÖVP and FPÖ) introduced a parliamentary motion demanding the end of sanctions against Austria. Despite calls by the government for a "national consensus," the two opposition parties (the Social-Democrats and the Greens) refused to vote for the text, which was nevertheless adopted with the votes of the deputies of the ÖVP and FPÖ.
A report by the newspaper Kurier which claimed that the French Commissioner Michel Barnier was working on an "exit strategy" for the Austrian crisis was denied on Thursday by a spokesman for the European Commission.
On Friday, Schüssel announced his intentions to hold more talks with Austria's EU partners and expressed his hope that the sanctions might still be lifted before France takes over the presidency of the Council of Ministers for the second semester of 2000. Portugal currently holds the presidency. He also -in what looked like a change of mind after the failure of his attempts to agree with the opposition on the idea of a "national consensus"- did not exclude the possibility of a "referendum" on the sanctions.
The publication last week by the European commission of the traditional Eurobarometer survey of public opinion in the 15 EU member-states showed that only 35 percent of the Austrian population supports EU enlargement eastward . France is the only state where the level of scepticism towards enlargement is higher than in Austria.
In this context, Schüssel made his second official visit abroad since he became chancellor when he travelled to Budapest to hold talks with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. On Friday, Austrian President Thomas Klestil travelled to the Hungarian town of Székesfehérvár to participate in the summit of the 12 presidents of Central, Eastern and South-Eastern European states. Klestil reemphasised the "special interest of Austria in the enlargement of the European Union." The presidents of Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and Ukraine also attended the summit.
The political future of Jörg Haider, who is due to give up the chairmanship of the Freedom Party on 1 May to devote himself to his functions of governor of the Land of Carinthia, was the object of intense speculations. In an interview for News, Haider criticised the "immoral" European Union, which he argued was "as decadent as ancient Rome."
Susanne Riess-Passer, who will replace him at the head of the Party, stated in Profil: "I am certainly not thinking of becoming chancellor myself. I have not given up the hope of Haider being a candidate for chancellor [in the next parliamentary elections]. He is 50 years old...too young for retirement."
The Social-Democratic Party held its party congress in Vienna on Friday 28 and Saturday 29 April, promising "a new start for Austria." The financial situation of the party is a matter of concern and its debt has been estimated at approximately AUS 400 million. Alfred Gusenbauer, who was expected to be officially elected on Saturday as chairman, saw the reform of party finances and the eventual return to power of the party as his two main objectives.
A commission of experts started to work this week on a project of reform of the army, which could lead to the end of compulsory conscription and the establishment of a professional army.
Magali Perrault, 29 April 2000
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