The meeting of EU foreign ministers in the Azores last weekend was hailed by Austria's Foreign Minister Benita Ferrero-Waldner as the beginning of a process that could lead to the end of the bilateral political sanctions imposed on the country by its fourteen partners in January after the inclusion of the Freedom Party (FPÖ) in the governmental coalition.
A split seems to be emerging between the countries (led by Belgium and France), which insist on the maintenance of sanctions and Denmark, Finland, Greece, Ireland, Italy and Spain who argued that the European Union should now rethink its strategy against Austria. Ferrero-Waldner (ÖVP) argued that, following the departure of Jörg Haider from the presidency of the FPÖ on 1 May, the party had now transformed itself into a responsible governmental force.
The summit came in the aftermath of a statement by the Austrian government on Friday, which announced the holding of a referendum on the sanctions: "The government will prepare a referendum for autumn 2000, unless there is a concrete plan for lifting the sanctions by the end of the Portuguese presidency" (France, a stauch proponent of the sanctions, is to take over the presidency of the European Union on 1 July).
Vice-Chancellor Susanne Riess-Passer made clear that the referendum was not to be the first step towards leaving the EU, but she saw the sanctions as an "injustice" for which the EU should apologise (in an interview with the daily Kurier). On Tuesday 9 May, Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel stated in a interview with the Austrian television that the referendum will not be necessary if a solution to the crisis is found "in the next five weeks."
The possibility of a "democratic control" and monitoring of Austria's political situation by an independent institution was also evoked by Ferrero-Waldner, as well as by Danish Foreign Minister Niels Helveg Petersen. Finance Minister Karl-Heinz Grasser was in Brussels on Monday for a meeting of EU finance ministers, where he argued (alluding to the weakness of the Euro) that "a Europe of 15 is better for the Euro than a Europe of 14 plus 1."
For Grasser, the week was also marked by the start of the budgetary debate on Wednesday (scheduled to last until 18 May). The defence budget was discussed on Thursday and education, culture, science and sport were due to be debated on Friday.
The leader of the Social-Democratic Party (SPÖ) Alfred Gusenbauer on Tuesday met French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin and declared that France is unlikely to push for the introduction of tougher sanctions in July. Gusenbauer criticised the People's party and the Freedom Party for what he saw as their failure to make clear their commitment to EU enlargement and to the fight "against xenophobia and racism."
On Sunday 7 May, the Vienna Philarmonic conducted by Sir Simon Rattle gave a controversial concert in Mauthausen to celebrate the 55th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camp. After the end of the performance of Beethoven's Ninth symphony (described by President Thomas Klestil as "the anthem of the peaceful and united Europe"), the audience was asked not to applaud and candles were lit in a symbolic display of remembrance and respect for the victims of the Nazi terror.
Klestil held talks on Tuesday with a delegation of the Council of the Slovenes from Carinthia. The new leader of the Council, Bernhard Sadovnik, presented to the president a list of demands concerning bilingual schools and the protection of minority rights, and declared himself satisfied with the meeting.
Magali Perrault, 12 May 2000
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