More debates about the sanctions this week after Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel (ÖVP) presented his plan to change articles six and seven of the Treaty of the European Union in order to allow a member state of the EU accused of breaching European values to defend itself and to take its case in front of the European Court of Justice.
The leader of the Social-Democratic Party (SPÖ), Alfred Gusenbauer, suggested that the four parliamentary parties (the SPÖ, the governmental coalition ÖVP-FPÖ and the Greens) could agree to sign the declaration against sanctions already adopted by the nine governors of the Länder in May. (Lower-Austria, Upper-Austria, Salzburg, Styria, Tyrol and Vorarlberg are ruled by the People's party, Vienna and Burgenland by the SPÖ and Carinthia by the Freedom Party). However, the chairman of the ÖVP parliamentary group, Andreas Khol, expressed his preference for the drafting of a separate statement on the sanctions by the national assembly during a session devoted to the issue on Friday.
Meanwhile, the Foreign Minister, Benita Ferrero-Waldner (ÖVP), launched an offensive on the diplomatic front and travelled this week to Madrid, Paris and London. No contacts with government officials were planned, but Ferrero-Waldner met "friends of Austria" among the political and artistic communities in the three capitals. She was, for instance, due to meet former British Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher on Friday. In an interview she gave to the American television channel CNN, Ferrero-Waldner argued: "the Freedom Party is a right-wing populist party, it is not a xenophobic and racist [party]. The people have voted for it because they were frustrated with ...politics and wanted a change."
On Tuesday, the European People's Party (the organisation of European conservative parties to which the ÖVP belongs) published its report on the political situation in Austria. The procedure against the ÖVP had been started in April, following the decision of the Party to enter into an governmental alliance with the Freedom Party but the ÖVP was reestablished as a full member of the group after the report concluded that there had been "no deterioration of the Austrian democratic system" and expressed its confidence in Schüssel's leadership.
The SPÖ was in disarray on Monday after the publication of an opinion poll in news magazine Profil. The poll showed that 65 per cent of the population thought the party response to sanctions was "wrong." The survey also showed that the ÖVP (32 per cent) has overtaken the SPÖ (30 per cent) in voting intentions. The FPÖ and the Greens were lagging behind with 23 and 13 per cent respectively.
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On Thursday, Schüssel was in Vorarlberg to address a meeting of the ÖVP. He defined the priorities of the government as being a reduction of the budgetary deficit, the launching of major social reforms and the modernisation of the civil service. He also argued that the ÖVP should position itself as the party of the center and should rely on its traditional Christian values to appeal to the "little man."
Finance Minister Karl-Heinz Grasser (FPÖ) announced his objective to reduce the budget deficit to between zero and 0.5 per cent of GDP before 2003. He provoked a strong reaction from trade unions when he suggested that this might mean the loss of 13,000 jobs in the civil service.
In response, the trade union of railway workers sent an ultimatum to the government on Thursday and indirectly threatened to go on strike should the government fail to drop its projects of reforms of the civil servants' pension schemes before the middle of next week.
The Styrian lake of Toplitz, which has long been believed to be where the Nazis sank several containers containing important documents before the end of the Second World War, was back on the news this week when the American firm Oceaneering, the broadcasting corporation CBS and the Simon Wiesenthal Center launched another attempt to locate the containers.
Finally, the magazine News reported on Thursday that a remake of the famously "kitschy" Sissi Trilogy of the 1950s was being planned. The series, which presented a somewhat "romanticised" (and that is an euphemism) account of the life of the Austrian Empress Elisabeth and her husband Franz Joseph, is set to be turned into a single motion picture with the title "The Empress." The Welsh actress Catherine Zeta-Jones has been tipped to take the role which made Romy Schneider a star of European cinema. The producers have stated that the film will be respectful of historical truths (including the Empress's relations with the Hungarian Count Andrassy) and the role of Kaiser Franz Joseph has not been cast yet...
Magali Perrault, 12 June 2000
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