The EU summit at Santa Maria da Feira in Portugal was at the centre of Austrian activity this week, raising expectations that the end of the Portuguese presidency might mean the lifting of the bilateral political sanctions imposed on the country after the formation of the coalition government between the People's Party (ÖVP) and the Freedom Party (FPÖ).
The leader of the opposition Social Democrats, Alfred Gusenbauer, attempted to answer his critics on Sunday and declared that he had held talks with his socialist counterparts "Michel, Jospin, Schröder, Blair and Cook" and argued that the sanctions should be lifted.
By the end of the first day of the summit on Monday, the Portuguese Prime Minister, Antonio Guterres, had made clear that the "Austrian question" would not be directly and officially on the agenda. Despite this, Austrian Foreign Minister, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, noted that the attitude towards the country had changed. He remarked that French President Jacques Chirac (the staunchest supporter of the sanctions) had greeted Austrian representatives. Also, nobody had thought to boycott the traditional "family photo."
The newspaper Der Standard reported on Wednesday that Guterres had presented a plan which could allow the lifting of the sanctions after a period during which the political developments in Austria would be monitored by the EU presidency (ie France which takes over from Portugal for the second semester of 2000). Nothing has been officially agreed but Portugal expects to formalise an exit strategy before the end of June. Similarly, the Chairman of the European Commission Romano Prodi expressed the willingness of the Commission to help find a solution to the crisis and prevent the "isolation" of Austria.
Austria was also engaged in a row with its 14 partners concerning the proposal to create an EU-wide witholding tax on savings. Austria's finance minister Karl-Heinz Grasser managed to negotiate a temporary opt-out for Austria because of a constitutional provision which protects bank secrecy in the Alpine republic. Yet, many observers remarked that Austria's opposition to a measure supported by all its EU partners was an expression of the government's discontent with the sanctions and a reminder that the country had the capacity to hinder decision-making processes within the EU.
Predictably, the failure to secure the lifting of the sanctions led to a renewed domestic debate about organising a referendum on the question. The leader of the FPÖ parliamentary group, Peter Westenthaler, suggested that the referendum could be voted on in July by the national assembly and held in the autumn, but the ÖVP seemed far more reluctant to go along with this idea.
Opinion polls published on Friday showed that 60 per cent of the population considered a referendum to be counterproductive (36 per cent would approve the idea). 64 per cent reject the idea of a "monitoring" of the country by the EU (33 per cent favour this solution).
The Transitforum Tirol group organised a 30-hour blockade of the Brenner pass on Friday and Saturday, causing a massive disruption of the traffic with Germany, Italy and Switzerland. The protesters demonstrated against the pollution levels generated by the growing flow of vehicles using this vital Alpine communication axis.
The action received the conditional support of the Transport Minister Michael Schmid (FPÖ) who declared that he hoped a solution in line with the EU treaties could be found. The Italian and German transport ministers criticised the Austrian government for not doing enough to prevent the blockade.
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Having managed to secure a deal concerning the compensation of slave labourers in the Third Reich, the Austrian government is now set to address the issue of restitution of the properties confiscated by the National Socialist regime. This week, the Austrian special envoy Ernst Sucharipa started talks in Washington with US deputy finance minister Stuart Eizenstat.
The Land of Carinthia is set to lower the right to vote at local level to the age of 16, following the agreement between the regional Social Democrats in opposition and the governor of Carinthia Jörg Haider. According to Haider, this "makes sense, if one wants to make young people responsible ... and to integrate them." The move will make about 14,000 16- and 17-year-olds eligible to vote at the local elections of 2003.
Haider also made his second visit to Libya in less than two months this week but made clear that his trip had no political component and was to further economic exchanges and trade between Carinthia and Libya. Carinthia is especially keen to purchase oil from the North African state.
Railway workers are due to go on strike on Wednesday 28 June to protest against the government plans to reform the pensions of the civil servants and its "anti-social" policies. The action was criticised by Social Affairs Minister Elisabeth Sickl (FPÖ), who denounced the attitude of the trade unions as "irresponsible" and bemoaned their refusal to negotiate.
Magali Perrault, 23 June 2000
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