EU Gives Austria Icy Reception
Feb. 14, 2000
BRUSSELS, Belgium (AP) _ Austria's foreign minister got an icy reception today at her first European Union meeting, which lacked the chummy banter and handshakes that normally open a session.
Benita Ferrero-Waldner arrived at the monthly EU foreign ministers meeting ready to ask Austria's partners to judge her country's new ruling coalition on its actions _ not on the inclusion of Joerg Haider's far-right Freedom Party in the new government.
Haider has opposed rapid EU expansion and immigration. He has also made statements praising Waffen SS veterans and lauding Adolf Hitler's ``orderly'' employment program, though he has since apologized for those comments.
``The Austrians are European patriots who need the European Union,'' Ferrero-Waldner told reporters. ``And the Union needs Austria.''
She said the Freedom Party, whose members make up half the Austrian cabinet, is not a significant factor in foreign affairs. Only Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel _ like Ferrero-Waldner, a member of the mainstream conservative People's Party _ President Thomas Klestil and herself speak for Austria, she said.
Ferrero-Waldner promised Austria will not sour on EU enlargement and said the new government ``certainly is not going to slow down expansion.'' She blamed foreign media for giving Haider, who is not a government minister, too much credit for his power.
Nonetheless, it was not business as usual at the meeting, where the EU formally launched negotiations on reforms to enable the union to absorb a dozen newcomers.
The Austrian foreign minister shunned the usual pre-meeting photo session as did most of her 14 EU counterparts in what was called a show of ``collective late-arrival.'' The only ones in the room with photographers were the foreign ministers of Portugal _ the meeting's host _ and Italy, along with Javier Solana, the EU's foreign policy chief.
Ferrero-Waldner was to address the meeting on the emergence of the extreme-right Freedom Party as a government partner. She has said she believes France and Belgium are the prime movers behind sanctions against Austria and that other EU nations have gone along with them out of solidarity.
Austria's partners have isolated Vienna in bilateral relations. At an EU social affairs ministers' meeting in Lisbon, Portugal, last Friday, the Belgian and French delegates walked out when the Austrian minister spoke. And today, Haider announced he was calling off a trip to an EU meeting this week in Brussels where protests were expected.
British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook said today he looked for a clear Austrian commitment to democracy and human rights.
``It is important ... that all member states abide by those same values,'' Cook said.
Elsewhere, however, one non-EU European country _ Switzerland _ said today it is ready to receive members of Austria's Cabinet if they decide to visit. President Adolf Ogi said no date for a visit has been set.
The Swiss government has reacted cautiously to the developments in Austria, steering clear of measures to isolate the country and saying it will judge the coalition by its deeds.
The rise of the Freedom Party is overshadowing a major item on the foreign ministers' agenda: the EU's eastward expansion and getting the group in shape for a near doubling of tenants, likely by 2004.
The EU is already negotiating entry with Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovenia, Estonia and Cyprus. On Tuesday, talks will open with six more nations: Slovakia, Latvia, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Malta and Romania.
Before newcomers can join, the EU must overhaul its institutions and voting rules _ issues that escaped agreement in three rounds of treaty tinkering since 1987. The fourth round the foreign ministers will start today is due to last 10 months.
Proposals include reforming EU voting procedures so more actions are decided by majority rather than unanimous support and allowing integration-minded nations to move ahead with reforms without traditional slowpokes such as Britain hindering them.