Sanctions on Austria’s Freedom Party premature

Despite the European Union’s threats of isolation, Austrian President Thomas Klestil swore in Austria’s new coalition government, which included J”rg Haider’s right-wing Freedom Party, on Feb. 3. The coalition’s victory in last October’s election was received with much alarm from the international community. The Freedom Party’s anti-immigration and anti-EU expansion policies — often compared to those of the Nazis — prompted the European Union to issue a statement of renunciation. Portuguese officials, currently presiding over the EU, declared an end to bilateral relations with the coalition government and began diplomatic sanctions last week — actions that have actually served contrary to the EU’s purpose.
Although the Freedom Party’s policies might very well deserve the criticism, condemnation and general outrage of the international community, these sanctions violate the very principles of the EU. In attempting to discourage a new Nazi regime, the EU has acted with unnecessary severity, making a mockery of its own pledge to respect and preserve democracy — a task that even the Freedom Party, under pressure, has promised to uphold. Although the Freedom Party might not be the true victors of last October’s elections after their second-place finish, their coalition with the People’s Party does reflect the determination of the Austrian people, which the EU is bound by its own principles to recognize.
Indeed, even Haider — in an effort to appease his critics — has denounced Austria’s Nazi past, apologized for his past comments about the SS — A Nazi paramilitary organization — assured Austrian Jews that his party poses no threat to their position in Austrian society. The Freedom Party, at Klestil’s request, has also endorsed various statements pledging to uphold EU principles and values. Until he acts otherwise, it would be premature for the EU to implement diplomatic sanctions when there has been no violation of international law. Indeed, the EU’s actions have further disheartened the Austrian public, as support for the Freedom Party has grown from 27 percent to 33 percent, making it an even more viable threat to European stability.
However, it is still wise for the EU to be wary of Haider’s promises. This is, after all, an opportunistic populist whose views fluctuate weekly and whose party has a dubious disposition toward its Nazi roots. Described by former colleagues as a controlling, power-hungry “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” Haider undoubtedly poses some undetermined threat to Austria’s neighbors, and even to his own party members. His absolute intolerance for dissent raises doubt in regard to his commitment to democracy. His apologies seem almost irreverent in light of the egregious errors he now apologizes for. His sympathies for SS veterans and Nazi policies, which he later conceded were “insensitive and open to misunderstanding” cast doubt on his more recent affirmations to uphold tolerance in Austrian government.
Although active discouragement appears inappropriate at this time, Haider’s party and its role in the new coalition government deserve the scrutiny that it has and will continue to receive from the EU and other international organizations.