The Austrian general election of October 1999 led to an unexpectedly problematic outcome, when the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), led by the populist and allegedly racist Jörg Haider (1950-2008), governor of the federal Land of Carinthia, scored almost exactly the same share of the vote as the centre-right People’s Party (ÖVP). The two parties each won 26.9 per cent of votes cast, some way behind the social-democrat SPÖ, with 33.1 per cent. As ÖVP leader Wolfgang Schüssel had pointedly ruled out any continuation of his party’s existing ‘grand coalition’ with the SPÖ (which had lasted 13 years), it was not clear how a new government could be formed. During four months of negotiations between the parties, Schüssel and Haider were gradually driven together and eventually agreed to form a coalition government. Some accused Schüssel of surreptitiously seeking this result all along, one which conveniently made him federal Chancellor even though he had led his party to defeat.
Across the rest of the European Union, most Socialists and many Liberals reacted vociferously to the prospect of an ÖVP-FPÖ administration, with the centre-right divided. The left saw this as a defining moment in their attempt to maintain a cordon sanitaire against the involvement, directly or indirectly, of far-right parties in government – an issue of relevance in Belgium, France, Italy and Denmark, in particular. Most Christian Democrats and Conservatives supported the right of the Austrians to form a government of their own choice, but they were initially cautious about expressing this view publicly. The fact that the German CDU were out of power and that French President Jacques Chirac unexpectedly supported the left, through fear that the accession of the FPÖ to government might help the Front national of Jean-Marie Le Pen, tipped the balance of forces on the issue.
In a note to the Portuguese presidency of the Council of Ministers, the centre-left Belgian government of Guy Verhofstadt demanded concerted action by the other member states against Austria. The Poruguese Socialist prime minister, António Guterres, indicated he was willing to accede to this request. After consulting all national capitals, on 31 January 2000, the presidency issued a ‘declaration on behalf of 14 member states’ announcing that diplomatic sanctions would be introduced if the FPÖ entered power. A government was formed five days later, in which a number of posts, including those of Vice-Chancellor and finance minister, were held by FPÖ members, although Haider himself chose not to participate.
The sanctions agreed by the other 14 member states specified a breaking-off of bilateral contacts with the Austrian government at political level, a down-grading of contacts with Austrian ambassadors to that of a ‘technical level’, and the withholding of support for Austrian candidates for posts in international organisations. Some member states also cut off educational and cultural exchanges. Norway and the Czech Republic associated themselves with the sanctions, together with several non-European states. In response, the Austrian government contended that the presidency of the Council had no right to issue a declaration of this kind, which was not an official EU statement, and that the sanctions envisaged were contrary to the general spirit of ‘sincere cooperation’ and ‘mutual respect’ meant to underpin relations between member states of the Union (Article 4(3) TEU). Austria said that, at the very least, it should have been given an opportunity to set out its position before the sanctions were adopted. Schüssel and Haider also issued a joint statement – entitled Responsibility for Austria: a Future in the Heart of Europe – aimed at reassuring partners of the country’s commitment to the European Union and its values. In Austria itself, the SPÖ refused to condemn the sanctions, which quickly proved unpopular with the electorate.
After a few instances of senior Austrian figures being snubbed, the sanctions quickly began to break down. Although some ministers walked out of a working lunch on 11 February, when addressed by a new FPÖ minister, none did so a few days later when Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the ÖVP foreign minister, set out her government’s reading of the situation. Pressure was further relieved when, at the end of February, Haider decided to resign as national leader of the ÖVP, in order to concentrate on his regional responsibilities. Centre-right governments in turn determined to try to find an escape route for Schüssel, with the focus of debate shifting to the broader issue of whether the new Austrian government, including the FPÖ, was respecting fundamental rights. In some member states, notably Denmark, there was a growing feeling that a small country was being bullied by larger ones on an arguable point of principle.
On 29 June, after some months of stalemate, the Portuguese presidency, acting in concert with its French successor, agreed to invite the Council of Europe in Strasbourg to try to settle the matter. The President of the European Court of Human Rights was asked to nominate three people to report on Austria’s respect of fundamental rights (especially with regard to its treatment of minorities, refugees and immigrants), as well as on the ‘political nature’ of the FPÖ. The individuals chosen were Martti Ahtisaari, a former President of Finland; Marcelino Oreja, a former Spanish foreign minister, European Commissioner and Secretary General of the Council of Europe; and Jochen Frowein, a leading German lawyer. The report of these ‘Three Wise Men’ was delivered to President Chirac, as President-in-Office of the European Council, on 8 September. It recommended that the sanctions be lifted unconditionally: this was done four days later. On 13 September, Haider declared that the sanctions against Austria had ‘ended as a complete flop’, having failed in their central objective of forcing the FPÖ from power.
One reason for relief in many capitals that sanctions were lifted lay in the fact that, during the summer of 2000, the Danish government had called a referendum on ending the country’s opt-out from stage three of Economic and Monetary Union (EMU), with a view to joining the single currency. The Haider affair quickly became a major question in the referendum, to be held on 28 September. The ‘no’ campaign argued that the isolation of Austria was evidence of a general lack of respect by large member states towards the interests of their smaller partners and that the Union was interfering in a country’s internal politics. The narrow and unexpected rejection by the Danes of EMU membership – by a margin of 53.2 to 46.8 per cent – has been attributed by some to this factor.
The wise men’s report that concluded the Haider affair turned out to have a significant impact on the institutional development of the European Union. Three of its central recommendations were taken up in various ways. First, it proposed a change to Article 7 TEU, under which a member state may face suspension if it engages in a ‘serious and persistent’ breach of fundamental rights. An amendment to this article was introduced by the 2001 Nice Treaty to provide an ‘early warning’ mechanism, whereby the Council can recommend action if it believes that there is ‘a clear risk of a serious breach’ of fundamental rights in a member state (and not just take action, if such a breach has already been established). Second, the report proposed that a new European human rights agency be created: this came about in the form of the EU Fundamental Rights Agency, established appropriately in Vienna in 2007. Third, the report suggested that a ‘Bill of Rights’ be incorporated into the EU Treaties: the subsequent European Constitution attempted to give, and the Lisbon Treaty succeeded in giving, treaty status to the Charter of Fundamental Rights.
The outcome of the Haider affair for some of the key protagonists was no less interesting. Schüssel succeeded in using the involvement of the FPÖ in government to divide the far-right as a political force and co-opt some of its leading members into his own ÖVP. It was a tactic which François Mitterrand had pioneered 20 years before in marginalising the French Communist party by inviting it to join the government. The FPÖ entered a sustained period of decline, with Haider leaving in 2005 to form a new rival party, the Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ). This decline was reversed in September 2008, when the two far-right parties gained 28.2 per cent of the vote between them, but Haider died suddenly two weeks later in a car accident. President Chirac failed spectacularly, by contrast, in his immediate attempt to exploit the Austrian situation to halt the rise of the far-right in his own country. When Chirac sought re-election in spring 2002, Le Pen out-polled the Socialist candidate and became his rival in the run-off second ballot. However, the Front national itself went into decline and was eclipsed as a significant political force by the election of Nicolas Sarkozy, Chirac’s successor, five years later.
Copyright: Anthony Teasdale, 2012
Citation: The Penguin Companion to European Union (2012), additional website entry