Austria’s Haider affair gave the EU an ’emergency brake’


Unwittingly Austria created EU history in January 2000 when a far right party joined its government. EU leaders panicked and isolated Vienna. EURACTIV looks at the legacy of those heady days and months.

The unwritten consensus since the second world war has been that far right parties do not enter European governments. How easy this was to apply in practice was first challenged when Silvio Berlusconi entered into government with the far right party Alleanza Nazionale in 1994.

But when the ÖVP-FPÖ government was formed in 2000 in Austria, the EU did not have the political tools to deal with it properly.

The EU has the option to screen, postpone and ultimately refuse membership to a candidate country via the Copenhagen criteria on respect for democracy and rule of law, but once a country has entered the EU it becomes unclear what the EU can do in face of a breach of its main principles and values. 

The issue has been threatening to resurface in recent months with the allegations about the existence of secret CIA prisons in both present and future member states.   

Article 7 of the Nice Treaty states that the European Council can declare the existence of “a serious and persistent breach of fundamental  rights”. If this occurs, the Council may, by a qualified majority, suspend certain of the rights of the country concerned. 

This procedure is supplemented with a ‘preventive instrument’ that is very hard to activate. The text reads: “On a reasoned proposal by one third of the Member States, by the European Parliament or by the Commission, the Council, acting by a majority of four fifths of its members after obtaining the assent of the European Parliament, may determine that there is a clear risk of a serious breach by a Member State of principles mentioned in Article 6(1), and address appropriate recommendations to that State.”

The values and principles are spelled out as follows: “The Union is founded on the principles of liberty, democracy, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and the rule of law, principles which are common to the Member States.”

Ben Crum, lecturer and political scientist at Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam, told EURACTIV that it is unlikely that article 7 will ever be used: "The Haider affair left the EU governments with a big hangover, so they will think twice before doing that again. Article 7 will stand to represent a historic episode in EU, but as such it will probably remain a dead letter." 

However, Crum stresses its great importance as an informal 'socialising' instrument that may have contributed to bringing the Italian, former far right politician Gianfranco Fini  (Alleanza Nazionale) into the political mainstream. When Fini was appointed as deputy prime minister in 2001, it created some uproar in European media and political circles, but it did not get anywhere near the Haider situation. And from 2002 Fini even represented the Italian government on the Convention that prepared the Constitutional Treaty: "Cooperating with Fini proved a much better strategy than making him a black sheep. Now he is a respectable statesman. It would all have worked differently if he had been isolated."

Crum also sees article 7 as an important part of a revived value debate in the EU, that was also reflected in the Constitutional Treaty. He calls article 7 a sort of an "emergency brake" that will cast an informal shadow of the workings of the EU member states: "Like Qualified Majority Voting in the Council it doesn't have to be used concretely to make a difference. I see article 7 looming in the background as a value benchmark. In the past over Slovakia, and in the short term future over Bulgaria and Romania's membership bids. It also applies to the present affair with the CIA camps." 

Marco Incerti, Research Fellow at CEPS, Brussels, told EURACTIV: "The bottomline is that the informal sanctions only made the situation worse, because the Austrian citizens felt they were being treated unfairly, also in comparison to other states which had had similar problems, and according to some studies, it is at that time that Austrians began to be more eurosceptic. The argument was: how can an undemocratic organisation like the EU mingle in the internal democratic processes of a sovereign state? And indeed, once isolation ended, the FPö problem went away on its own."

Incerti sees the subsequent creation of Article 7 as useful since it gave EU a more solid basis to deal with similar future cases: "It also gave a more political dimension to the Union, since beforehand you had various economic criteria to comply with in order to be a member of the club, but there was no possibility to assess the democratic credentials of a country. In this sense, the article was also seen as the necessary corollary to the Copenhagen criteria. Paradoxically, up until then one could judge the democratic merits of countries that were trying to join the club, but not those of the member states that were already in. Having said that, it is not clear whether member states will ever find the political courage to implement the measures foreseen therein. The point is that by now there are many member states that have to grapple with extremist parties, Belgium has the Vlaams Belang for example, and for them it is often more convenient to turn a blind eye, because they realise that at some point it could be them in the hot spot."

Cécile Leconte, of Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Paris  takes a highly critical view of the legacy of the Haider affair in the publication Western European Politics (vol.28): "EU leaders...were unwilling to uphold the principles initially evoked against the FPÖ as soon as it involved political costs and when it turned out that it might one day backfire against their own country. As a consequence of this dilemma, the threshold of political acceptability inside the EU has been lowered; every coalition partner now seems acceptable as long as it does not commit concrete violations of human rights. The EU is now less likely to take steps against national governments or leaders that might openly contest its fundamental values."

After several decades of Austrian coalition governments between Social Democrats and Christian Democrats (ÖVP), voters in the autumn 1999 elections demanded change and delivered a landslide 27% victory to the far right Freedom Party, the FPÖ. It's leader, the youthful rabble-rouser Jörg Haider, had comments praising the German second world war Nazi soldiers, the Waffen SS. This appalled EU heads of state so much that they felt that they had to take action when the FPÖ joined the ÖVP-led government under Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel's leadership. 

In January 2000 this led to an ill-defined 'diplomatic isolation' of Austria, which, due to there not being a proper legal basis in the EU treaty, was hard to apply in practice. Furthermore it led to angry reactions among the Austrian public and boosted Haider's popularity. Former German foreign minister Joschka Fischer first praised it as "the birth of a political Europe".  In reality the 'isolation' mainly amounted to an absence of polite handshakes and no-shows at meetings in Austria.  

EU leaders of the 14 countries soon realised that the isolation of Austria was not politically sustainable and was probably counterproductive. A group of 'wise men' were asked to produce a report and the 'isolation' was formally lifted in September 2000.

However, in the Nice Treaty, which was finalised in December 2000, article 7 clearly addressed the 'Haider issue' by setting out how the EU should react when "a clear danger exists of a Member State committing a serious breach of fundamental rights". 

Even if Austria's FPÖ has split into two parties, the new BZÖ party is still in government with Chancellor Schüssel's ÖVP. However BZÖ only secured 1.7% of the vote in the last elections.

The CIA prison affair is currently being investigated by the Council of Europe. A report is expected later in January 2006. 

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