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On Feb. 4, Austrian President Thomas Klestil swore in a new, highly contested coalition government and ushered what may be an era of Austrian isolation from the democratic world, in general, and the European Union (E.U.), in particular.
After negotiations to salvage a 13-year coalition between Klestil's own moderate Social-Democratic Party and the middle-right People's Party failed, Klestil was left no choice but to give his reluctant consent to a coalition between the People's Party and the far-right Austrian Freedom Party, headed by outspoken xenophobe and former Nazi apologist, Jorg Haider. Although Haider himself will not hold office in the new government, his party controls six ministerial positions, including those in the highly sensitive areas of justice and defense.
The democratic world, especially members of the European Union responded in a reactionary frenzy. Failing to be persuaded by the commitment to democracy and human rights the new government had signed the previous evening, and outraged that Austria could swear into office a party led by a man who has publicly praised Hitler's labor policies and the Waffen SS (these comments were later retracted by Haider), the fourteen other member nations of the E.U. downgraded Austria's diplomatic status and boycotted the inauguration. Israel immediately withdrew its entire ministerial envoy and the United States temporarily withdrew its foreign minister for consult in Washington, D.C.
However reactionary it may appear, the E.U.'s action is in many ways an understandable response to the current political environment in Europe. After almost 50 years of relative democratic stability in most E.U. member nations, the prospect of Austria's coalition government leading the subcontinent down a slippery slope towards fascist governance is highly unlikely. But the prospect that the new Austrian government will set a precedent for middle-right/far-right coalitions throughout Europe--a political landscape that has been kept in balance in the post World War II era by moderate/middle-right coalitions--is not so far fetched. Austria was not the only European nation to experience declining support for moderate social-democratic parties and rising support for the far-right in the last election cycle, and the current turmoil in Germany makes it especially susceptible to the ascendancy of extremist political parties.
Yet, the E.U.'s admirable desire to maintain political stability and laudable effort to ensure that the atrocities of Europe's past aren't repeated does not annul the fact that the Austrian coalition parties were democratically elected and have yet to use any extra-democratic means in establishing their new government. Hence, to apply sanctions and politically isolate the nation before the coalition government has done anything tangibly wrong is to put the diplomatic cart before the horse and to undermine the very principles of democracy the E.U. seeks to uphold. Moreover, at the present time the E.U.'s actions are themselves a greater threat to subcontinental political stability and burgeoning economic cooperation than any possibility of future trends in middle-right/far-right coalition governments. And, whether or not the stability of the E.U. as a whole suffers as a result of the recent debacle, it is almost inevitable that the economic and political stability of Austria will be adversely affected. (The Austrian stock market has already fallen substantially in the past week.) Perhaps most frightening, though, is that the E.U.'s actions threaten to cause a political backlash in Austria, which may actually strengthen Haider's support.
Increasing suspicion of dirty political dealings surrounding the E.U.'s actions also cannot be ignored. European political analysts have openly suspected that President Klestil encouraged members of the E.U. to threaten sanctions out of the hope that Freedom Party/People's Party coalition would break apart, giving his own Social-Democratic Party another shot at gaining power. These suspicions are bolstered by the E.U.'s own hypocrisy in that several of the member nations that have loudly denounced maintaining diplomatic relations with Austria so long as the Freedom Party shares power nonetheless maintain political and economic ties with brutally dictatorial countries such as Iran, Libya and Cuba.
Cutting diplomatic ties with and sanctioning Austria is thus nothing short of a hugely hypocritical mistake. If the E.U. has a genuine concern for the maintenance of Austrian democracy then it should attentively watch Austrian political developments and sustain close diplomatic ties so that, in the case that Haider ever tries to subvert democracy in the name of fascist governance, the E.U. still has political leverage with the Austrian government. Isolating Austria will only allow hatred and xenophobia to ferment and diminish the chances of diplomatically forestalling political crisis should the Austrian government ever actually turn to undemocratic practices.
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