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EU warns Austria against rightist coalition

The European Union warned Monday that its 14 other members would diplomatically isolate Austria if its anti-immigrant Freedom Party led by Joerg Haider enters a coalition government.

A statement issued in Portugal, which holds the current six-month EU presidency, said the other members of the European Union "will not promote or accept any bilateral official contacts at a political level" with any Austrian government that included Haider's party.

Austrian candidates for posts in international organizations would find no support, it said, and Austrian ambassadors "will only be received at a technical level."

Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Guterres justified the action, saying: "We had to send a very clear signal that behavior of a racist or xenophobic character will not be tolerated within the European Union."

It was the first time the union has issued such a warning to a member state. Austrians were shocked, and a diplomatic crisis seems inevitable.

"I find it strange if the 14 EU states were to come to such a decision without consultations with Austria," said Foreign Minister Wolfgang Schuessel.

Haider's own reaction was that if the president and other parties bowed to foreign pressure, "then we might as well abolish democracy in this country straight away."

Since it became clear last week that Haider had a chance of being in the government, the European news media have been full of articles implying that Nazism is on the rise in Austria, a charge that many Austrians vigorously reject.

Haider's party, which favors cutting off immigration to Austria and preventing European Union expansion because it is likely to bring more eastern Europeans over Austria's borders, came in second in elections in October with 27 percent of the vote.

Last week, the first-place Social Democrats and the third-place People's Party failed to revive their coalition. So Haider began coalition talks with the conservative People's Party.

European countries, led by France and Belgium, steadily ratcheted up their denunciations.

It is not easy to characterize Haider because his positions are all over the political map. He is definitely opposed to more immigration and has used the word "over-foreignization," which many find redolent of Nazism. He implies that immigrants are responsible for Austria's crime rate and "drug problem," although both are negligible, for welfare fraud and for increases in tuberculosis in public schools.