Over the past 50 years, Europe has inched toward greater unity and integration. Mindful of the extreme nationalism that ignited two world wars, the European Union has been determined to break down the barriers among countries, encouraging policies aimed at fighting racism and sectarian hatred. Unfortunately, Europe's liberalization has been matched by the rise of xenophobic and racist groups. The National Front in Britain, the followers of Jean-Marie Le Pen in France, neo-fascists in Italy and neo-Nazis in Germany, Switzerland and Austria have raised the sinister specter of the past with their marches and rallies, and they have won some local and national assembly elections.
Nowhere is this more evident than in Austria, where the anti-immigrant Freedom Party has made a deal to forge a coalition with the center-right People's Party. The linked parties will gain a 104-seat controlling majority in the 183-member Parliament and, unless Austrian President Thomas Klestil decides to call for new elections, form a government.
The Freedom Party is led by Jorg Haider, a telegenic, even charismatic, right-winger best known for remarking that the Nazis had an "orderly employment policy," referring to concentration camps as "punishment" camps, praising veterans of the Waffen SS as "decent people of good character" and complimenting Hitler. Later, Haider retracted some of his inflammatory comments but still identifies himself with the far right.
Though Haider and his party were duly chosen in democratic elections, the prospect of his being part of Austria's government has caused the Clinton administration to warn that the United States would "carefully examine" its relationship with Austria. More dramatically, the prospect of Haider in an official government position has moved Israel to threaten a cut-off of diplomatic relations. And the European Union has said it may freeze Austria out of EU decisions and keep diplomatic and other official contacts to a minimum. Austria cannot be expelled from the EU but sanctioning it so severely will have the effect of denying it a voice in important pan-continental decisions. Antonio Guterres, prime minister of Portugal (the nation that currently holds the rotating EU presidency) said, "We have to send a very clear signal that behavior of a racist or xenophobic character will not be tolerated within the European Union."
The immediate issue is immigration. Haider favors closing Austria _ and the EU _ to "foreigners," especially foreigners from Turkey and the poor formerly-Communist nations of Eastern Europe. He opposes Turkey's integration into the EU and takes a dim view of poorer nations (mostly in southern Europe) not paying "their fair share."
The combination of energetic nationalism with liberal plans for social services spending has made Haider wildly popular in Austria. In the election last year, the Freedom Party pulled 27 percent of the vote, but a recent poll shows that if the election were held today, it would get more like 60 percent. Austrians do not take kindly to other nations trying to tell them what to do. When the world recoiled in horror from revelations of Kurt Waldheim's Nazi past, Austrians elected him president by a resounding margin. There is also a substantial nativist, anti-Semitic, even racist constituency in Austria that looks with distrust and distaste at the people to the east and south, and Haider has energized them.
The trouble with the EU's attempt to fight racism and xenophobia by isolating Austria is that it looks like an attempt to meddle in a nation's electoral affairs. Haider's views are abhorrent, as are those of Christoph Blocher, leader of the ultra-right People's Party in Switzerland. The People's Party got 23 percent of the popular vote in the recent Swiss elections. Perhaps the EU would have been wise to hold off and watch the new Austrian government to see if anti-immigrant policies were implemented, then take away Austria's member-state voting rights.
However, we must acknowledge the immediacy and sensitivity of these issues in Europe, where the Holocaust is an unfaded memory, ethnic cleansing was only recently halted in the Balkans and the race-hatred fostered by far-right parties from Paris to Salzburg seems a real threat to democratic government. Haider is playing on Austria's darkest, most vicious impulses. He is reminding the world that not only was national socialism born in Austria, but that, during World War II, there were more members of the Nazi Party in Austria than there were in Germany. As for Switzerland, that nation's much-praised image of "neutrality" has taken many hits recently with revelations of its war-time collaboration with Hitler and reluctance to proceed with reparations to Jews.
The reality is that Austria and Switzerland are part of a multi-race, multicultural market. Trying to close their borders to people who are poorer or browner will not _ and should not _ work.