The road to the union was paved with good intentions

Back in 2000, the EU imposed sanctions on Austria to prevent a governmental coalition with the right-wing party FPÖ, the “Freiheitliche Partei Österreich”, an unparalleled intervention to date. In the last Austrian state elections at the beginning of October, that same party was the runner-up with 32% of the votes. A look at the changes in the relationship between the Union and right-wing parties and if alike scenarios of intervention are even imaginable today.

It was the year 2000 and the European Union was not even a decade old, but its first big steps in inner-European policy started with a bang. Fourteen of the back then fifteen member states announced that they would diplomatically isolate their 15th member – Austria – if the government formed a coalition with the FPÖ, a right-wing party, under its populist leader Jörg Haider.

The EU’s sentiment behind this was meant to promote a democratic community of values that could not tolerate the rise of radical governments. Or, as Gerhard Schröder, the then German chancellor, put it: “Nip it in the bud!”

That level of interference by the EU into democratically elected national governments is unmatched to date. Back then, the Union was fairly young and the measures should have set an example for the half-baked democracies in Eastern Europe. What happened instead was a big turmoil in Austria that lead to a nationwide declaration of solidarity with the FPÖ, with even Haider’s strongest opponents standing behind him against the new supervillain, the EU.

A quick backtrack by the other member states followed and the sanctions were lifted after only two months. The only consequence emerging was Jörg Haider stepping down as head of the party, which neither impacted his function as face of the party nor decreased his popularity. Even today, many supporters still celebrate him as a national hero, with shrines dedicated to him in their living rooms.

What got the EU’s attention were statements from Haider that praised Hitler’s “employment policy” or the politician’s speech in front of SS-veterans whom he greeted with “Dear Friends”. What especially alarmed them was Austria’s nonchalance towards his behaviour.

Doing the right thing, but not the right way

This inspires a comparison to the FPÖ’s current leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, or H.C., as he likes to be called. His level of popularity and fandom resembles Haider’s, and so do his actions.

Recently, in an interview with the ORF in the course of the Viennese’ state elections, he stated: “I think today we saw that, after 70 years, we could finally become the strongest force in Vienna again.“ In 1945, Hans Blaschke, member of the NSDAP, was the mayor of Vienna. Even though his spokesman clarified that H.C. was referring to the first democratic elections since the war, such controversial statements leave a political aftertaste. They mobilise the far-right voters while retrieving the centre-right through blaming the press for misunderstanding or even campaigning against the whole FPÖ. None of the FPÖ’s Members of the European Parliament was available for a statement on their evaluation of the situation.

Many see those statements as intolerable incitement, yet counter-measures that go beyond a short uproar in the press are rarely taken. Often, interference is declared as a violation of the freedom of speech and the word ‘censorship’ became a popular outcry. Which measures can be taken if other paths are blocked?

Through rights to the right way

“When it comes to intervention of the EU against right-wing parties, I don’t see any possibility”, states Peter Adametz, one of the founders of “Meine Abgeordneten” (=engl. my delegates), a non-profit transparency database on members of national and international parliaments. “We do live in a democracy.”

After a short pause, he adds: “As long as the right-wing parties do not violate EU-rights, of course. But I doubt Brussels is prepared to act.”

So after the failed good intentions back in 2000, the only way for the EU to get involved in national governing again should be through clearly set guidelines and processes that protect EU-rights. Those guidelines might need to be renegotiated by the Union to ensure the sovereignty of all member states while still protecting the Human Rights and preventing discrimination of all European citizens.

If the failed interventions turned the EU into a burnt child or if it finds new ways to promote a community of shared values inside its borders remains to be seen.

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