Austria's relations with its 14 European Union partner states threatened to worsen after another week of heated debate about the political sanctions which have been imposed on the country.
The finance minister, Karl-Heinz Grasser, (Freedom Party, FPÖ) stated in an interview with the daily Kurier on Sunday 16 that Austria "cannot accept the dictate of the 14 [Austria's EU parners]." He added: "I do not want to push it so far that we could be condemned for violating the [EU] treaties. But there can be delays in the payment of our contributions [to the EU]. Being unpunctual - one can do that."
Jörg Haider, who will officially leave the leadership of the Freedom Party in the hands of the vice-Chancellor Susanne Riess-Passer next week, provoked further controversy in an interview for the newsmagazine News published on Thursday. Condemning the attitude of the EU, he suggested that Austria should perhaps "think about leaving the Union."
Grasser and Haider were strongly criticised by the Social-Democratic (SPÖ) and Green opposition. Green Party Deputy Johannes Voggenhuber accused Haider of "destructivism" and the leader of the social-democratic parliamentary group Josef Cap denounced the "strategy of escalation of the FPÖ."
The general secretary of the People's Party (ÖVP) Maria Rauch-Kallat saw Haider's comments as "the private opinion of the governor of Carinthia" and emphasised that leaving the EU was "absolutely not on the agenda."
The foreign minister, Benita Ferrero-Waldner (ÖVP), forcefully repeated in an interview with News that she, not Haider, was in charge of the government policy towards the EU. According to her, Austria had been treated unfairly and should defend its rights but she refused to "answer injustice with injustice."
The interior minister, Ernst Strasser (ÖVP), on Tuesday presented his plans for the reform of the civilian service (which young Austrians can choose as an alternative to the compulsory military conscription). The plan purports to reduce the monthly allowance received from AUS 7008 to 3648 from 1 June this year. The number of recruits for the civilian service will also be reduced by 585 compared to last year's intake.
The project has been sharply criticised by the opposition. Andrea Kuntzl (SPÖ) argued that the reform threatened to transform the civilian service into a "luxury" and denounced the fact that the young people who would opt for the civilian service would have to "serve longer for less money. This is unfair."
Theresia Haidlmayer (The Greens) saw the saving measures as a problem for hospitals, the elderly and disabled people who benefited from the help of the civilian service's recruits.
Finally, the first round of negotiations between the government and the social partners about the reform of the civil servants' pension scheme failed to produce an agreement on Tuesday. Two commissions have been set up which should publish their first results next week.
Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel (ÖVP) and vice-Chancellor Susanne Riess-Passer (FPÖ) both stressed the necessity of saving AUS five billion but declared themselves ready to discuss the "ways" to achieve this objective.
The Government's wish to introduce the reforms after the summer has been criticised as too hasty by the chairman of the Trade Union of the Civil Service (Gewerkschaft Öffentlicher Dienst), Fritz Neugebauer. According to him, going ahead with the reforms so quickly could jeopardise their quality (ORF, 20/04/2000).
Magali Perrault, 21 April 2000
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