You wouldn't necessarily know it from the amount of coverage devoted to it in the UK press, but this week's most significant European event may have been the decision by 14 EU governments to end the sanctions they had imposed on Austria earlier this year following the entry of the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) into that country's governing coalition. This move followed a recommendation by three "wise men," an independent panel which found that Austria's treatment of minorities was "superior to that in many other EU member states" and that the sanctions were encouraging a nationalist backlash.
This turn of events was seen as a "cave-in" by The Independent (13 September) and as an "embarrassing climbdown" and a "significant victory for Vienna" by The Daily Telegraph (also 13 September). The Economist (16 September) judged that EU governments "would do well to respect voters a little more. Voters do not put a Freedom Party into power unless they are being badly served by their traditional parties." Its major significance, however, may lie in leaving the way slightly clearer for moves towards EU enlargement to the east.
The panel of three, chaired by former Finnish president Marti Ahtisaari, had been set up by the EU in July to probe Austria's human rights record and the nature of the FPÖ. This was widely seen as the EU's attempt to find a face-saving route out of an increasingly awkward deadlock, with Austria threatening to disrupt progress towards EU enlargement and proposing a referendum on relations with the EU. The wish to influence the Danish referendum on the euro, coming up on 28 September, also precipitated the rapid response to the report of the "wise men."
Bear in mind, however, that this may not be the last we have heard of Austrian blocking tactics. Firstly, all the British press coverage noted that the report balanced its verdict with strong criticism of the FPÖ for appealing to "xenophobic sentiments" and "trivialising the history" of Austria's Nazi experience. Chastened EU leaders will now be wary before taking further action, especially with the more worrying looming possibility that Italian elections this winter may bring the National Alliance into government. Yet one provocative speech by Jörg Haider may be all it takes to cause the issue to resurface.
In addition, there is the possibility of nuclear-free Austria obstructing the entry of the Czech Republic into the EU, because of objections to the Czech nuclear power station Temelin due to open shortly just 30 miles from their common border. The Economist noted recently (2 September) that "Relations between the Austrians and their Czech neighbours to the north... have been chilly since the Czechs chose a bit too eagerly, most Austrians thought, to dance to the tune of the 14 European Union countries that more or less ostracised the government in Vienna."
The significance of these events was somewhat buried underneath other news in the British press, which was dominated this week by two stories: the military operation on 10 September to rescue six British soldiers held hostage by rebels in Sierra Leone, judged a success despite one British fatality; and the UK's week-long fuel blockades, which were aimed at bringing about a reduction in fuel excise duties and all but brought the country to a standstill.
Neither of these stories had a lot to do with Central and Eastern Europe, though if one scratched beneath the surface there were, as is so often the case, reverberations relevant to the region.
The poor cousin
For The Times (13 September), the Sierra Leone operation served as a counterpoint to the problems being experienced by the German Army, which through inadequate supplies and low morale is being turned into "the poor cousin of NATO." While he acknowledged its valuable role in Kosovo, The Times correspondent Roger Boyes compared the German Army unfavourably to the British (which itself has endured recent criticism over underfunding during the Kosovo conflict): "The very idea that it could launch a jungle rescue mission along the lines of the Sierra Leone snatch is met with embarrassed smirks by military experts."
Boyes described Chancellor Schröder's recent Army reforms as "half-baked," because they attempt to turn the military into a largely professional modern force and finance major arms projects while simultaneously cutting expenditure. He remarked that to date the "Teflon Chancellor" has been a lucky politician, but wondered if his policy towards the Army could for once leave him in a sticky situation.
As for the CEE dimension to fuel blockades, this may be much clearer by the time of publication. The British blockades followed similar successful protests in France, and there has been direct action elsewhere across Europe. The Daily Telegraph reported on 13 September that in Poland "hauliers and fishermen were considering blockades against fuel depots, refineries and ports." At the time of writing, Polish protests were escalating, in contrast to those in Britain, which were dying out.
The sudden fuel crisis illustrates that the reach of economic and fiscal issues is at least Europe-wide, if not global, and in this case Europe increasingly means both West and East. Globalisation is a topic of great sensitivity in the Czech Republic at the moment, as Prague prepares itself for the IMF-World Bank summit and, more to the point, steels itself against the expected huge demonstrations. [see this week's articles "A Bubble Burst" and "Old Friends: The IMF and the Czech Republic"]
A report in The Guardian back on 24 August had noted that British Special Branch police officers had been sent to Prague to liaise with their Czech counterparts in advance of the summit. The FBI has also been training Czech officers, and Interpol have been consulted as well. Meanwhile, hospitals have been taking on extra staff and stocking up on drugs, and "fast food restaurants have already ordered replacement panes of glass, knowing they are likely to be targeted."
Preparations by activists have been similarly thorough, it appears. The Guardian found one website on which "protesters have been advised of the Czech for useful phrases such as 'You fascist pig' and 'Where is the nearest McDonalds?'"
Violence is expected at the summit, with anywhere between 15,000 to 50,000 hardline anti-globalisation protesters expected to arrive, at least some of whom will be intent on causing trouble. The press here agreed this week that there was concern over whether the Czech police would be able to handle the situation. "The winding streets and hidden courtyards which draw millions of tourists present a policing nightmare," suggested Julius Strauss in The Daily Telegraph (12 September). "Much smaller past protests have caused havoc in the city, with accusations that the police either stood by or overreacted."
"The force will be armed with tear gas, water cannon and live ammunition," observed Justin Huggler in The Independent (13 September). "But their guns will not be loaded. Their Czech-made CZ-82 pistols are so unsafe that two years ago, when an officer dropped his gun, a passer-by was shot dead." The Independent also cited a police spokeswoman who said that a policy of "maximum tolerance" would be followed in a bid to avoid the violent scenes of Seattle in November 1999. We can be sure this is one CEE story that will make news here next week.
Oliver Craske, 14 September 2000
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