From the February 28, 2000 issue: Jorg Haider presaged Le Pen. One reporter saw it coming.
WE ARE ALREADY more than a week into Europe's boycott of the Austrian government, but the Sturm und Drang show no sign of blowing over. For one, all 14 of the European Union members who have frozen high-level bilateral contacts with Austria now face a whole series of deeply traumatic protocol crises. Is the Austrian ambassador to be invited to the meeting, not invited to the meeting, or invited to the meeting but not to drinks afterwards? Can the Austrian minister be received at the level of department chief, at the level of deputy minister, or should he not be received at all?
WE ARE ALREADY more than a week into Europe's boycott of the Austrian government, but the Sturm und Drang show no sign of blowing over. For one, all 14 of the European Union members who have frozen high-level bilateral contacts with Austria now face a whole series of deeply traumatic protocol crises. Is the Austrian ambassador to be invited to the meeting, not invited to the meeting, or invited to the meeting but not to drinks afterwards? Can the Austrian minister be received at the level of department chief, at the level of deputy minister, or should he not be received at all? Nor has public interest flagged. Press coverage, television debates, and anxious dinner party chat continues, even in London, where events on the continent rarely raise eyebrows, let alone interest. And no wonder: In its swift action against Jorg Haider and his Freedom party, now a partner in Austria's new coalition government, Europe has acted with more unanimity than it has shown in years. This, after all, is the same European Union that behaved chaotically in Bosnia, was deeply divided by Kosovo, and has always been unhappy about the denunciation of military dictators anywhere in the world. Collectively, the EU has never been known to condemn Polish and Russian, or even French and Italian, Communists--people who actively participated in or openly supported totalitarian regimes, as opposed to expressing heavily camouflaged sympathy for them. Nor did it ever dare to ostracize Francois Mitterrand, an actual member of the Vichy government. Yet in the past two weeks, EU members have found themselves able to agree, vehemently, about Haider. "I am used to reading communiques condemning events in Indonesia, Africa, or Chechnya," admitted one EU diplomat, speaking of the union's letter to the Austrian president, "but this took me aback: The language was in a different league." So different is the language, in fact, that it is a touch suspect. For those who can't quite believe that all of this diplomatic handwringing was really about what it claimed to be about, a quick glance at the website of Jorg Haider's Freedom party is an educational experience. Immediately, one is stopped short: There aren't any swastikas. There aren't any Nazi slogans. There aren't even any little buttons you can click to see a film of the Nuremberg rally. There are, rather prominently displayed, quotations from leading Austrian Jews, testifying to the fact that neither Haider nor his party has ever said or done anything that could be construed as anti-Semitic. Admittedly, some of these comments are a bit foreshortened. Simon Wiesenthal is (correctly) quoted saying, "Haider never said anything against Israel and has never said anything anti-Semitic." The rest of this quote, not mentioned on the Freedom party website, goes like this: "His parents were out-and-out Nazis. Haider was educated by them. Much of what he says that is so uncontrolled he heard as a child at home. His party is a Fuhrer party, and he is a dictator in democratic disguise." That omission aside, much of the website is otherwise void of sensation, being dedicated not to discussions of Austria's past, but rather to Austria's future, and in particular to Haider's 20-point "Contract With Austria." The points include cutting Austria's national debt ("every newborn child comes into the world with debts amounting to the cost of a medium-range car"), reducing the immense bureaucracy, ending state television and radio monopolies by granting private licenses, cutting taxes, fighting crime, and increasing home ownership at the expense of state-run housing associations. He doesn't, of course, leave out his two best-known policies: fighting immigration and preventing Austria from "losing more of its rights" to the European Union, not surprising since he fought against accession to the EU in 1995. Yet it is striking that most of his agenda, including immigration restrictions, would sit comfortably in the center of the American Republican party, especially its Pete Wilson wing, or even of the British Labour party, particularly its Tony Blair wing, which has itself been publicly toying with the idea of forcing all people entering Great Britain from the Indian subcontinent to pay a deposit of L 10,000 to be forfeited if they fail to return home. But on the rest of the European continent, Haider's rhetoric--and I'm not talking about the nods and winks to Wehrmacht veterans--is indeed new, radical, and deeply upsetting to the entrenched political elite. Like many European nations, Austria has been run for the past 50 years by alternating Christian Democrat (soft right) and Social Democrat (soft left) governments whose policies have, over time, become virtually indistinguishable, particularly in the wake of the collapse of the Berlin Wall, which removed the one foreign policy issue that divided them. For the past 13 years, Austria has in fact been run by the most extreme version of this political system: an actual left-right, Social Democrat-Christian Democrat grand coalition whose policies were not only indistinguishable, but identical. In an economy still dominated by heavy-handed government control, this meant that all appointments--down, according to one observer, "to the level of school headmasters"--were carved up between the two parties. To get ahead in the enormous state sector, you had to first get ahead in one or the other of the political parties. In the years of the grand coalition, they locked up thousands of jobs between them. This system didn't create corruption on the Russian or Nigerian scale, but it did create a stifling, bureaucratic, undemocratic society, and a stifling, bureaucratic, undemocratic political class which had absolutely no motivation to reform either itself or its country. The obvious solutions to Austria's high unemployment and general sluggishness--cut taxes, cut red tape, cut burdens on employers--were inadmissible, as they would mean fewer jobs for the coalition's members. Unfortunately, only Jorg Haider was willing to challenge this political monopoly. According to just about every intelligent observer of the Austrian system, his supporters are largely voting not for his bursts of Anschluss nostalgia, but for his anti-establishment, anti-status quo, tax-cutting and red-tape-slashing appeal, and for the youth and outsider status of the ministers he has just appointed to government. No doubt that it is this, just as much as those suggestive phrases about Adolf Hitler and his employment policies, that has made the rest of Europe so nervous. I first became suspicious of the anti-Haider movement upon realizing that it was being pushed and organized by the Belgians, whose foreign minister, Louis Michels, not only has described the Freedom party's victory as the equivalent of "a resurgence of fascist ideas in Europe," but has called for the cancellation of school trips to Vienna and a boycott on skiing holidays. This is the same Michels who is a member of a Belgian coalition government no less stuffy than the one in Austria. The Belgian political elite has of late been severely challenged by the swift rise of its own home-grown anti-establishment party, the Flemish Nationalists (yes, there is such a thing), known as Vlaams Blok. According to Frans Crols, the editor of Belgium's leading business magazine Trends, the "puffed-up things the Belgians are doing" in response to the Freedom party's success are "completely for home consumption." Michels, in other words, is trying to prevent any of Belgium's political parties from making similar power-sharing arrangements when, as expected, the good people of Flanders give the Vlaams Blok a third of their vote in national elections next October. The situations aren't exactly analogous, but they are close enough for discomfort, both in Belgium and elsewhere in Europe: certainly in France, with its National Front, or in Italy, with its Northern League of Piedmontese nationalists, or in Germany, where none of the leading parties, with their interchangeable policies, seems able to come up with real solutions to the country's economic malaise. None of which is to say that Europe is ripe for a rejection of the status quo. Everyone is too comfortable these days to waste time on that kind of nastiness. But Europe is very ripe for a revival of democracy, a rejection of the status quo, and the arrival of anti-establishment political parties and Ross Perot figures, some of whom may turn out to be unpleasant. In fact, for all of their loud rhetoric in the past few days about the protection of democracy in Europe, the members of the European Union are, as a group, doing their best to suppress it, creating precisely the sort of situation in which Haider and his ilk will flourish. With every passing year, the European Union's own bureaucracy tightens its grip on the internal politics of its members, giving their politicians and their voters less control over their own economic and social policies. The logic of having a single European currency leads inevitably not only to a single monetary policy but to a single tax policy and a single fiscal policy: Over time, it will become simply impossible for anybody's budget to be way out of line. For better or for worse, depending on your national point of view (many Italians are quite pleased about it), economic decisions will increasingly be taken by bureaucrats in Brussels rather than politicians in national capitals. As the reality of this sinks in, nationalist revivals, complete with anti-EU and anti-foreigner rhetoric, will be unavoidable. Yet the public's concern about European integration--much like its concern about high levels of immigration--are routinely suppressed by the European political elite, which shouts down every objection to the new Greater Europe. The result is an undemocratic European leadership falling all over itself to protect the undemocratic Austrian status quo. Of course, Haider himself isn't really worth defending in any way or for any reason. Although he hotly insists he has been misinterpreted, Haider is undoubtedly a master of the suggestive phrase, well-designed to appeal to those to whom it is meant to appeal, and equally well-designed for its worst interpretation to be unclear or deniable to outsiders: hence the praise, when speaking to a group of veterans, for those Austrian soldiers who had fought for "order, justice and decency." Bland, empty words to some, meaningful phrases to others. How sad that he was unable to find another form of patriotism to which he could appeal. And how much sadder that no one from within the system, from the mainstream right or even mainstream left, had the courage to push for the political and economic reforms the country desperately needed years back. And how worrying that outside of Britain and Margaret Thatcher, no one else in Europe has had the nerve to do so either. A journalist based in Warsaw and London, Anne Applebaum is writing a history of Soviet concentration camps.
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