Austria and the EU Sanctions

In February 2000 an unexpected political drama unfolded in Austria. The newly elected federal government, led by the centre-right People’s Party politician Wolfgang Schüssel, was placed under diplomatic sanctions by the European Union and banned from meetings of the European Council. The trigger for this unprecedented demarche against a fellow EU member state was the secret denunciation by the Austrian president, Thomas Klestil, of his own country’s government.

Klestil was violently opposed to the inclusion in the coalition of Joerg Haider, leader of the right-wing Austrian Freedom Party (FPO).  This was the first time that the FPO had been included in government at federal level, although it was no stranger to coalition in municipal and regional government:  since 1956 it had been a frequent and dependable partner of the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SDP).  From its inception, the SDP helped to nurture the FPO by providing it with state funding from the Ministry of the Interior, which it controlled.  The FPO became the instrument with which the SDP could split the centre-right vote at federal elections.  By including Jorge Haider in the new People’s Party-led coalition, Wolfgang Schüssel had beaten the SDP at its own game, but in so doing he had deeply antagonised the post-war Austrian political Establishment.

The French president, Jacques Chirac, was particularly outspoken and led an aggressive campaign of public vilification of the Austrian government.  Despite the confrontational stance adopted by France, however, it soon became apparent that the sanctions against Austria were unworkable and politically embarrassing to the European Union.   WorldPR was hired by Lord Tim Bell to advise the Austrian foreign minister, Mrs. Benita Ferrero-Waldner, on a strategy to resolve the impasse and communicate a positive narrative based on the true record.  The result was a dynamic, Europe-wide campaign that significantly changed the balance of opinion and ended in the complete lifting of the EU’s sanctions against Austria.

Working closely with Mrs. Ferrero-Waldner, WorldPR organised a diplomatic, political and media tour of the key European capitals, including London, Paris and Madrid.  High-level meetings included speeches to lawmakers and leading opinion-formers at which the Austrian Foreign Minister presented a carefully researched report that showcased Austria’s exemplary record of social justice and economic achievement since the Second World War.  Austria’s success story included the peaceful integration of the largest proportion of foreign-born nationals of any country in the European Union – fully 25 per cent of the population.  This seminal report was converted into a pamphlet and distributed in multiple languages to key audiences throughout Europe. 

The second prong of the campaign was to assemble a committee of respected external experts to provide a balanced and unjaundiced view of Austrian society.   The three experts, Professor Jochen Frowein, the director of the Max Planck Institute in Germany, Martti Ahtisaari, former president of Finland, and Marcelino Oreja, the former Spanish government minister, gave the Schüssel government high marks for taking concrete steps to fight racism, xenophobia and anti-semitism.  The committee issued their clean bill of health and on 12th September 2000 the, almost immediately after that, the EU Council lifted all sanctions against Austria.

The European Union Lifts Sanctions Against Austria, The New York Times, 12th September 2000