Haider Controversy

By Vienna's elegant standards, Leopoldstadt is a shabby place, boasting few of that old city's faded charms. It is a gritty working-class district, heavily populated by immigrants, which is the principal reason why Integrationhaus - Integration House - is sited there. The facility offers temporary haven to asylum seekers, 110 of them at the moment. For more than a week, ever since Jörg Haider's Freedom Party entered government, the refugees have been flying a large black flag from one of the building's upper windows. "It is an expression of our fears," explains Andrea Erasland-Weninger, Integration House's manager. "We are worried that anti-foreigner feeling in this country has now become socially acceptable. If the politicians can call refugees criminals and complain about too many foreigners, it won't be long before ordinary people are saying the same thing."

They already are, and not only in Austria. For there is a chill wind blowing across Europe, sweeping down from the German-speaking Alps into dark political nooks and crannies right across the continent. Uberfremdung is how Haider and some of his Austrian lieutenants have chosen to describe the issue. The word summons disquieting memories from an earlier era. "Over-foreignization" is the literal translation and it was widely trumpeted by the Nazi authorities in 1930s Germany and Austria to justify some of Adolf Hitler's noxious racist policies. While Haider is no Hitler, he has ruthlessly exploited a widespread but hitherto rarely voiced Austrian fear of immigration, especially the influx from eastern European countries - the people escaping war in the Balkans or just searching for a better standard of living. "He turned xenophobia into a powerful political weapon," says Wolfgang Bachmeyer of Vienna's marketing and research institute OGM. "It is not the only reason for his success, but it is a major one."

It is also the force that is driving the outrage expressed by Austria's 14 fellow member states of the European Union at the inclusion of Haider's Freedom Party in the governing coalition that was sworn into office earlier this month amid near riots on the streets of Vienna. Haider's movement may be the largest political party on the extreme right in Europe, but it is not the only one. Similar parties exist in Austria's Alpine neighbourhood - to the south in Italy, to the north in Germany, to the west in Switzerland. Farther afield, there are politically organized extremist fringes in France, in Belgium, in Denmark, in Sweden. Many are led by individuals cast in Haider's mould: media-savvy, even charismatic, rabble-rousing populists with deeply reactionary goals and few scruples about the methods used to achieve them.

Everywhere, except perhaps in France, these parties' fortunes are on the rise. And what unites them all is a simmering resentment about the foreigners who are upsetting Europe's centuries-old ethnic balance. The European Union is in the process of expanding to include more eastern nations - and the unneighbourly dread that greater numbers of foreigners will qualify for passports that let them move where they choose on the continent is not often far below the surface.

For the political establishment, the fear is that what happened in Austria may prove contagious. "We need to vaccinate Europe from the dangers of a disease which is threatening to spread," warned Italy's left-wing prime minister, Massimo d'Alema, last week as he endorsed the EU's three-point plan to isolate the new Austrian government of Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel, whose conservative People's Party is the senior partner in the coalition with the Freedom Party. Under the program, Austria will receive no official ministerial visits from other EU countries and will garner no EU support for Austrian candidates for posts with international organizations. Austrian ambassadors in EU states will have to deal with host country governments at the technical level, that is, below elected government ministers. Canada, too, is supporting the EU sanctions, along with the United States, Israel and several other non-EU countries. The new Austrian government is "on probation," said Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy, announcing Ottawa's decision to send "the proper message" to Vienna by "limiting political and diplomatic engagements."

Among the forces of the resurgent far right in Europe, however, the reaction was far different. Alessandra Mussolini, granddaughter of Italy's dictator Benito, described Haider as a "decent person" and castigated the "leftist" and "racist" EU leadership. "I defend the principle of freedom of thought," she declared, acidly calling on the EU to "just tell us who we should vote for and send those who voted for Haider straight to jail." Il Duce's offspring is a member of Italy's National Alliance, a direct descendant of the elder Mussolini's black-shirted Fascists. Her party is led by Gianfranco Fini, a smooth operator typical of the new hard-right leaders. He has transformed what he calls the "post-Fascist" National Alliance into a legitimate force by shedding much of the old party's totalitarian ideology while continuing to advocate stringent curbs on immigration. His party was the first of Europe's far-right movements to hold power, entering a brief coalition government under Italian media magnate Silvio Berlusconi.

In Switzerland, Christoph Blocher enraged his country's Jewish community by praising the author of a book that denied the Holocaust. A millionaire industrialist from Zurich, Blocher led his Schweitzerische Volkspartei, or Swiss People's Party, to second place in national parliamentary elections last October with 23 per cent of the vote. During the campaign, he also struck terror in the large refugee population with calls to end "asylum abuse" accompanied by posters of sinister-looking, dark-eyed foreigners tearing apart Swiss flags.

Not far to the north, in Munich, another multimillionaire has been busy providing the inspiration - and funding - for the extreme right Deutsche Volksunion, or German People's Union. Gerhard Frey, whose fortune is based on a publishing empire, founded the DVU in 1987. Since then, the party has blamed foreigners for German crime rates, warned against mass immigration from the east and cast doubts on the numbers who died in the Holocaust. The party is making gains, winning five per cent of the vote in regional elections in the state of Brandenburg last September, and 13 per cent the previous year in Saxony-Anhalt. In all, the DVU and two other hard-right German parties hold seats in four of Germany's 16 state governments.

In Belgium, Filip Dewinter's Vlaams Blok eschews the rougher edges of German extremism. But it has managed to emerge as the third-largest party in Flanders, winning close to 10 per cent of the vote in federal elections last year. The party's prime plank is secession, advocating the separation of Dutch-speaking Flanders from Belgium's French-speaking Walloons. But Dewinter's speeches are rife with anti-immigrant rhetoric. "What we want to do is halt immigration in our country," he said recently. "We want a policy of preference, preference for our own people." Much the same line is being peddled by Denmark's People's Party, which won 7.4 per cent of the vote and 13 seats in parliament in general elections last year by campaigning on a platform to curb immigration and keep Denmark from joining the single European currency. Pia Kjarsgaard, the party's leader, recently suggested that any immigrant convicted of a criminal offence should be deported, along with that person's entire family.

Of all Europe's far-right political groupings, it is only the French version that seems to be in decline. Two years ago, Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front was strong enough to win almost 20 per cent of the regional council seats. The party routinely garnered 15 per cent of France's national vote with programs that, among others, advocated the expulsion of all immigrants. Last year, however, the party split when Le Pen's deputy, the aristocratic Bruno Mégret, departed to found his own hard-right party, the National Republican Movement. Mégret's party has not flourished - it won just 3.3 per cent of the vote in European parliamentary elections last year. Le Pen, too, managed only 5.7 per cent in the same elections.

Still, the rise of Haider's Freedom Party in Austria is clearly not an isolated phenomenon. Nor is the 27 per cent of the vote the party polled in elections last October based only on Haider's ability to exploit latent xenophobia. There is a liberal wing in the Freedom Party that is pro-business; it is the only political party in Austria to advocate the kind of socially conscious free-market policies that have worked so well for Tony Blair's Labour Party in Britain and, to a lesser extent, Gerhard Schröder's Social Democratic Party in Germany. It helps to explain the otherwise puzzling emergence of some of the six members of the Freedom Party who are part of Austria's new government. One of those is Karl-Heinz Grasser, the new finance minister. For the past 18 months, Grasser, 31, has served as European spokesman for Austro-Canadian Frank Stronach's Magna International Inc. And Grasser has recently admitted that Stronach was influential in persuading him to accept Haider's offer to join the government.

Despite his wealth, the auto-parts magnate is not part of the tight clique that has governed the country for the past 50 years, a so-called Red-Black coalition of left-of-centre Social Democrats and the right-of-centre conservatives of the People's Party. The uninterrupted rule bred a climate of cronyism and corruption, something that Haider cleverly exploited. OGM analyst Bachmeyer argues that "one-third of the Freedom Party's voters in the last election would not vote for Haider as chancellor. What they do want is to keep him as a thorn in the flesh of the old system."

But cronyism and corruption is as much a pan-European phenomenon as the widespread fears of a new flood of foreigners once the planned EU expansion to the east takes place. Corruption brought down the once mighty Christian Democrats in Italy and it is threatening to do the same at the moment to the Christian Democrats in Germany and the conservative forces of the centre-right in France and elsewhere. Add that to the phobia over immigrants, and the result could well prove lethal to much of Europe's old order. No wonder Austria's neighbours in the European Union are worried about Jörg Haider. He may well be a harbinger of the kind of problems that lie ahead.

The Faces of the Far Right

- Germany's Frey: blaming foreigners for crime rates

- Switzerland's Blocher: praise for a Holocaust denier's book

- Denmark's Kjarsgaard: family deportation for crimes

- France's LePen: an extremist loses ground

- Italy's Mussolini: a fierce defence of 'freedom of thought'

- Italy's Fini: a 'post-Fascist,' very smooth operator

- Belgium's Dewinter: a 'preference for our own'

Maclean's February 21, 2000