Austrians ask their parliament to veto Czech accession to the EU if Prague refuses to close a controversial nuclear plant.
Petition leader Jörg Haider, a "pro-Nazi politican" to the Czech prime minister
Close to a million Austrians signed a petition that wants to bar the Czech Republic’s entry into the European Union if the former Warsaw Pact coutnry keeps running a controversial nuclear power facility.
The Temelin power plant, which lies 50 kilometers from the Austrian border, has long been a concern to Austrians, who fear its Soviet-era technology poses a major health hazard.
Seeking to capitalize on those fears, Austria’s right wing Freedom Party called for the petition linking Temelin’s fate to the Czech Republic’s EU hopes.
At any other time, this would just be a bit of cross border bickering. But with EU enlargement likely to occur in 2004, the Austrians move is an expression of the sort of fear and hostility toward a candidate state that poses some risk to a diplomatically seamless enlargement.
The Austrian petition faced heavy criticism from Czech leaders as well as rival Austrian political parties, who fear the anti-EU and nationalistic platform of the Freedom Party will further tanrish Austria's image.
The EU already punished Austria with sanctions when the Freedom Party and its inflammatory, populist leader Jörg Haider formed a governing coalition with the conservative People’s Party in 2000.
Fall agreement endangered
The Austrian government had thought that it resolved the Temelin issue after lengthy talks with the Czech Republic and an EU mediator last autumn. Those talks produced a set of security guidelines, proposed by Austrian and international nuclear scientists, that the Czech government agreed to implement.
But the Freedom Party was displeased with the deal. The charismatic and popular Haider took the lead on the promoting the petition and enjoyed support from Austria’s largest-circulating newspaper.
Anti-petition activists, among them Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel, were unable to prevent about 915,220 people from signing the petition, about 15.5 percent of the voting population, according to results released on Monday.
Peter Westenthaler, the Freedom Party’s parliamentary group called the petition a "great success for direct democracy."
Haider warned the next steps would not be easy, but said that parliament "would do good to take the results seriously and look to taking the next step."
Petition succeeds, but referendum may fail
The next step appears clear. The Austrian parliament is obliged to take up the issue after the results are certified January 21 and has four months to discuss whether to draw up a document that advocates a veto against the Czech Republic’s entry.
The issue faces fatal parliamentary scrutiny, since both the Freedom Party’s senior coalition partner, the People’s Party, as well as opposition parties, have come out against the petition.
But it has already done much to damage already tense relations between Austria and the Czech Republic.
Czech leader calls Haider "pro-Nazi"
In a fiery two-hour interview with the Austrian news-magazine Profil this week, Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman called Haider a "populistic, pro-Nazi politician," and referred to the "sudeten" Germans of WWII, which included Austrians and Czechs, as "Hitler’s fifth column."
"I expect the Austrian government to maintain our agreement [on Temelin]," Zeman said. "But if the Austrians sit under the thumb of a popular, pro-Nazi politician, who talks about everything but doesn’t understand anything, then that’s their problem, not ours."
Zeman also said that if Austria "really wants to add to its already splendid isolation in the European Union it is on the right path," by threatening the Czech Republic’s entry.
The comments sent Austria’s president Thomas Klestil straight to the telephone, where he expressed his displeasure to his Czech counterpart Vaclav Havel. Havel responded by promising the dialogue between the countries would be held "with less passion," according to Havel’s spokesman.