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Jewish World Review Feb. 10, 2000 / 4 Adar I, 5760

George Will

George Will
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The Disciplining of Austria -- A political drama of recent decades has been Europe's progress, ideological and institutional, in transforming "Europe" from a geographical expression into a political category. Now the European Union has committed the arrogant and lawless folly of declaring, in effect, that Austria's new government, produced by recent elections, is illegitimate. This declaration underscores why many thoughtful people question whether Europe's progress toward political unity is really progress.

Joerg Haider, 50, is a trim, glossy, well-tailored, telegenic and articulate politician. He also is frequently adolescent and reptilian, in a "populist" sort of way. As is common with populists, he taps into unpleasantness latent in the public. George Wallace did, as did some of his late 19th-century American progenitors, such as Mary E. Lease, who, in rhetoric of a sort familiar at the time, called President Grover Cleveland "the agent of Jewish bankers and British gold."

Haider gives voice to anti-immigrant sentiments shared by those who resent the fact that 10 percent of Austria's residents are immigrants, many from the Balkans where recent events set the stage for the European Union's decision to isolate Austria. One Balkan event was the eruption of tribalism that recalled Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. The other was NATO's decision to disregard the niceties of sovereignty in order to stop Serbia's government from exercising a free and brutal hand in a province of Serbia.

European anxiety about Austrian extremism of the right is understandable. It was in Vienna, then the polyglot capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a bouillabaisse of peoples and nations, that the Austrian Hitler acquired his antisemitism. But before a stable, temperate democracy such as Austria is assaulted, even diplomatically, for a choice it has made in conformity to democratic due process, that choice should pose a clear and present danger to the parties doing the assaulting.

What threat does the participation of Haider's party in a coalition government in one of Europe's less weighty nations pose to prosperous, pacific, bourgeois Europe?

From Mussolini through Franco and Peron, there have been many flavors of fascism. And Haider's cocktail of tribalism and wounded national pride (the reason for his warm words about Waffen SS soldiers, and aspects of Third Reich policies) perhaps deserves to be classified as a watery residue of what ceased being a fighting faith in Europe 55 years ago. He is a recidivist in stirring the ashes of the 1940s. He has contemptibly called the concentration camps "punishment camps," and on Sunday he endorsed reparations for ethnic Germans expelled from Czechoslovakia at the end of the war. But those ashes are stone cold, and Haider increasingly resembles a witless teenager trying to annoy adults with his naughtiness.

On what principle did the EU act? Defense of the rule of law? No Austrian or other law has been broken by Haider. He poses no threat to Austria's regime of rights. And as for the muzzy charge that he is an affront to the EU's values, three questions: Where are they codified? If Haider had a communist past, or expressed selective admiration for the Soviet Union, would he draw the EU's censure? (Surely not.) And if punishing Austria, in an act of capricious bullying, for the normal and nonthreatening operation of its electoral system expresses the EU's values, what makes those values admirable?

To say that Austria has a right to accommodate Haider's Freedom Party and the 27 percent of the electorate who recently supported it is not to make a fetish of majoritarianism. The U.S. constitutional system certainly does not. The essence of constitutionalism in a democracy is not merely to shape and condition the nature of majorities, but also to stipulate that certain things are impermissible, no matter how large and fervent a majority might want them.

The purpose of a Bill of Rights, the Supreme Court has said, is "to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities." Which is what the First Amendment does by saying "Congress shall make no law" doing this or that (abridging freedom of speech, establishing religion, etc.) no matter what Congress's constituents desire.

But no Austrian or European bill of rights or other law justifies turning the understandable recoil against Haider--a recoil part moral and part aesthetic--into a diplomatic onslaught that will enlarge Haider. This onslaught is an extralegal, and therefore anti-legal, exercise in moral exhibitionism. Europeans have far more to fear from such unprincipled and unconstrained authoritarianism by the EU than from Haider's repellent but impotent exhibitionism.

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