HL Deb 15 February 2000 vol 609 cc1063-9

2.55 p.m.

Lord Willoughby de Broke

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they have expressed any concern about the new coalition Government in Austria.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, Her Majesty's Government have made clear their deep concern and distaste at the inclusion in the Austrian Government of a far-Right party, which appeals to xenophobia. We have welcomed the fact that the new Austrian Government have committed themselves to abiding by the common obligations and values of EU membership, to combating all forms of discrimination, and to dealing constructively with the country's Nazi past. But we shall be watching them closely and judging them on whether they fulfil the commitments that they have made.

Lord Willoughby de Broke

My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister for explaining so clearly the Government's commitment to gesture politics. However, as the French and the Italian parties and governments are full of re-cycled and unrepentant communists, can she tell us why we did not hear a squeak of protest when they were appointed? Why were the Government so shy about wheeling out their political conscience on that occasion?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, both the Italian and French Governments are constructed in a rather complex way. As regards this matter, we obviously have to respond on a case-by-case basis. The Austrian Government have within their membership an extreme Right-wing element, which is intrinsically against some of the fundamental principles that bind the EU together. We could not be silent. We were silent once before and, internationally, we paid the price.

Lord Marsh

My Lords, perhaps we should try to get away from all the controversy over this issue. Does the noble Baroness agree that this problem about Mr Haider's party arises wholly and solely as the result of proportional representation? Does she still think that it is a good idea?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, each country has to make its choice. It is the way in which Austria has chosen to form the parties. Noble Lords will remember that this was not a problem for Austria for 13 years and the way in which proportional representation brought forward a government seemed to inure to Austria's benefit. Obviously it is a matter of great concern that the construction of its government now is materially different.

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, can my noble friend the Minister say whether the Government are concerned that Mr Haider's FPO party will legitimise and increase support for other far-Right parties in the UK and in Europe?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, we are concerned about that possibility. It is not insignificant that 27 per cent of those who voted for Mr Haider were young males under the age of 30. It is a matter of concern. Other countries in Europe have experienced similar indications. Obviously it is a matter about which we must express concern and upon which we must keep a close watching eye.

Lord Hurd of Westwell

My Lords, perhaps I may press the noble Baroness gently on what she wants to happen next. Presumably, if this is a policy it has an objective. Do the Government want the Austrians to go back to the cosy coalition that they have just rejected? Do they want fresh elections, which might strengthen Mr Haider? If there is no policy objective because, as my noble friend suggested, it is just a gesture tossed into the headlines, can the noble Baroness say how long that gesture will last?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, this is not simply a "gesture tossed into the headlines". Indeed, if I may respectfully say so, to put it that way does not give value to the seriousness of this particular situation. We are fully committed to the measures that the other 13 EU countries have adopted. We believe that it is important to give a clear signal of our concern at the inclusion of a far-Right party, which advocates xenophobia, in the government of another EU country. We have welcomed the fact that the new Austrian Government have committed themselves to abiding by the common obligations and we shall watch to see whether they deliver. That is an important signal to have given. They have responded in a limited way. We are very much—if I may put it colloquially—"watching this space".

Lord Dahrendorf

My Lords, while I appreciate some of the answers that the Minister has given, there remains one big question; namely, given the fact that the Austrian condition is different from, for example, that of Greece 30 years ago when the colonels took over and where the objective was quite clearly to restore democracy, what exactly will Austria have to do at the end of the day for normal, bilateral relations to be re-established, and for Ministers of Her Majesty's Government to be prepared to be photographed with old colleagues with whom they were frequently photographed smiling in the past?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, one cannot set this in stone but it is quite clear that the threat which is inherent in some of the statements that Mr Haider and others have propagated has to be demonstrated as not having any validity or strength. We simply cannot say that yet. We have had a helpful indication and a commitment from Austria. However, we have to wait to see whether that is worth the paper it is written on. Some noble Lords in this House will remember—this was before my time—someone else saying, "I have a piece of paper". However, Britain discovered what that paper was worth.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, according to the BBC World Service two countries—one of which is Belgium—have apparently made an application for Austria to be suspended from the European Union. I wonder upon what grounds it can be suspended. I think that I know the Amsterdam Treaty and, indeed, the Maastricht Treaty pretty well. There is nothing there which at the present time would justify the expulsion of Austria from the European Union. Will my noble friend confirm that there has been such an application by two countries? What will be Her Majesty's Government's attitude towards that application?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I am not in a position to confirm that there has been any such application. There is nothing at the moment which would indicate that expulsion from the European Union is being contemplated.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, while I fully understand the apprehensions of Jewish communities, because the army unit which I commanded in 1945 was among those who discovered Belsen, should not the new Austrian Government, which does not include Herr Haider, be judged by their actions and their plans? The noble Baroness has mentioned the Freedom Party espousing xenophobia, but have the Austrian Government yet proposed or done anything that is unethical?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, as I tried to make clear, it has been reassuring to hear the words currently spoken by the Austrian Government. We have to wait to see whether those words are capable of being relied upon. Implicit in the noble Lord's comments is the fact that we have to wait to see whether they will come good. That is what we are doing; we are waiting and seeing. There is a hope that their words can be relied upon, but there is at the moment no confidence that that will be so.

Lord Chalfont

My Lords—

Lord Hardy of Wath

My Lords, may I ask my noble friend whether she has—

The Attorney-General (Lord Williams of Mostyn)

My Lords, I think that it is the turn of the Cross-Benchers. However, I respond to my noble friend's gloom by saying that there is plenty of time.

Lord Chalfont

My Lords, in view of the preceding question, does not the noble Baroness agree that, rather than waiting to see whether the Austrian Government do everything right, it might be better to wait to see whether they do anything wrong, which so far they have not done? Furthermore, in response to a question on proportional representation, the noble Baroness said that it is up to each country to make its choice. Is it not true that in this case the Austrian people have made their choice? What business have we to interfere in the democratic process of another country?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, as regards the noble Lord's final point, we are most certainly not interfering in the democratic process of another country. It is for each country to decide how it wishes to vote and by whom it wishes to be governed. By the same token, it is for each country to decide whether it wishes to associate itself with any such government once it has been formed. We must not forget that Austria, as it is currently constituted, is one of the countries at the heart of the EU and therefore occupies a special place in terms of importance. We wish to give a clear signal on this matter. The 14 nations have done that in the stance that they have adopted.

Lord Hardy of Wath

My Lords, my noble friend will be aware that over the years Austria has made an enormous contribution to the Council of Europe and to the cause of human rights in Europe. Will my noble friend inquire whether the particular party in question will be accepted in any party grouping within the Council of Europe? Will she obtain an assurance from the Opposition that the Conservative group in Europe will not under any circumstances accept parliamentary representatives from that particular body?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I understand the anxiety of the noble Lord in that regard. I do not think that I can give a specific answer in relation to it. If the situation were to change, I would be most happy to write to the noble Lord.

Lord Pilkington off Oxenford

My Lords, how will the policy that Her Majesty's Government are adopting apply to the new entrants from eastern Europe? The governments of those new entrants contain people who presided over tyrannies in eastern Europe. Are Her Majesty's Government prepared to apply the same standard to Hungary, Poland and to countries whose governments contain people who have carried out a doctrine of tyranny?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, at this point none of the countries that the noble Lord has mentioned is a member of the EU. I refer to the first Starred Question today. Of course we all know that there is much to be done in order to bring countries into alignment as regards the issues which we hold dear, such as human rights, democracy and transparency. All those challenges still exist. However, I remind noble Lords that Austria has already joined our family. It is important for us to look at the mote in our own eye before we try to remove the splinters from other people's.

Lord Haskel

My Lords, does my noble friend accept that it is part of the duty of any government to express the concerns of their citizens, and that the Government are doing precisely that?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I most sincerely hope that that is precisely what Her Majesty's Government are doing.

Baroness Park of Monmouth

My Lords, I am quite old enough to remember what the days of Hitler were like and I understand the fear and the anger. But could I suggest that, in paying so much attention to this small, unpleasant creature, Mr Haider, who does not represent his country and is not a member of the government, we are giving him stature, and that is a terrible thing to do; it is a great responsibility? I suggest most strongly that the presence of the Austrian Foreign Minister in the Council should have provided the opportunity for people to speak to her and make it clear that we believe in the good parts of Austria and that we do not believe that Mr Haider—as I say, an insignificant, horrible little creature—represents anything serious at all.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I am always refreshed by the noble Baroness's ability to describe the more unpleasant phenomena, and I cannot but concur with her.

It was important to give a signal. The Government's response has been one of balance. We have given that signal, which has been responded to and taken very seriously by Austria. It is important to continue to reassess the situation and your Lordships will not be surprised to learn that that is what we intend to do. No precipitous act has been taken in relation to Austria; it has merely had a very clear shot across its bows.

Lord Blaker

My Lords, I declare an interest as chairman of the British subsidiary of an Austrian company. Does the Minister recall that last month the Foreign Secretary propounded a policy of building bridges not barriers and of critical engagement with regimes with which we may disagree? Since he is following such a policy in relation to China, Cuba and Libya—which are dictatorships—why is he not following it in relation to Austria, which is a democracy?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, we are certainly following a policy. There is no restraint at all in terms of trade links, and ambassadors are still present in Austria. Ministerial communication has obviously not continued and is in abeyance at the moment, but functioning communication between Austria and ourselves is continuing.

Lord Monson

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that until a few days ago a xenophobic party was in government in a part of the United Kingdom?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I cannot agree with that.

Lord Moynihan

My Lords, perhaps I may press the points made by my noble friends Lord Hurd and Lord Dahrendorf. Will sanctions be lifted when the Austrian Government have proved their good faith? If so, what guidelines have been laid down for them to do so? Surely such guidelines are known to the Minister. Or is the Government's policy that, as long as the Freedom Party remains in the Austrian Government coalition, it can never be business as usual with Austria as far as Britain is concerned?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, the noble Lord is far too wise to expect me to lay down in stone the Government's response. We want to make a proportionate and appropriate response to the situation as it has unfolded. We have made a clear decision not to continue relations with Austria on the same basis. We have communicated that to Austria and we have set the parameters. Those parameters, at the moment, will not change until there are factors which cause us to reconsider our position.

Viscount Waverley

My Lords, are the Government satisfied that the United Kingdom fulfils the Commonwealth Harare Declaration principles of democratic representation?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

We are, my Lords.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

My Lords, does the Minister agree that on the whole democracies do not provoke wars, whereas forced and premature conglomerations of disparate nations nearly always end in conflict? Does she further agree that the European Union falls into the latter category and that the problems which are emerging in Austria are very worrying proof of that and of what may be to come?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I will not and cannot agree with the noble Lord—with much regret, of course.

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