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Austrian chancellor begins controversial visit

Despite being shunned by much of Europe, the Austrian chancellor, Wolfgang Schüssel, has arrived in Switzerland on a one-day visit - one of the first foreign visits by the head of the controversial new government in Vienna.

This content was published on March 31, 2000 - 14:58

Despite being shunned by much of Europe, the Austrian chancellor, Wolfgang Schüssel, has arrived in Switzerland on a one-day visit - one of the first foreign visits by the head of the controversial new government in Vienna.

Schüssel is due to hold talks with the Swiss president, Adolf Ogi, together with the foreign minister, Joseph Deiss, and the finance minister, Kaspar Villiger, at the official guesthouse outside the capital, Berne.

The foreign ministry says the discussions will focus on the inclusion of the far-right Freedom Party, known for its hard-line policies on immigration and foreigners, in the coalition government led by Schüssel.

Austria has been shunned by the other 14 member states of the European Union. At last week's summit in Portugal the EU refused to lift its freeze on bilateral relations with Vienna.

Switzerland's ties with Austria are traditionally very close and it is customary that new heads of government pay their first official visit abroad to their neighbouring country. Switzerland's ambassador to Vienna, Claudio Caratsch, said both countries needed each other's support.

The Austrian chancellor, Wolfgang Schüssel, said on Wednesday that the aim of his visit was to maintain good neighbourly relations with Switzerland. He also said European integration would be high on the agenda. But Schüssel said he did not expect Switzerland to act as an "icebreaker" to help end Vienna's diplomatic isolation in Europe.

Austria, for its part, was seen as instrumental in helping Switzerland negotiate a series of accords on bilateral relations with the EU last year. They will come to a nationwide vote in May.

Left-wing parties and human rights groups say they will stage protests against Schüssel's visit. The Social Democratic Party said it was wrong to help justify a government which included an extremist group. But the three other government parties came out in favour of the visit, saying Switzerland is an independent country not bound by EU policies.

Protests have already taken place during two previous visits to Switzerland by Austria's foreign minister, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, earlier this month.

swissinfo with agencies



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