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Switzerland and Austria stress friendly relations despite protests

The Austrian foreign minister, Benita Ferrero-Waldner (pictured), has completed her first official visit to Switzerland. Her presence was greeted with protests outside the Swiss parliament, despite traditional good relations between the two countries.

The Austrian foreign minister, Benita Ferrero-Waldner (pictured), has completed her first official visit to Switzerland. Her presence was greeted with protests outside the Swiss parliament, despite the traditional good relations between the two countries.

Demonstrators protesting in Berne at Ferrero-Waldner's visit said they wanted to show that there was a ground swell of feeling against right-wing extremism in Europe, despite the inclusion of the far-right Freedom Party in Austria's new government. The protestors were joined by members of parliament from the Social Democratic Party, who were boycotting the Austrian foreign minister's visit.

"The Austrian Chancellor, Wolfgang Schüssel, is responsible for the fact that, for the first time since the Second World War, a far-right party is a member of a European government," said the head of the Social Democratic faction in parliament, Franco Cavalli.

"This could have serious consequences for all of Europe, and we don't think the Austrian government should be welcomed here," he added.

But Switzerland has not joined European Union countries in downgrading diplomatic ties with Austria. Far from it; at the close of his meeting with Ferrero-Waldner, the Swiss foreign minister, Joseph Deiss confirmed that Schüssel would also be coming to Switzerland at the end of this month.

The visit will be the Austrian Chancellor's first official trip abroad, and he will be received by the Swiss president, Adolf Ogi.

"I have always believed that the new Austrian government should be judged by its deeds," said Joseph Deiss. "We don't feel at the moment that there is anything in Austria's policy that merits a change in our traditional friendly relations."

For her part, Ferrero-Waldner was keen to stress the traditional close ties between the two countries. "Switzerland knows Austria better than many other European countries, and the new Austrian parliament was democratically elected by the people. The Swiss, with their direct democracy, understand this."

Nevertheless, Switzerland remains alone among western European countries in maintaining normal diplomatic ties with Austria, and when the chancellor, Schüssel, arrives here in three weeks' time, the voices of protest from both within and without Switzerland will almost certainly be even louder.

By Imogen Foulkes

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