VIENNA, Austria — European Union representatives gathered Friday in Austria--where Adolf Hitler was cheered in 1938 and a far-right party now shares power--to denounce racism and call for tolerance across the continent.
The ongoing clash between Austria and the 14 other EU partners colored comments at the opening ceremony for the European Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia. The other countries have declared sanctions against Austria to protest the far-right Freedom Party's participation in its government.
"Unfortunately there is a party in the Austrian government that has used racism as propaganda," Jean Kahn of France, head of the center's management board, said in his address. "The poison of this racism is atrocious. Xenophobia, racism and anti-Semitism present a danger for Europe."
Austrian Foreign Minister Benita Ferrero-Waldner, showed up at the ceremony, although she and other government representatives had not been invited. Ferrero-Waldner is a member of the conservative People's Party, the Freedom Party's coalition partner.
"We did not invite (European) governmental representatives for the reason that it would have meant including members of the Austrian government," the center's vice chairman, Bob Purkiss, said before the ceremony.
European Parliament President Nicole Fontaine, European Commission President Romano Prodi and Austrian President Thomas Klestil addressed the opening ceremony. Unlike heads of government, Klestil and other heads of state were invited.
In his speech, Klestil urged Europeans to remember Austria's history as a crossroad of Slavs and other Eastern Europeans who settled and sought refuge here.
"Especially today, given the accusations being brought against Austria, this country's traditional humanitarian role is often overlooked," Klestil said.
For this reason, choosing Vienna as the base for the center was a good idea, he said. The EU decided to base the monitoring center in Austria several years before the elections last November that brought the Freedom Party into power.
The center's aim will be to observe and combat racism and other forms of discrimination across Europe.
For two years now, the center has already been gathering statistics and information on racism and establishing a network of human rights organizations and other groups. Based on this data, the center hopes to set standards of tolerance for education, societal norms and legislation across the European Union.
"Racism and xenophobia mean different things to different people," Purkiss said, stressing that the center's main goal will be to "set targets" of tolerance and human rights protection and make sure governments measure up.
"We have to learn, we have to work with victims," he said. "It's not just a question of exposing."
While the intentions are good, the reality of European views on tolerance and racial equality today provides a rather grim picture, acknowledged Beate Winkler, the center's director.
"We have to face the fact that on the one hand, we have an increase in racism and on the other, the interest of societies in this issue is decreasing," she said.