ECR may cancel future Vienna meets to protest right-wing politics

March 1, 2000

Severely embarrassed over the political situation in Austria, the European Congress of Radiology is seriously considering canceling its 2001 and subsequent conferences in Vienna.The right-wing, anti-foreigner Freedom Party, whose leader is an apologist

Severely embarrassed over the political situation in Austria, the European Congress of Radiology is seriously considering canceling its 2001 and subsequent conferences in Vienna.

The right-wing, anti-foreigner Freedom Party, whose leader is an apologist for the Nazi policies of Austria’s World War II past, recently gained a majority in the country’s parliament, shocking physicians and tourists who contribute substantially to the country’s economy.

“We stress that we disapprove of the political (developments in Austria) and this may lead us into the extraordinary course....of a change of venue,” said ECR vice president Dr. Rolf Guenther of Germany.

But the availability of alternative venues is likely to pose a problem, as most of Europe’s major locations are booked up years in advance, Guenther said.

“We are in a dilemma; there is no doubt about it,” he said.

Medical conferences are a major source of Vienna’s income. While no specific figures are available, they represent the largest percentage of the $214 million contributed by Vienna’s meetings and corporate events to the country’s gross domestic product, according to the Vienna Tourist Board.

Christian Mutschlechner, head of the board’s convention bureau, said there have been no cancellations but quite a few discussions with conference organizers about the political situation.

The Vienna city council’s health department is also concerned.

“We are aware that a lot of organizers are reconsidering, but we have no confirmed information,” said spokesperson Norbert Kettner.

Mutschlechner said there has been talk about the ECR, which has held its annual meetings in Vienna since 1991, occasionally going to other European cities because of political considerations.

Social Democrat-controlled Vienna, which traditionally maintains considerable independence from the central government, is about to mount a campaign pleading with international medical bodies to “Help us to keep our medicine open and international.”

Even before the furor surrounding the rise of the Freedom Party, Austria felt the weight of censure from the medical profession over the politics of its Nazi past. American doctors threatened to force cancellation of the World Congress of Gastroenterologists held in Vienna in 1998. The event went ahead only after the Austrian organizers agreed to hold a seminar discussing the country’s role in Hitler’s wartime medical program.

Mutschlechner said the current situation is attracting less attention in America than in Europe. He is optimistic about maintaining modern Austria’s political image.

“We are dealing with people in the scientific field, and not the political field,” he said.

But according to Guenther, the ECR is unable to separate the issues.

“We are a scientific society, but have to bear in mind that we are dealing with a political movement we disapprove of,” he said.