London (CNSNews.com) - European Union governments Tuesday reacted coolly to the decision by Joerg Haider to step down as leader of Austria's Freedom Party, while media commentators and political opponents described the move as a tactical ploy.
The 50-year old populist - criticized for past remarks sympathetic to aspects of Nazi policy -- said Monday he did "not exclude" a possible future bid to become chancellor.
The Portuguese government, which holds the rotating presidency of the EU, said Austria's 14 European partners would not immediately reverse their decision to downgrade relations with Vienna.
Portugal said the main question was not Haider's leadership of the Freedom Party, but rather the Freedom Party's involvement in Austria's governing coalition. (The coalition is led by the conservative People's Party.)
Addressing a press conference late Monday, Haider said he was standing down after nearly 15 years as head of the Freedom Party to help the three-week-old government.
Haider was not a minister in the new center-right government, but it was widely suspected he would dictate policy to his party colleagues in the cabinet. "I want to avoid in the future the constant claims that our ministers always have to consult with me before they can do anything," he said.
Haider denied the decision stemmed from outside diplomatic pressure. He stressed he was not leaving national politics, and he said he would continue to serve as governor of Carinthia, one of the country's nine provinces.
Susanne Riess-Passer, 39, the vice-chancellor in the government sworn in on February 4, will assume leadership of the party.
The United States responded cautiously to Haider's resignation late Monday. State Department spokesman James Rubin called it a step in the right direction, but he noted that concerns about the Freedom Party's participation in the Austrian government persist. He said the U.S. would continue to monitor the situation.
Israel, who recalled its ambassador to Austria after the Freedom Party's inclusion in the new government, also responded carefully. The Israeli foreign ministry said it was studying the significance of the decision before deciding on further action.
The EU members' decision to isolate Austria caused some consternation among some conservative European politicians, several of whom told CNSNews.com it set a dangerous precedent for interference in member states' domestic affairs.
From Brussels to Madrid, European newspapers gave considerable coverage to the decision.
Austria's Die Presse newspaper said Haider would be able to distance himself from unpopular government decisions while preparing for the next election, scheduled in less than four years.
"One thing we should never forget [is that] Joerg Haider ... sees himself as Austria's 'savior'. He will strive to return as such as the FP's main candidate at the next general election - and from this aim he has not budged a single millimeter."
The London Daily Telegraph called Haider "a cold, calculating politician" and said "the surprise retreat to the back stage of the party will doubtless turn out to be part of the Haider master plan: to make his party the biggest force in Austrian politics and himself the country's chancellor."
Haider has been forced to apologize for remarks in which he praised Hitler's labor policies, for calling Waffen SS veterans "honorable men," and for describing Nazi concentration camps as "punishment centers." He has won popularity on a platform of opposition to immigration and hostility towards European enlargement.
Before Austria's coalition government was formed early this month, he was obliged by President Thomas Klestil to sign a pledge upholding democratic values.
The Freedom Party won 27 percent of the vote in elections last October, just beating the People's Party to come second behind the Social Democratic Party.
The People's Party-Freedom Party coalition was formed after drawn-out negotiations between the People's Party and Social Democrats failed.
The opposition Social Democrats, excluded from an Austrian government for the first time in three decades, dismissed Haider's resignation as a sham.