A Turn to the Right for Europe?

On 22 May 2016, Green Party nominee Alexander Van der Bellen won the Austrian Presidential election by a narrow margin of only 31,000 votes – less than one per cent of the votes counted. In the following days, however, rumours of voting irregularities and vote tallying malpractice began to circulate and, upon investigation, Austria’s Constitutional Court invalidated the outcome of the election triggering a rerun, which has been moved to take place on 4 December 2016. This ruling — unheard of in Austria’s history — threw the country into political turmoil and uncertainty. As the EU Observer noted, ‘the rerun of the second round […] has revived the spectre of an elected far right head of state in Europe for the first time since the Second World War.’

Image courtesy of Philipp Alexander © 2015, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of Philipp Alexander © 2015, some rights reserved.

Fear from pro-European officials and politicians — not only in Austria but across the European Union (EU) — has risen following the decision by Austria’s Constitutional Court. Time Magazine’s 3 October issue portrays Hofer on the cover with the caption ‘a resurgence of nationalism has forced European politics to tilt sharply.’ Officials fear that — particularly following recent polls — Austria is en route to electing a far-right President. If that were to occur, the formerly pro-European country of Austria — following the trend of the United Kingdom — would be the next domino to fall and abandon the EU, leading Europe ultimately to abandon its ambition of transnational solidarity.

Hofer’s near success in the May election and his current lead in the polls for the upcoming re-election can be attributed to the recent drastic rise in xenophobia stemming from the European migrant crisis that began in 2015. In 2015 in Austria alone, the country’s population of only 8.6 million people was forced to respond to the drastic influx of 90,000 refugees seeking asylum (one per cent of the population). On top of the mass immigration, roughly ten times that number of people transited the country at the peak of the crisis en route to Germany and Scandinavia — a number radically higher per capita than that experienced by any of the other EU member states.

This massive influx of migrants and Austria’s inability to close its borders instilled fear across fellow EU countries. This fear subsequently grew when the EU struggled unsuccessfully for a year to resolve the growing problem. Brussels’s inability to handle the crisis — leaving the surrounding European countries helpless — highlighted the inefficiency of the EU in the minds of its citizens. That combined with a slew of terrorist attacks, sowed seeds of doubt in the hearts of many European countries about the merits of the greater EU experiment. The anger and fear that followed the EU’s failure led many citizens to look for alternate, unconventional solutions for their governments and political leadership. For example, ‘In recent months, the resurgence of nationalism across the EU has become so powerful that parties from the political mainstream have been forced to tilt sharply to the right as well, often retreating from their core principles of tolerance, openness and diversity.’ Hofer’s success is emblematic of the shift to the right in European countries.

Nevertheless, it should be noted that the narrowness of the margin in the first Austrian election and Hofer’s current lead in the polls in the upcoming rerun do not necessarily signify a turn to the far right as a new ideological stance for Austria. Rather, Austria’s election merely represents a broader global trend towards nationalism, stemming from a desire for a reassurance of security. This trend can be seen vividly across many governments in Europe. For example, in Austria’s neighbours — Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia — as well as in Scandinavia, one can see that the governments in power are sceptical of the EU and support ideas of national interest over those of European unity. For example: ‘In Slovakia, Estonia, Bulgaria and Poland [officials] have said they want to take only Christian asylum seekers or none at all.’

Regardless of the global trend towards nationalism, however, the shift toward Euro-scepticism is momentous, as Austria has heretofore always been very pro-EU. However, as control has further centralised in Brussels, member states have become more cognisant that their sovereignty and control over Europe’s future direction is far more limited than they had realised. For example, the conclusion of the EU-Canada trade deal (CETA) without the involvement of national parliaments sparked outrage among member states’ governments, which complained of a lack of democracy within the EU. France angrily called for a ‘Frexit’ referendum in a dire attempt to reclaim sovereignty, and Hofer suggested that his party would make a similar move in Austria if Brussels did not demonstrate greater respect for national governments.

Another trend within Austrian politics, which has increased as a result of the botched election, is the definitive divide between the population at a socio-economic and urban-rural level. As the EU Observer noted, ‘the electorate is divided between educated elites and the working class, the city and the countryside, liberal EU idealists and nationalist EU critics. It is a divide that stretches beyond Austria’s borders to be replicated in many European societies.’ In this schism, the lower middle class, the less educated, and young people generally side with Hofer, as they fear the loss of national identity and lifestyle, not only to the incoming immigrants, but also to the EU itself. The repeat of the presidential election run-off will likely intensify this divide in Austrian society as a whole.

Ultimately, however, the election of either run-off candidate as the new Austrian president will mark a significant moment in history, as never before in Austria’s post-World War II political environment has a fringe candidate held this position. The success of the two non-mainstream candidates demonstrates Austrian society’s frustration with the country’s two traditional parties and their inability to create and enact efficient solutions to the problems arising in today’s globalised world. Nevertheless, the election of Hofer would be highly symbolic — the first time in the history of the EU that a member of a far-Right Party would be elected as a member state’s President. Hofer’s election would signal to other countries the failure of the EU and its aspirational goals and, in the words of The Telegraph, ‘could prove a catalyst for other populist and anti-establishment movements currently surging across Europe, to grab power.’

Regardless of the election’s outcome, the willingness of half of the Austrian electorate to vote for an anti-EU candidate with extremist views symbolises intra-EU tensions, mistrust of Brussels, and a lack of confidence in the whole EU experiment. Clearly, EU politicians need to do a better job explaining to regular voters why the EU is important and articulating the benefits it brings.   In the words of Georg Pazderski, one of the leaders of Germany’s AfD, ‘Perception is reality …What people feel is what they perceive as reality. And at the moment, our citizens feel unwell, insecure.’ Ultimately, ‘Austrian and European politics are poised to make a worrying shift to the right, regardless of who wins what election.’

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