Global Watch

Nationalism and self-preservation on the march in Europe

Sebastian Kurz,
Sebastian Kurz.jpg

It happened with Donald Trump in the USA, and now in Austria. Globally there are indications of a major political shift, especially in European politics.

Last week’s much talked about Austrian election is significant for two reasons:

The emergence of the center-right Austrian People’s Party(ÖVP) as the strongest party, with 31.6% of the vote; and the right (some calling it the ‘far right’) Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), as third strongest with 26% of the vote, showed that conservative (right) politics, continuous to gain ground and Europe’s political balance is tilting to the right.

To underscore this point, the Alternative for Germany Party, labeled by most as a far-right, polled 3 % of the vote in the recent German elections — putting a ‘far-right’ party in the German Parliament for the first time in more than half a century.

If the leader of the Austrian People’s Party, Sebastian Kurz, succeeds establishing a ruling coalition, he will at age of 31 become Austria and the world’s youngest ever elected head of state, joining the growing squad of youthful politicians in high office.  

Frenetic reaction

Should Kurz dump the second biggest party, the center-left Social Democratic Party, with 26, 9% of the vote, and grand coalition partner of many years, for the FPO, as most expect, it would, according to the more disappointed observers “constitute a seismic shift in Austrian politics with severe implications for the rest of Europe”, particularly the European Union (EU).

The conservative’s good showing was not unexpected but still a surprise and the reaction of much of the media, as was the case with the Trump victory in the USA, one of serious disappointment, gloomy-, and pessimistic forecasts.  

Internationally, the mainstream media’s apparent obsession with the move to the right – often ill-disguised disgust and disapproval, at times bordering on paranoia and hysteria – is somewhat perplexing. In a typical media response, The Express in Britain reported the Austrian results under the headline: ”Eurosceptic Sebastian Kurz declares VICTORY in nightmare for EU”.

Kurz, Austria’s foreign minister since age 27, in a post-election interview said: "It is clear to me that Austria must play an important role within the European Union and when we are pro-European, we should not only stand for Europe but be an especially active participant in Europe."

Being critical of the EU on some issues, particularly the migration and refuge problem and Germany’s Angela Merkel’s push for a stronger centralized role for the EU, does not make Kurz an EU rejectionist. There is no indication or suggestion, for example, that Austria has any intentions to leave the EU in a Brexit-type move. 

In one of his first moves after his election victory, Kurz went to Brussels to placate the EU hierarchy, telling them it will be “business as normal.”

What is true, the new government in Vienna, whatever form it takes, probably will add its voice to others in central and southern Europe in approaching Europe’s problems from a more sharply nationalistic angle.

A significant number of the EU's smaller members’ demands for the EU’s integration process to slows down, have largely been ignored. Some, like Poland and Hungary, have been openly confrontational with the EU.  If Kurz decides to support resistance to the ambitions of Brussels, European politics is likely to become somewhat less predictable.

The reaction, or lack thereof, from EU headquarters in Brussels to Austria’s big move right, and particularly the possibility of the FPO becoming a ruling coalition partner, is illuminating. It stands in stark contrast to the firm albeit controversial decision taken seventeen years ago.

In 2000 the FPO won an unprecedented 27% of the vote in the general election and joined the People’s Party in government. Governments in Europe and beyond, reacted with shock and outrage. The EU imposed diplomatic sanctions. The European parliament said Austria should be suspended if the new government breached European principles. The New York Times urged the Clinton administration to do likewise. In the event, the coalition survived its pariah status uneasily for five years until it fell apart in 2005.

Now, nearly two decades later with many EU member states experiencing a shift to the right, a similar reaction it is extremely unlikely – a possible backlash could be costly for an EU already straining under Brexit.

Self-preservation

Politics is about power and, in a democracy it means securing the support of the majority. To accomplish this, every competing party must convince most voters it offers more than others do.  

In Austria the conservatives did exactly that. They played on the fear of "Überfremdung" – fear that uncontrolled migration and sacrificing more authority to the EU will endanger Austria’s cultural and national identity. It promised preventing it from happening.

Europe’s migration and refugee question is a complicated and emotional issue, with no easy and permanent answers. But, it is disingenuous to discard conservatives’ policy of the as xenophobic and intolerant. The Austrian electorate obviously preferred that policy offered by the conservatives.

Over the last couple of years Austria has accommodated about 100 000 refugees. It equals not only more than 1% of its population, but also represents one of the highest proportions on the continent. The strain the Austrian economy, social welfare system and society itself, caused resentment and unease.

As foreign minister Kurz sensed the Austrian public’s growing apprehension and designed a plan to limit the influx. His success convinced him that promises of strict control of foreigners will win him votes.

His election promise that he will further curb immigration, limit benefit payments to refugees and block newcomers from receiving social assistance until they have lived in the country for five years, paid off.

Detractors and critics will do well to stop their objections and rather focus on formulating an alternative policy they believe is less punitive and more tolerant and try to sell it to the majority of Austrians.  

At the time of writing the people of Austria was still waiting for the announcement of how their new government will look like. But, they have given a clear indication that they prefer less external interference and are weary of the many foreigners in their country, and are not concerned by the criticism against their choice.

The Austrian election result brought the message home – nationalism and the pursuit of self-preservation is on the march in Europe.  

by Garth Cilliers

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