March to the Far-Right: Austria Edition

On October 15th, 2017, the far-right notched another victory with the success of the conservative Austrian People’s Party (OVP) and the far-right Freedom Party (FPO). In an election dominated by anti-immigrant sentiment in response to the 2015 Syrian refugee crisis, Austrian voters saw their traditional conservative party lunge to the far-right. Matching rhetoric with the traditionally far-right FPO, Sebastian Kurz (the newly-appointed leader of the OVP), supported a burqa ban, argued for limiting the number of admitted migrants, and called for a closed border. In fact, Kurz has moved his party so far to the right on immigration that the leader of the far-right party has accused him of stealing FPO’s policies.

On election night, Austrian voters made their decision. Kurz and the OVP earned 31% of the vote, lacking a majority. Thus, Kurz is expected to become the Chancellor of Austria and the Head of Government (to see how the Austrian government operates, click here). Further, he is likely to partner with the far-right FPO (who won 26% of the vote) to form a governing coalition, making Austria the only western European country to put a far-right party in a leadership position. The increased influence of the far-right in Austrian politics spells danger not just for Austrian religious and cultural minorities, but for the continuity of the European Union.

Over the past two years, European citizens in a number of countries have indirectly voted on the viability of a continued union between European nations. In 2016, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. Earlier this year, France’s far-right candidate advanced to the second round of voting in the Presidential election. Recently, Hungary and Poland’s Eurosceptic governments have consolidated power. In September, Germany’s own far-right party surprised most pundits, placing third behind Germany’s two main political parties. There has been a marked increase in the strength of European far-right parties, especially in nations where far-right parties had traditionally been rejected by voters. However, Austria’s election marks the far-right’s first legitimate chance of governing. This poses a grave threat to the European Union, especially considering Austria’s Kurz has tied his party to that of the far-right. The nationalistic agenda of the OVP is simply incompatible with the multilateral tradition of the European Union.

Chiefly, Kurz’s views on the border prompt concern among EU advocates like France’s Emmanuel Macron or Germany’s Angela Merkel. In the acquis communautaire of the European Union, freedom of movement was enumerated as one of the four economic freedoms. In the European Union, a citizen of one European country can travel between European countries without a visa: no checkpoints on long car rides, no wait at customs after a flight. However, Kurz’s desire to close the border poses a threat to this common agreement, especially considering the political strain from migrants and asylum-seekers from the Middle East and North Africa. Further, Kurz and his far-right companions have expressed a desire to severely limit the number of immigrants and asylees admitted into the alpine nation. However, the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union and EU Charter of Fundamental Rights clearly outline the minimum standards any EU nation must uphold in regards to migrant burden-sharing. If Kurz increases restrictions and closes borders, these common European standards will come under serious strain, potentially putting Austria on a crash course with EU officials.

This is not the first time the far-right has had the chance to gain power in the post-World War II era. In 1999, the far-right FPO shocked the world, winning 27% of the popular vote. After coalition negotiations, the conservative OVP and FPO formed a coalition. Fearing this government could turn discriminatory towards minorities and foreigners in Austria, fourteen EU countries placed sanctions on Austria. Although not legal under EU law, these sanctions reflected a ‘moral consensus.’ Other EU countries would not tolerate the rhetoric of far-right political groups. Fast-forward to today, there is no such outrage; the ‘moral consensus’ has eroded as populism, nationalism, and xenophobia have become increasingly attractive. With the recent success of far-right parties in France, Germany, and the Netherlands, the western Europe of 2017 lacks the moral authority to condemn far-right parties the same way they could in 1999. In the last twenty years, the far-right has grown stronger, posing a threat to the tradition of cooperation within the European Union.

The EU has faced its share of crises in the past. From integrating a number of former Eastern bloc countries to the Eurozone crisis, EU officials and respective national governments have constantly had to justify the existence of a supranational European organization to frustrated citizens. The Syrian refugee crisis has indelibly left its mark on the politics of western European countries and ultimately the European Union. Fear and xenophobia dominate the political landscape, changing people’s definition of what it means to be European. Nationalism has won hearts and minds, threatening the global order of multilateralism and cooperation that has guided the global order since the end of World War II. Now more than ever, supporters of our global world order need Pro-EU leaders like Chancellor Merkel and President Macron to remind us of the dividends cooperation can yield. Their rhetoric and actions stand between a politically globalized world and 198 national islands, each cut off from each other. Austria might be small, and its election might seem relatively inconsequential, but it is a sign of things to come.