The most significant news of the recent Austrian elections was the dramatic rightward and populist shift in Austrian politics. The Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), a center-right party with far-right views on immigration, secured 31.5 percent of the vote, making it the largest party in the Austrian Parliament. The Social Democratic Party won exactly the same number of seats, but lost the chancellorship. Furthermore, it will likely lose its coalition partner status to the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), a blatantly far-right populist, nationalist and xenophobic party.
President of European Horizons at Johns Hopkins and Austrian citizen Alexandra Marksteiner said, “The ÖVP and the FPÖ are different from, say, Front Nacional. Neither the ÖVP nor the FPÖ advocate an exit from the European Union. An ÖVP-FPÖ coalition would put another dent in the liberal international order, but it won’t threaten the existence of the European Union.”
Marksteiner rightly differentiated between the FPÖ’s soft Euroscepticism and the hard Euroscepticism of France’s Front Nacional, the no longer necessary U.K. Independence Party and other European parties that desire a break with Brussels. The FPÖ hopes to return some EU’s areas of authority to the member states’ national governments. However, how an ÖVP-FPÖ coalition will affect the EU’s ability to govern remains to be seen.
The Visegrád Group is an alliance of four soft Eurosceptic EU states: Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary. It is unlikely that Austria will join this group, but it may adopt policies similar to its individual members. In the last couple years, two of these states, Hungary and Poland, have become decidedly illiberal, challenging the most fundamental values and principles of the EU.
Although Hungary is still a democracy, since 2010, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has gradually removed democratic checks on his power and limited the independence of the media, the judiciary and the central bank in Hungary. Critics have claimed that due to the institutional advantages granted to Orbán’s Fidesz party, the 2012 constitution has effectively made Hungary a one-party state.
This past summer, Poland’s parliament, controlled by the right-wing populist Law and Justice Party (PiS), ironically attempted to thwart both rule of law and justice with three reforms that would have eliminated the independence of the Polish judiciary. Fortunately, President Andrzej Duda vetoed the first two laws but signed the third, which gives the justice minister the right to select and dismiss judges in lower courts.
Moreover, the de facto leader of Poland, head of the PiS Jarosław Kaczyński, has encouraged the party to clamp down on the media and wants Poland to revert back to its conservative, Catholic roots and eschew multiculturalism. As populists, both ÖVP Leader Sebastian Kurz and FPÖ Chairman Heinz-Christian Strache have advocated for more direct democracy in Austria.
This means holding more referendums, which is bad news for the EU. Lately, member states like Hungary and the Netherlands have used referendums to eradicate any favorable perceptions moderate Europeans have toward asylum and to block the EU trade and association agreement with Ukraine, respectively.
These populist plebiscites, in addition to the internal political mischief of illiberal member states, could ultimately undermine the EU’s authority and credibility. Although democratic in one state, they allow a small minority of member states to nullify decisions to which most EU countries have agreed. Hungary and Poland’s internal actions allow right-wing, populist political leaders like Orbán and Kaczyński to validate their own claims about the EU’s ineffectiveness and democratic deficiency.
The one positive note to take from these elections, from an American perspective, is a potential improvement in transatlantic relations. U.S.-EU relations were particularly tense last summer with the U.S. threatening to restrict steel imports from many European countries and the EU, in turn, countering that it would restrict the import of and place retaliatory tariffs on all manner of American goods, including orange juice and whiskey.
Austria’s rightward shift means that, once it takes over the European Council presidency in the second half of 2018, it might pursue a brand of foreign policy that is more in sync with that of the current U.S. administration.
The EU’s misfortune is thus quite fortunate for the U.S. in a pragmatic sense. From my perspective, however, the spread of hate and fear benefits only opportunistic politicians. As Austria, the rest of the EU and even the U.S. may have to learn the hard way, strength and prosperity are a product of consensus, not division.
Rory McClain is a senior history major from Silver Spring, Md.