Exactly a week ago yesterday, Alexander Van der Bellen, Austria’s independent presidential candidate backed by the Green party, narrowly beat Norbert Hofer, the presidential hopeful from Austria’s far-right nationalist Freedom Party. The elections were decided by just 31,000 votes out of 4.64 million in Van der Bellen’s favor, making it one of the narrowest political victories in Europe’s recent history. For Austria, this was the first time since World War II that a centrist politician was not in the running. Van der Bellen’s win, while off-putting to many used to centrist coalitions of center-left (SPÖ) and center-right (ÖVP), nevertheless saw Europeans let out a collective sigh of relief: Euroskeptic nationalists were thwarted once again by those espousing pro-EU sentiments, and rationality prevailed over fear and anxiety. But, despite Hofer’s defeat, now is not the time for Europeanists to get complacent. The challenge is far from met.
The nationalists’ rise in Austria has paralleled the upward trend in support for populist politicians across Europe’s core: France, Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands, and now even Germany (where the anti-immigrant Alternative für Deutschland is polling at 13 percent) have taken a sharp turn to the Right. Rather than being seen as an anomaly, Austria’s close-call presidential elections should be taken as a warning to centrist politicians across the continent that there won’t be a return to business as usual anytime soon. The rise of the European far-right is not some kind of flash in the pan; it is emerging as a permanent fixture on the new European political landscape.
The ascent of Hofer’s Freedom Party at the polls has been long in the making in Austria. The FPÖ first made headway in parliamentary elections in 1999 when it shocked Europe by winning 27 percent of the popular vote. After a brief decline in 2002, when it won 10 percent, and in 2006, when it won 11 percent, the party recovered under the current leader Heinz-Christian Strache following the sudden death of its former leader and key ideologue, Jörg Haider in 2008. By 2013, the party was back and stronger than ever: one in five Austrians voted for the far-right that year. In 2016, it is polling at one out of three. More so than Strache’s reinvigorated leadership, the key event that gave the euroskeptic, anti-immigrant, ultra-nationalist Freedom Party a boost was the financial crisis of 2007-09. But this boost had little to do with a downturn in Austria’s economy.
Austria’s economy fared reasonably well through the crisis, especially in comparison to many other European countries: from 2007 to 2009, Austria’s per capita gross domestic product declined by only 3 percent, compared to 8 percent in Italy and a whopping 21 percent in Latvia; unemployment remained steady; and unlike the harder-hit countries such as Greece and Ireland, Austria did not take on more debt. Indeed, Austria looked like an island of relative stability in its neighborhood. Nevertheless, the immediate post-crisis period brought with it a marked rise in support for the far-right. Indeed, this pattern has been reflected across the EU as a whole: the EU slowly recovered from the economic crisis after 2009 with GDP growth stabilizing at just over one percent by 2014, but the far right’s strength across the continent has only grown.
The financial crisis propelled the populist nationalists forward not because it reversed economic growth and immiserated people. Rather, this first real crisis of the Eurozone exposed political contradictions and cultural cracks papered over the European project. Research by one of the authors on how the economic crisis affected Europeans’ sense of belonging shows that Europeans did not band together under some common European identity, which the EU’s founders had hoped might have emerged by now. On the contrary, Europeans responded by turning inwards. Nationalism—affinity for one’s national identity—prevailed over a nebulous sense of common purpose and Europeanism. When prospects for the future appear uncertain—even if the real economy is not wracked by outright catastrophe—Europe’s aspirational universalisms start to sound hollow.
Far-right parties have flourished by capitalizing on generalized public anxieties—be it over immigration, terrorist attacks, or economic woes—and have sought convenient, easy scapegoats. Migrants, refugees, and Muslims in particular have been in the parties’ crosshairs, though their leaders have tried to portray themselves more as pragmatists and less as xenophobes and racists. The smartest of the nationalists, the FPÖ’s Strache among them, have made public overtures to Jewish leaders in Europe, as well as to politicians in Israel, in an attempt to whitewash their parties’ all-too-recent flirtations with neo-Nazi anti-Semitic rhetoric.
But an even more tempting, and easier, target has been the supranational bureaucracy of the EU itself—the temple where universal values are routinely transformed into the policies that trouble voters most in these uncertain times. Thus the EU today finds itself under siege most pointedly over its open-border policies towards migrants and refugees. Most European economies, facing stark demographic challenges due to low birthrates, could benefit from an influx of new labor without seeing a marked decrease in wages. But integrating the new arrivals, who are not well-equipped for participating in a modern 21st century European economy even if they have had a university education back home, is not cost-free in the immediate term. And the potential future economic benefits are beside the point to most European citizens who fear the changes—imagined or real—that refugees may bring to their communities.
As late as this February, the majority of pro-European opinion across the continent was aghast at the Austrian government for colluding with EU members Slovenia and Croatia, as well as EU-aspirants Serbia and Macedonia, to shut down the so-called Western Balkan migrant route. Austria had accepted 90,000 refugees the previous year, and its ruling centrist coalition was feeling the heat at the polls. Brussels bien pensants were deaf to the Austrian government’s plight. “These measures are a provocation,” an EU official was quoted as saying. “We are against nationalist solutions,” a German source vented.
Nationalist solutions are indeed not the answer, but it has been clear for some time that it is the well-meaning centrist leaders across Europe that are the ones hastening their broad acceptance. As Carl Bildt wrote in the Washington Post on Friday, “everything is not lost if the political leaders of Europe could take some time off from the crisis management that increasingly dominates their days and spell out the case for an open society, an open world and a better future.” This is true as far as it goes, but unfortunately it does not go nearly as far as Mr. Bildt appears to think. It is the job of political leaders to channel their constituencies’ anxieties toward productive policies. That does not mean solely repeating incantations about liberal values, as if by doing so the nationalist demons will somehow be exorcised from the European body politic. The open society is a worthy and moral goal, but it must be fought for politically, not merely rhetorically. Dismissing voter concerns on the grounds of them being illiberal is a recipe for disaster.
Austria today is a canary in the coal mine of the political reality that all Western countries will have to deal with sooner rather than later: a public that no longer trusts its mainstream political leaders to represent them will continue to look to the edges of the political spectrum for satisfaction. We in the United States, a country where Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump might loosely be mapped on to Van der Bellen and Hofer, should be the least surprised.