The Austrian elections on 15th October produced an undeniable shift to the right in the country’s politics. Due to a combination of arithmetic and political reasons it appears that the next government will be a coalition of the conservative Austrian People͛s Party (ÖVP) and the populist Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ). Both have adopted a tough stance on migration.
These developments are a dent in the optimistic narrative in Brussels where the defeat of Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and the victory of Emmanuel Macron in France were taken as a sign that the tide of Eurosceptic populism was beginning to wane. Recent months have seen public vocalisations of plans for greater integration with both Macron and Jean-Claude Junker presenting ideas for changes to the functioning of the European Commission and the Eurozone. Now, the result in Austria is expected to move the country closer to Eastern Europe, particularly Poland and Hungary, which are opposed to some of these potential reforms, especially the idea of a multi-speed Europe. It would appear then, that this new right-wing coalition could help stifle much needed reform in the European Union. However, it is much too early to jump to this alarmist conclusion.
We have been here before. The FPÖ and ÖVP formed a coalition after the former won an election in 1999. This sparked temporary diplomatic sanctions against the Vienna government by the EU. Yet in 2003 the Treaty of Nice was agreed to by all member states, including Austria still led by the ÖVP and FPÖ.
In light of this, we can say that the new constellation in central-eastern Europe does not rule out major change in the EU. We could, however, ask whether the involvement of political groupings sometimes described as populist will mean a reform that undermines the institutions and values of the union. I would contend the opposite, that accepting some of the arguments flowing from these circles will strengthen Brussels’ hand in its perpetual and escalating conflict with Eurosceptics. The fundamental criticism levelled at the EU from these parties is that it is unresponsive to the wills of European citizens, that it continues to reaffirm its goal of ever closer union when the roots of a common European identity are still shallow compared to the strength of the foundations of nationhood. Solving the real problem of the democratic deficit would take the wind out of other, frequently exaggerated criticisms.
There is little point in relentlessly pushing for ever closer union if it is going to generate fierce opposition to real improvements of the existing system
Attacks on the European Commission in particular have frequently taken a dramatic form – it has been said to be doing the bidding of the liberal elite in keeping curved cucumbers and bent bananas off the shelves of European supermarkets. Whilst this sort of commentary is sometimes ridiculous, the Commission does indeed have an incredible amount of power as an unelected body to enforce the regulations of an organisation of democracies. Its sole right to initiate European legislation is perhaps the biggest problem – it is difficult to contest the direction the EU should be headed on a regular basis if only one institution is allowed to draft the laws that EU citizens and national governments must observe.
Signs of movement in this general direction are visible in Macron’s and Juncker’s ideas but it is important that this issue is tackled correctly. Right wing parties in Europe are legitimised in their appeals for a greater emphasis on national sovereignty, the Eurobarometer surveys have shown that a plurality of EU citizens prioritise their national identity over their sense of ‘Europeanness’ and a sizeable minority report not feeling European at all. Allowing MEPs as well as national parliaments and governments to initiate European legislation would weaken the accusations that a European establishment is determining the development of the EU and could allow for a real debate about how the citizens of the EU envisage the future of the continent. There is little point in relentlessly pushing for ever closer union if it is going to generate fierce opposition to real improvements of the existing system or spread the belief among European publics that continued EU membership will mean a definite surrender of national independence.
The results of the Austrian election follow the pattern of the rise of the European right, a trend that is not receding as some leaders would like to believe. Europe is thus faced with a choice – it can dismiss these voices or it can tackle their concerns head on. The latter option is difficult but it is the only way to move the European project away from the abyss of failure.