The conservative ÖVP, led by 31 year old Sebastian Kurz, scored a clear victory in Austria’s legislative elections on Sunday, garnering 31.4 percent of the vote. The far-right FPÖ came second with 27.4 percent. The parties are expected to form a new coalition government in the weeks ahead, when Chancellor-elect Kurz will become Europe’s youngest leader.
That a far-right party should form part of a ruling coalition would normally sound loud alarm bells in Brussels. The outrage, had Marine Le Pen’s Front National or Germany’s AFD gained sufficient support to form part of the Merkel or Macron governments, would have been considerable.
But Austria is different. The Austrian electorate is traditionally more Conservative. Between 2000–2006, FPÖ already formed part of the coalition government and while its record in government wasn’t great, it did so without undermining the constitutional or liberal democratic order in Austria. This is while clearly identifying itself as an anti-establishment and anti-EU party.
So the FPÖ is, to some extent, seen as acceptable because it has already shown it can work within the EU’s political structures. Concurrently, the EU has also adapted to the more sceptical climate.
Today, Brussels more readily accepts a hard-left or hard-right party forming a ruling coalition dominated by a larger EPP (Conservative), PES (Socialist) or ALDE (Liberal) partner. It favours such a scenario over one where the fringe party forms a minority government, although it has recently shown, with the hard-left Syriza Party in Greece, that such parties can also become acceptable dialogue partners.
These two factors — that FPÖ can work with Brussels, and that Brussels will work with fringe parties—may go some way to explaining why the news of FPÖ’s success was greeted calmly by the EU on Monday morning.
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This is not to say that Brussels isn’t concerned by the levels of support achieved by such parties. As the latest data from the EU’s Eurobarometer Survey shows, the democratic legitimacy of the EU continues to suffer.
Voters that see the EU’s institutions as flawed and out-of-touch with their concerns voice this discontent by voting in national elections for parties that question the policies and authority of the EU. That has been UKIP in the UK, Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece, Cinque Stelle in Italy, PVV in the Netherlands, Front National in France and AFD in Germany, among many more.
FPÖ is the Austrian answer to that discontentment.
However, Brussels will demand an unwaveringly pro-EU stance from any party that sits within the new Austrian government. This means that FPÖ will have to renounce on its anti-EU rhetoric––as it did in 2000––and possibly also withdraw from the anti-EU ENF European Parliament political grouping where it currently sits with Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders’ nationalist parties.
Either that or the ÖVP will have to try to form another grand coalition and saddle up with the socialist SPÖ. If neither of those scenarios work out then ÖVP can still form a weaker minority government — until at least the end of the Austrian EU presidency in December 2018.
Regardless of what government is ultimately formed in Vienna, one important take-away from this result is that the brakes are firmly being put on the EU-optimism that followed Macron’s victory. EU Commission President Juncker’s recent power-grabbing State of the Union address, which already drew serious reservations from the Dutch and Danish prime ministers, will find more muted support in Austria now. And with a weakened Angela Merkel in Berlin and ÖVP Chancellor Kurz in charge in Vienna, Austria may be more responsive to Hungary and Poland, both of whom are in open conflict with Brussels.
Beyond immigration, criticism of the EU was an important theme in the election campaign and one that mirrors closely the politics of the Visegrád Group. This offers Austria the opportunity to play a mediating role between East and West in the EU––a role many thought the last red-blue Austrian government neglected.
Some have even gone as far as to suggest that Austria could join the Visegrád Group, but it is clear that Sebastian Kurz’s rhetoric on immigration and asylum seekers is much softer than that of his Visegrád neighbours — another factor that must calm Brussels’ nerves.
The Austrian election result should be viewed as yet another stark warning to Brussels. While many recently seized upon the first upturn in positive sentiments towards the EU in almost a decade, they should not fall into the trap of thinking that people are rediscovering their love of the European project. A slow but steady improvement in the EU’s economic climate since the 2008 crash was bound to lead to better poll results, but this doesn’t mean that the EU has addressed the underlying reasons for its unpopularity, as the result of the British referendum revealed so devastatingly.