Austrian shift: on coalition government in Europe

Austria’s new coalition government of the conservative People’s Party and the extreme right Freedom Party is a sobering reminder of the persistent danger of the populist upsurge across Europe. The deeply eurosceptic and anti-immigrant Freedom Party registered its best performance in nearly two decades in the October general election, polling about 26% of the vote. Such a showing may in effect have ruled out a repeat of the outgoing coalition between the Social Democrats, which came second, and the conservatives led by the new Chancellor, Sebastian Kurz. Moreover, reflecting a continent-wide erosion of the political middle-ground, Mr. Kurz had openly embraced the Islamophobic and anti-immigrant stance of the far-right in an attempt to shore up popular support in the run-up to the polls. A further demonstration of the inroads the Freedom Party has made is the key ministerial portfolios it has bagged, besides the vital position of Vice-Chancellor that its leader Heinz-Christian Strache has assumed. The interior ministry, which holds the levers of immigration control, is in its hands, rattling nerves in Europe. A similar concern arises from the charge of defence and foreign affairs, in view of the Freedom Party’s strong affinities with far-right parties in Hungary and Poland and close ties with Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

When the Freedom Party under Jörg Haider went in for a power-sharing arrangement with the conservatives around the turn of the century, Austria was briefly ostracised by the European Union. But the political realities in 2017 are different. Following the populist tide that led Britain to vote to leave the EU last year, and the extreme right Alternative for Germany’s 13% vote to enter the Bundestag in September for the first time under the 1949 constitution, unsurprisingly Brussels has been more muted in its response to the emergence of the new coalition in Austria. It has sought to emphasise the pro-EU features in the governance agreement, even as the government’s explicit rejection of a referendum on Vienna’s EU membership comes as a relief. The supposedly pro-European stance of an overtly anti-immigrant platform is an obvious contradiction, as freedom of movement is one of the EU’s four founding principles. Similar issues intended to strike at the root of deeper integration are bound to surface when Austria assumes the six-monthly rotating presidency of the EU in the second half of 2018. The electoral consolidation of the far-right in different member states will necessarily impede the process of further integration. The priority for Europe’s leaders therefore ought to be to win greater legitimacy for the project as it obtains now.

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Printable version | Oct 29, 2020 11:39:47 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/editorial/austrian-shift/article22179369.ece

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