Regardless of whether it joins the next Austrian government, the far-right Freedom Party was the victor in the country’s election last Sunday. Like Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, the anti-immigration party has built the theater in which the mainstream parties are now performing.
Sebastian Kurz — the 31-year-old leader of the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) — is set to lead a right-leaning coalition that includes the far-right Freedom Party. The last time Austria’s populists won more than a quarter of the vote and played kingmaker, in 1999, the other EU members isolated Vienna through bilateral sanctions. But what shocked EU leaders then is barely causing a stir now.
In part, this is simply because the inclusion of the far right is not as shocking as it was 20 years ago. Since then, governments across Europe — from Hungary to Italy — have turned rightward and a host of mainstream political leaders have adopted anti-immigrant rhetoric in an effort to keep the political fringes at bay.
Exclusion is no longer an option. The EU is too busy trying to figure out how to respond to the most blatant challenges to its rule of law and other key values — from self-proclaimed “illiberal” governments in Budapest and Warsaw — to consider imposing sanctions on newer arrivals.
When it comes to Austria, the EU will be watching whether campaign slogans turn into action, particularly when it comes to migration policy.
Kurz has said he supports holding more Brexit-style referendums.
Sebastian Kurz’s campaign rhetoric was barely distinguishable from that of far-right FPÖ leader Hans-Christian Strache, according to Ruth Wodak, a veteran discourse analyst of the far right. In his speeches and statements, the young ÖVP leader referred only to “migrants” and chose not to mention those fleeing persecution and deserving protection under asylum law.
During Kurz’s time as foreign minister, the number of people granted asylum in Austria fell by more than half, and the government enforced an upper limit on how many it would take, regardless of need and the burden-sharing agreement between the EU member countries.
If Austria’s asylum policy worsens to the point where it no longer meets EU standards for rights protection — as has happened in Hungary — and the country erects new permanent border controls, the EU’s principles and common policies will come under serious strain.
Many in Brussels also worry about Austria joining the ranks of Euroskeptic Poland and Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, over their shared opposition to EU-mandated burden-sharing on immigration and asylum. But there are limits to the potential Orbánization of Austria.
Austria has a high level of respect for the rule of law that dates back to the Hapsburg monarchy; its government is unlikely to defy EU law as Budapest and Warsaw have done. The country is conservative, but there is no deep seam of nationalism based on historical grievances to mine.
Neither does Vienna particularly want to join the Visegrád club because it does not share the Central and Eastern European group’s key interests. Austria is a net contributor to the EU budget, while the members of the Visegrád are recipients; its public is opposed to nuclear power while theirs are more keen; the country has long been neutral, while they are NATO members — and Austria doesn’t like the free movement of workers that is vital to the economies of the Visegrád countries.
But there are other reasons for the rest of the EU to worry. Like many populists, the FPÖ’s Strache is an advocate of the idea of direct democracy as a tool to impose the “will of the people.” Kurz, too, has said he supports holding more Brexit-style referendums.
The next Austrian government may be unlikely to go the way of Hungary — where the government used a referendum in 2016 to spend an unprecedented amount of public money on a campaign against migration that caused public support for asylum to drop by half. But a new spate of referendums in Austria could slow down EU decision-making and block progress in Brussels.
The big test for Austria’s new governing coalition could come during the country’s turn at the presidency of the European Council.
That’s what happened in the Netherlands, where a new law allowed a referendum to block the EU trade and association agreement with Ukraine.
Austrians have long exhibited some of the highest levels of opposition to enlargement in the EU. If xenophobes are given a platform to whip up anti-EU and anti-Muslim sentiment, the situation is likely to worsen.
Fortunately, the next government’s approach to the EU is likely to be cautious, owing to the soft skepticism that characterizes public and elite opinion. But the political class will want to keep its place in the core of Europe — and close to Germany.
In these respects, Austria is more likely to go the way of Slovakia than Hungary: no real enthusiasm for Emmanuel Macron’s ambitious plan for greater EU integration, but a desire to stay among the first tier of EU and, especially, eurozone members.
The big test for Austria’s new governing coalition could come during the country’s turn at the presidency of the European Council in the second half of 2018. If there is a Franco-German push to make another attempt at a sustainable migration policy for the EU — and maybe even a new burden-sharing scheme on asylum — then Austria’s likely new premier will have to choose between his anti-migration stance and pro-European ambitions.
Heather Grabbe is director of the Open Society European Policy Institute in Brussels.