The Austrian threat to EU unity
18 Sep 2017|

The divisions in the EU are likely to be exacerbated by the outcome of the Austrian election in October. The probable result will add to current tensions over illegal immigrants and provide more encouragement to Austrian nativists and nationalists. Moreover, the election could provide a further opportunity for Russia to sow discord in Europe.

A shift to the right in Austria would add to the disharmony generated by Poland and Hungary. After a change of leadership, the conservative Austrian People’s Party (OVP) assumed a dominant position in pre-election polling—primarily at the expense of the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPO)—and it has maintained its poll lead since the election was called. The elevation of its young leader, Sebastian Kurz, to chancellor would deepen the EU’s woes.

Kurz, currently foreign minister, has successfully encroached on the FPO vote by shifting his party to the right. In particular, he’s playing to fears of unrestrained illegal immigration, promoting the need for the complete integration of Muslims, and promising to stop migration from Africa and the Middle East. The domestic symbolism of a troop deployment to the Italian border should be seen in this context.

Even prior to the Trump administration, Austria stood out in Europe in terms of its alignment. The 2016 US-Global Leadership report, What people worldwide think of US leadership, revealed that in 2015 only 34% of Austrians approved of the ‘performance of the leadership of the United States’, while 60% disapproved. This is unlikely to have improved under the Trump administration.

A strong strain of Euroscepticism exists in Austria, and ‘anti-Western ideologies are deeply rooted in the political system’. While the FPO is the most overtly pro-Russian party and is an anti-sanctions political voice, anti-Americanism is ‘visible across all parties in Austria’. There’s widespread ‘sympathy for Russia, particularly on security issues’. Pro-Kremlin, anti-sanctions sentiment in Austria can be found ‘far into the political centre’.

While it’s a regular participant in UN peacekeeping missions and NATO-led actions, Austria has often defied US and EU wishes and pursued an independent approach to relations with Russia. In June 2014, it was the first EU member state to welcome Vladimir Putin for an official visit following Russia’s annexation of Crimea. More recently, Austria has been at the forefront of European criticism of the sanctions on Russia, and vociferous against the imposition of new ones.

With a modest population of 8.6 million in an area of 84,000 square kilometres, contemporary Austria faces a particular challenge in large-scale uncontrolled illegal migration. Austrians took 180,000 refugees after the Hungarian Uprising in 1956, a further 162,000 in 1968 following the end of the Prague Spring, and then 150,000 Poles following the 1981–82 suppression of the Solidarity movement. After that, 86,500 refugees arrived in Austria between 1992 and 1995 from the Bosnian War. Contemporary anxiety over uncontrolled migration through the Western Balkans route and across the Mediterranean is therefore understandable.

In the past, Austria has been held up as a model for European nations for its approach to Muslim migrants. As a result of the Muslim refugees and guest workers who came to Austria over the years and then remained, the status of Muslims and the organisations that represent them has constantly evolved. In 2015, the key 1912 law relating to Muslim relations with the Austrian state was revised under pressure from right-wing groups, and greater constraints were imposed on Islam than on any other religion in Austria.

The prospect of a coalition government involving the FPO is especially disturbing. The FPO leader, Norbert Hofer, gained 47% of the popular vote in Austria’s last presidential election, and the FPO still retains a solid 23% support among Austrian voters. The party considers ‘Russia to be the most important partner for Europe and Austria’.

There’s extensive evidence of close and active cooperation between Russia and the FPO. A study by Political Capital has documented the growing influence of Russia on Austrian right-wing parties, particularly the FPO. The study details an ‘unprecedented’ and pervasive web of strategic connections and relationships with Russia across the Austrian right-wing political spectrum. The FPO and Putin’s United Russia Party have an ‘official contract and agreement on future cooperation on a vast array of topics’.

The Visegrad countries—Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia—will find in an Austrian OVP and FPO coalition government a strong ally in their push to have the EU migrant quota system reviewed and abolished. In line with opinion in the Visegrad countries, and the Balkan states, Eurobarometer found that support for a two-speed EU—favoured by Junker, Merkel and Macron—was falling in Austria. The growing split on significant policy issues and matters of sovereignty between Eastern Europe and the rest is only going to widen.

The surge of optimism that accompanied Macron’s election in some pro-EU quarters may turn out to be premature. Under a coalition government that includes the FPO, Austria may become a convenient vehicle for progressing Russia’s objectives of undermining US leadership in Europe, diminishing European unity and challenging the neoliberal order. At a minimum, the Austrian election could bring an increase in abrasive relations in the EU and see Austria align with other members seeking to weaken the centralised power of Brussels.