Europe on the brink – iPolitics.ca (subscription)
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Norbert Hofer of Austria's Freedom Party, FPOE, waves during an election party in Vienna, Austria. (AP Photo/Ronald Zak, filr)
BERLIN — Austria climbed to the top of an Alpine precipice this week, dangled one foot over the edge and pulled itself back, just in time. And millions of their fellow Europeans heaved a sigh of relief.
By the narrowest of margins — just 31,000 votes in a nation of 8.6 million — Austrians voted 50.3 per cent to elect Alexander Van der Bellen, a 72-year-old retired economics professor and former Green Party leader, as their president, defeating far-right candidate Norbert Hofer.
It was a close call for a country that has only recently come to terms with its Nazi past, and yet another wakeup call for a Europe facing a populist surge on the extreme right.
The migrant crisis, growing unemployment, resentment of the bureaucratic centralization of the European Union — all were factors in the remarkable rise of the Freedom Party’s Hofer, an aeronautical engineer and father of four, part of a new generation of right-wing politicians who hide their xenophobic and nativist views behind a façade of modernism and a certain charm.
“Islam has no place in Austria,” Hofer has been quoted as saying. Hofer made his opposition to the increase in migrants quite clear, proudly noting that he now packs a 9 mm Glock pistol for protection. Last year, Austria accepted 90,000 migrants, triple the number of Syrian refugees who arrived in Canada, a country with four times Austria’s population. Integration is a real issue.
“I’m not a dangerous person,” Hofer said. “But those people who don’t appreciate our country, who go to war for the Islamic state or rape women, I say to those people. ‘This is not your home. You can’t stay in Austria.’”
This kind of talk has become all too common in Europe. In Germany, the far-right Alternative fuer Deutschland (AfD) has been rising in the polls, scoring 24 per cent in one recent state election. It insists that Islam “does not belong in Germany” and has proposed banning the construction of minarets.
This week, AfD Leader Frauke Petry made a show of holding reconciliation talks with Germany’s Central Council of Muslims and walking out after just one hour, after the Muslim group refused to apologize for calling it “a party from the Third Reich.”
Austria is not a major European power, but the result of this week’s presidential election was still deeply unnerving. Despite a slowing economy, Austria is one of Europe’s wealthiest nations and retains a strong social safety net. This is not a place where the unemployed get tossed on the scrap heap — yet there’s a sense abroad that working people are getting the shaft, and resentment of newcomers is strong.
Of course, the far right also has been doing well in Denmark, the Netherlands, Finland and Sweden, other exemplars of the nanny state. In the U.K., where the campaign for the June 23 referendum on Brexit is heating up, it would be unfair to characterize supporters of the “Leave” campaign as far-right — though the UK Independence Party comes close.
But there’s no doubt that the Leave campaign is making headway with the British public by arguing that the only way to stop the flood of unwanted migrants is to pull out of the EU.
What frightens most about this wave of ugly populism — in Europe and in the U.S., in the person of Donald Trump — are the common themes that unite these disparate political movements: fostering resentment of foreigners (migrants from Mexico, refugees from Syria) and blaming modern treaties — the EU, NAFTA or the Paris Climate Accord — for all of a nation’s woes.
And there’s a growing camaraderie among these leaders that can’t be ignored. When Hofer surged to victory with 36 per of the vote in the first round of Austria’s presidential elections in April, forcing this week’s runoff, Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s far-right National Front, tweeted out good wishes to her Austrian colleague, calling it “a magnificent result.”
Trump, who already has expressed admiration for Vladimir Putin, has predicted that “Britain will end up separating from the EU,” arguing that Brexit makes sense “especially in the light of the craziness of the migration chaos.” Perhaps he’s suggesting the Brits build a wall across the English Channel.
While the surge of migrants into Europe needs to be controlled (we Canadians are protected by our relative isolation at the top end of the North American continent), it can only be controlled through more international cooperation, not a retreat into the bunker of the nation-state.
And Europeans — Austrians especially — should remember what Europe was like before that boring, irritating EU bureaucracy came along: a continent periodically ripped apart by nationalism, racial hatred and war. Austria has been on that precipice before. It ended badly … for everybody.
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Europe on the brink – iPolitics.ca (subscription)