October 16, 2017 / 11:52 AM / a year ago

Breakingviews - Europe poorly placed for Austria’s rightward drift

Freedom Party (FPOe) top candidate Heinz-Christian Strache (L) and People's Party (OeVP) top candidate Sebastian Kurz prepare for a TV discussion in Vienna, Austria, October 12, 2017. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

LONDON (Reuters Breakingviews) - Europe is poorly placed to deal with Austria’s rightward drift. The far-right Freedom Party scored well in the country’s election and may enter government. Though it has been in power before, the challenges facing Europe are potentially more serious now.

The possible return of the Freedom Party (FPO) to government shouldn’t be a big surprise. Its latest results are similar to the election in 1999, after which it formed a coalition with the People’s Party, which received the most votes in Sunday’s poll under its 31-year-old leader Sebastian Kurz. Austria’s unemployment rate is expected to fall to 5.4 percent this year but is still more than a percentage point higher than in 1999, according to the International Monetary Fund. The refugee crisis has also stoked nationalist sentiment.

The past provides limited comfort. The FPO’s previous experience of government was unsuccessful; it lost over half its support at the next election in 2002. Yet, as in some other European countries, far-right ideas have become more mainstream. Kurz’s success owes much to his aping of the FPO’s tough line on immigration.

Meanwhile, the challenges facing Europe are bigger than in 1999. Though the euro zone economy is growing, the region has yet to prove that it can cope with a downturn. French President Emmanuel Macron’s push for greater integration might find little support in a more right-wing Austria. The FPO is historically Eurosceptic, and while the People’s Party supports the European Union, Kurz has also called for clawing back powers from Brussels.

Then there’s immigration. Austria, which served as a gateway for refugees from Syria and Libya, saw faster growth in applications from asylum seekers between 2013 and 2015 than Germany, according to think-tank Bruegel. The risk is that a government propped up by the FPO would refuse to accept more refugees if the flow were to pick up. That could exacerbate tensions with other EU nations like Italy and Greece.

The broader lesson of the Austrian election is that even a recovering economy and falling unemployment have not dimmed the appeal of the far right. As the European Central Bank dials back its monetary stimulus, centrifugal forces remain a threat to European unity.


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