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The defeats of right-wing populists in the Austrian presidential election in late 2016 and Dutch parliamentary elections in early 2017 have been reassuring for supporters of the European project. Over the past 15 years, Euroskepticism and anti-immigrant sentiment have attracted considerable support across Europe. Yet their electoral performance has so far been less than impressive. In turn, such parties no longer seem to constitute an existential threat to the European Union. (In Foreign Affairs, Pierpaolo Barbieri recently wrote about a “reverse domino effect” after the relative defeat of Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party in the Netherlands.)
Moreover, upcoming French presidential and German parliamentary elections bode well for the EU. To be sure, the stakes in France are enormous: a victory by National Front leader Marine Le Pen in the second round of elections could mean nothing less than the end of European integration and the EU as we know them. Yet it seems unlikely that Le Pen would win the face-off. Lately, it has become conceivable that she won’t win even a relative majority in the first round of the elections; the outspokenly pro-EU Emmanuel Macron has quickly become the race’s front-runner and likely victor in both rounds of the election.
In Germany, too, the overall picture for this fall’s Bundestag elections is encouraging. It is true that Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right party alliance of the Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU) and Christian Social Union in Bavaria (CSU) has seen its poll numbers fall in recent weeks. To be sure, Merkel’s disappearance from European and world politics would, in view of her rich diplomatic experience and high international respect, be a clear loss for the West. However, the main reason for the CDU/CSU’s loss of support is the unexpected rise in popularity of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) under its new leader, Martin Schulz. Schulz, the former president of the European Parliament, is a committed EU integrationist. And unlike his SPD predecessor Gerhard Schröder, he fully supports the U.S.-EU alliance.
THE RADICAL RIGHT'S RISE
Although these and other developments are encouraging, another challenge looms. In 2016, Austrian pro-EU politician Alexander Van der Bellen became the first state head from a green party elected by popular vote in an EU member state. In that race, he secured almost 54 percent of the vote and defeated his far-right rival, Norbert Hofer of the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ). For many observers, Hofer came too close to victory for comfort. Public opinion polls in the summer and autumn of 2016 consistently indicated that Hofer would prevail over Van der Bellen in the second round of the election by two or three percentage points.
This was the first time since Austria regained full sovereignty in 1955 that no candidate from either of the two major parties, the Social Democrats (SPÖ) and the conservative Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), made it to the second round of a presidential election. The spectacular failure reflected a steep decline in trust in their mainstream parties, which have mostly ruled together in grand coalition governments since the end of World War II. In turn, the door is now open for the far-right FPÖ to enter Austria’s federal government and even the chancellery after the parliamentary elections currently scheduled for October 2018. And given Austria’s long tradition of snap elections, all this could happen as soon as this year.
To be sure, the FPÖ’s entry into government would not be totally novel. Austria’s Social Democrats formed coalition governments with the FPÖ from 1983 to 1987. Yet the FPÖ was different then: under the leadership of Norbert Steger, it was a liberal, center-right party. And that made it a tolerable coalition partner. A more controversial coalition was struck between the ÖVP and the FPÖ in 2000, with the conservative ÖVP leader Wolfgang Schüssel as chancellor and a more radically right-wing and populist FPÖ (and later its equally rightist split-off, the Alliance for the Future of Austria, or BZÖ) as the junior partner.
The formation of this coalition led to an unprecedented six-month diplomatic boycott of Austria on the part of other EU member states, which was an international disaster for the country. The FPÖ soon imploded as its poor performance in government was punished by the electorate. Support for the party dropped from almost 27 percent of the vote in 1999 to ten percent in the 2002 parliamentary elections.
Unlike when the FPÖ entered the government in 1983 and 2000, the party today is not merely one of the more popular, it is the most popular party in Austria. According to the most recent public opinion poll, the FPÖ—against the background of growing distrust toward the political establishment and the refugee crisis—would secure 31 percent of the vote in the next parliamentary election if it were held today. This standing could still change if, for instance, Austria’s conservatives decide to propose their young and popular current foreign minister, Sebastian Kurz, as candidate for chancellor. (In Austria, chancellor is usually a leader of the largest party in the lower house of the Parliament, is appointed by the president, and is more powerful than the president.) But even if the ÖVP or the SPÖ eventually wins the parliamentary elections, the FPÖ will probably have a strong showing and thus have a good chance of entering government.
Under its current leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, the FPÖ has developed a troubling new foreign policy orientation. Since 2008–09, the party has made a surprisingly undisguised turn toward Russian President Vladimir Putin. The FPÖ’s leaders have openly praised Moscow’s policies, for example justifying the Russian invasion of Georgia in August 2008 or defending the adoption of the anti-LGBT law in Russia, and have systematically called for the EU to lift the sanctions it imposed on Russia for the Putin administration’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine.
The FPÖ’s leaders have openly praised Moscow’s policies and called for the EU to lift the sanctions it imposed on Russia.
Over the past ten years, meanwhile, the FPÖ has built a network of individual contacts with various Russian politicians. Members have met with Boris Gromov, former governor of the Moscow region; Yuri Luzhkov, who was mayor of Moscow; and Ramzan Kadyrov, who is the head of Chechnya, in which human rights violations became a disturbing and widespread trend. FPÖ members have also established links with the Russian embassy in Austria and the Austrian branch of Rossotrudnichestvo (Russian Cooperation), the largest and best-funded Kremlin foreign aid agency for influencing Europe. In April 2016, two FPÖ members of Parliament took part in an economic forum organized in Russia-annexed Crimea by Sergey Aksyonov, the region’s new illegal prime minister, who faces EU sanctions. Finally, in December 2016, the FPÖ signed an official coordination and cooperation agreement with Putin’s United Russia party. The treaty announces that the FPÖ and the Russian Federation’s ruling party will “support the development of economic, trade, and investment cooperation between the two countries.”
WILL THE EU'S ILLIBERAL BLOC GROW?
Should the FPÖ indeed win the next parliamentary elections, Strache—as leader of the largest parliamentary party—may be asked by President Van der Bellen to form a new government. The FPÖ, to be sure, would have no chance of forming a cabinet on its own. Rather, it would have to form a coalition with either the SPÖ or the ÖVP. Strache recently conceded that he would accept the post of vice chancellor in a cabinet chaired by a Social or Conservative Democrat. Were the SPÖ to accept such a proposal, it would break with its 30-year policy against partnering with the far right. (To some extent, this already happened, though, when it formed a regional SPÖ/FPÖ governing coalition in the federal state of Burgenland in 2015.)
An FPÖ government would put Vienna on a collision course with the EU’s liberal democratic and human rights agenda. Austria could quickly start challenging European unity on the anti-Russian sanctions. The FPÖ may also attempt to facilitate money laundering for Russia’s bureaucrats and oligarchs (which, to be sure, is already happening in Austria). Moreover, the inclusion of the far right in the Austrian government would lead to a marked strengthening of the illiberal bloc in central Europe. The enlargement of this illiberal and largely pro-Russian bloc will make the EU even more vulnerable to Moscow’s subversive influence, weaken the liberal democratic consensus in the EU, and make Europe a less unified actor in the global arena.