The fact that Norbert Hofer of the Austrian Freedom Party came within a whisker of winning the country’s presidency speaks volumes. Indeed, it is a sign of times that a Neo-Nazi candidate winning “only” forty-six percent of the vote is considered a success for the democratic order. The sad reality is that the election of Alexander van der Bellen for Austrian president is merely a respite from the onslaught of forces of destruction and division that have engulfed much of Europe and the Western world in general. A welcome respite, to be sure, but a respite nevertheless. The shit has not yet stopped hitting the fan.
The Most Interesting van der Bellen In The World (source)
That van der Bellen defeated Hofer twice and with a larger margin on the second go is a silver lining and perhaps strengthens the rationale for a second Brexit referendum. But one should not count on the far-right tide ebbing across Europe. Not with the Dutch, French and German elections still in play and with their own Neo-Nazis well positioned to make substantial gains and sow further discord and hatred. This, of course, was made possible (not solely but in substantial part) by several critical failures of both the European project as well as of the underlying concept of post-war liberal democratic order.
Values and achievements (social, political and otherwise) were entrusted to a generation of decision-makers which have seen nothing but progress in their life-time. As such they’ve taken the foundations of a post-WWII order for granted and have often-times played petty politics at the expense of the very values and achievements they were meant to uphold. David Cameron and Mateo Renzi are only the last two cases in point.
The now-ex British and Italian PMs have sought to strengthen their own political position by promising to address a grievance, legitimate or otherwise, of a part of their electorate and/or political power-base. The problem is both men thought the result was a foregone conclusion. Having handed the nativist, anti-European forces a stage and a megaphone, both men are now out of a job while their countries are engulfed in political and economic turmoil.
The EU and its integration was always operating on borrowed time. Big moves first, deal with the details later. Which worked right up to the point where leaders with a large perspective were being replaced with leaders with large egos. The former knew what was at stake and acted accordingly, while the latter are prone to realizing what the real game is only after they’re run out of office courtesy of their petty politics.
It may well be that the election of Donald Trump and normalisation of hate it has unleashed served as a wake-up call for many Europeans. This, at least, seems to be the case in Austria, although pengovsky would be remiss not to note the fact that – according to exit polls – Hofer won 85% of the blue-collar vote. But one should no be lulled into a false sense of security, thinking that things will take care of themselves from now on. They never have.
The Dutch go to polls on March 15th. A month later, they are followed by the French a month later and the Germans in Autumn.
There’s also Czech and Norwegian parliamentary elections in the EU/EEA zone as well as Albanian and Serbian on the outskirts of the union increasing the shambolic factor by an additional order of magnitude (the Czechs are particularly suspect in that department).
And then there’s March 2017 by which Theresa May has promised to invoke Article 50, although that is increasingly looking like a dubious promise. But let us not forget that the UK has local elections scheduled for May 2017 where the result will inevitably be interpreted in relation to the Brexit referendum result. Which could very well lead to yet another irresponsible decision by Number 10 to enter a political and legal minefield without having a backup plan (and with the original plan sucking donkey balls to begin with). Because Brexit means Brexit. Whatever the fuck that means
From a European perspective not all of these will go according to plan. Obviously, the German and French elections carry the most weight. But any of the above can amplify or de-amplify another.
Again, take the simultaneous Austrian and Italian votes. Although different in the actual subject, both were seen as a vote on Europe. But the can of whoop-ass the Italian voters opened on PM Renzi was quickly muted by the victory of Alexander van der Bellen on the other side of the Brenner Pass. Had Hofer won in Austria the media and the pundits would have surely been full of “Voters in Austria and Italy reject Europe, Markets in Turmoil” and European capitals would be full of panicked officials and their knee-jerk reactions.
So the question is, what to do in the meantime. Obviously, not a lot can be done. But one answer seems to be to provide an optimistic alternative to the onslaught of hatred and bigotry. Moderates should stop borrowing the narrative of the far right in the hope of chipping away their voters. In this they’re only normalizing hate and allowing their potential-but-on-the-fence voters to clear their conscience and vote for the extremists.
There should also be a more concerted and faster-paced effort on the part of the EU to assert itself. Today the union is a handy scape-goat for nearly every failed or unpopular domestic policy. This needs to change at least temporarily and the European institutions need to take an active part in this endeavour.
The ever-longer Russian shadow is awakening the ghosts of cold war past. The nativism of Farage and Trump is unleashing hate many parts of Europe have experienced fairly recently in various forms. And perhaps lessons of Brexit will be harsh enough:. The EU of today is so interwoven with political and economic framework of member states that it is virtually impossible to extricate an individual member state from the union. If the UK with its many exceptions is finding it tremendously hard to do just imagine how hard would it be for France or The Netherlands.
If there is one thing that stands out as a sine qua non for a political force in these uncertain times, it is the necessity of a story. Moderates need a story. Europe needs a story. Question is can a story be put together in three months. The Austrian example seems to suggest it can.
Maybe this way a respite can be transformed into something more permanent.