On Sunday, Italy and Austria went to the polls to decide whether to maintain the established order or to join Britain and the United States in rejecting the status quo. While the results were split, both elections confirm that the populist uprising in Europe isn’t going away anytime soon.
Austria Narrowly Rejects Far-Right Candidate
First, let’s consider the situation in Austria. The vote was a re-do of the presidential election earlier this year, in which the far-right party’s candidate, Norbert Hofer, lost by a narrow margin. There was some evidence of irregularities in the mail-in ballots back in May, so on Sunday Austrians returned to the polls to decide who would fill the largely ceremonial position of president.
Much to the relief of the European establishment and many Austrians, Hofer lost to Alexander Van der Bellen of Austria’s Green Party. Hofer ran on campaign promises to limit the number of refugees the country accepts, promises that were widely seen as anti-immigrant. He also made comments about exiting the European Union, or changing it into a purely economic union. His win could have been the next nail in the coffin of the EU following Great Britain’s vote to exit it in July.
Many will celebrate Hofer’s defeat, not only in Austria but also on the continent. Commentators and EU officials will interpret it as a sign that the wave of populism sweeping the world is perhaps just a blip, not a trend. They hope Brexit and Trump were aberrations, and that the good people of Europe still believe in the dream of the EU and all the progressive principles it entails.
But pause for a moment and consider this: 46 percent of Austrians voted for the far-right candidate. Hofer lost, but elections ought not be interpreted as black and white, win or lose. Forty-six percent is not a fringe movement or a random impulse. The weathervane is still pointing in the same direction.
Two Europes Vie for Dominance
The vote expresses extreme dissatisfaction with the state of affairs in Europe, where unelected EU officials in Brussels hand down economic and immigration policies and political correctness is always a few steps ahead of America, where it has already reached a fevered pitch.
It’s also an expression of Europe’s split personality. Much like in the United States, there is an increasing sense that there are two Europes. Last month in the Netherlands, the lower house of the Dutch parliament approved a ban on veils that conceal the face if worn in government buildings, schools, and hospitals. It passed by a large majority, but will still require the upper house to pass it before it is signed into law.
Meanwhile, Dutch politician Geert Wilders is on trial for anti-Muslim “hate speech.” Although the two stances aren’t mutually exclusive, it belies a confusion of national identity and direction.
Europe is in a battle to decide which of its two faces will emerge to preside over the twenty-first century: the progressive schema that’s been ascendant since the end of the Second World War or the nationalist impulses that lie deep within Europe’s memory.
Meanwhile, in Italy
This ongoing fight for Europe’s future continued in Italy on Sunday. Italians voted on a referendum to reform parliament backed by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. Renzi stated that if his signature reforms were rejected he would take it as a no-confidence vote and step down. Sunday evening, he suffered a heavy defeat and resigned from his position as prime minister.
His exit from the national stage is expected to leave an opening for the far-right party, the 5 Star Movement, to gain power. The 5 Star Movement, the second most popular party after Renzi’s Democratic Party, has called for a referendum on membership in the Eurozone to be able to “implement independent fiscal and monetary policies,” although they don’t reject the EU as a whole. The group is also anti-globalization and would usher in harsher immigration laws.
While Italy’s referendum might seem relatively dry compared to something like Austria’s presidential election, it’s perhaps more foreboding, adding Italy to the growing list of EU countries rejecting the political establishment.
Consider that the push to reject the status quo in Italy has ousted a man who was trying to do just that. He wanted to shake up the parliamentary system to make the government work more smoothly—and quickly—so Italy would no longer be competing with France for the title of worst bureaucratic nightmare in Europe.
But in our contemporary environment of “burn it all down” politics, that’s not good enough. For an economically insecure public that’s fed up with political correctness and progressive dogma, the impulse is to reject first and ask questions later, to boot anything that smacks of the establishment. Moderate reforms won’t do. The people want a revolution, of sorts.
This doesn’t bode well for the future of Europe, where centrist reformers making real inroads into the morass of politics may increasingly be unwelcomed and insufficient.
The struggle for the future of Europe will continue as several more countries face similar elections in the next year, including Germany and France. While the outcomes of the Austrian and Italian polls were mixed, there’s no denying that the flame of populism continues to burn in Europe just as it does in America. The question that remains is whether it will go out, and how much it will consume before it does.