Events surrounding Catalonia’s referendum on independence, as well as Germany’s election have overshadowed another crucial vote taking place this fall –Austria’s parliamentary election. Last year’s presidential election, however dramatic, was far less important, since the president is largely a figurehead. On October 15, Austrians will elect a new government, paving the way for a stronger eurosceptic turn in public decision-making.
Before discussing party programmes, it is important to recognize that Austria is already one of the EU’s most eurosceptic member states. Since the 1990s, the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) has run on an anti-immigration, anti-EU platform, gaining significant traction in successive elections, and even participating in government on several occasions. As a result, the conservative Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), and the Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ) –the two traditional governing parties– have already adopted tougher stances on the EU.
For example, when hundreds of thousands of migrants were crossing the Aegean Sea into Greece, and onward towards Northern Europe in 2015 and 2016, Austria’s SPÖ-ÖVP government unilaterally convened a meeting with its Balkan neighbours with the aim of establishing tighter border controls. The resulting measures drastically reduced the number of migrants leaving Greece, and ran counter to the EU’s model of collective decision-making on foreign affairs and borders. The move also proved quite popular with Austrians, boosting the government’s standing in the polls.
As such, the most important aspect of Austria’s upcoming election for eurosceptics to remember is that, regardless of who wins the most seats in the election, it is safe to say that the next government will be equally as hawkish on borders, and at least as likely to circumvent the EU when it deems necessary.
This said, some party platforms contain more eurosceptic elements than others.
As mentioned, the FPÖ is currently the most eurosceptic party in Austria. Its programme for the upcoming election places an emphasis on cooperation between independent, self-determining peoples across Europe, rather than increased centralization of powers to Brussels. It also strongly defends Austria’s neutrality –a notion at odds with the EU’s increasing coordination of foreign and defence policy. This said, the FPÖ has not officially called for a referendum on EU membership, the common currency, or on deeper integration.
Following the FPÖ on the spectrum of euroscepticism is the conservative ÖVP –the current government’s junior coalition partner. Its leader, Sebastian Kurz, was pivotal in the closure of the Balkan route, and in the recent talks regarding the closure of Austria’s border with Italy. The party, which is currently leading in most election polls, includes numerous references to stronger border protection in its programme. Electioneering or not, it is clear that an ÖVP-led government would be all too willing to act unilaterally (i.e. without permission from Brussels) when it sees fit.
The last Austrian political party eurosceptics should keep an eye on is called My Vote Counts! (G!LT). Founded in August 2016, this upstart political movement resembles some of the smaller Dutch pro-direct democracy parties contesting the Netherlands’ last election. G!LT’s platform includes giving citizens a direct say on parliamentary decision-making, through crowdsourced legislation and the emergence of leaders in each political topic. Though G!LT is not necessarily eurosceptic in nature, any movement in favour of increased citizen say is fundamentally incompatible with European integration, which has almost always occurred in spite of citizens’ wishes, rather than because of them.
The Austrian election will probably not produce a shock result. However, it is clear that Austria has become emboldened vis-à-vis Brussels in recent years. It is already one of the continent’s most eurosceptic countries, and will likely continue to be over the next four years.