Another day, another dent in Germany’s frail governing coalition. With her back against the wall, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has reversed her open-door migrant policy in order to rescue her coalition from dissolving permanently. She reached the compromise with Interior Minister Horst Seehofer after he threatened to resign, a move that would have likely splintered Merkel’s coalition for good. The agreement Merkel hammered out at the EU summit in Brussels last week did not satisfy Seehofer. He continued to press ahead with his threat to resign, pushing Merkel to the brink. When all is said and done, it could be that Seehofer may have overplayed his hand. Whether or not that is the case, it is clear that his political rebellion exposed the increasingly vulnerable chancellor to future attacks. There is blood in the water in Berlin.
The compromise agreed to by Seehofer and Merkel revolves around opening transit centers on the German-Austrian border. Migrants seeking to enter Germany will be held there until a decision is reached on their asylum status. If they are ultimately denied entry, they will be deported to the EU nation they originally registered in.
Before the compromise deal becomes reality, Merkel has to convince the Social Democrats (SPD) to support it. This will not be easy. SPD chairwoman Andrea Nahles did welcome the deal, though she also stated that her party members have a number of questions on the details. At the peak of the European Migrant Crisis in 2015-16, SPD rejected the notion of transit centers on the border. Granted, the domestic political situation is strikingly different now, however, this time around there could still be some significant resistance to the idea of transit centers from SPD members.
In short, Merkel is not out of the woods yet. Her precarious balancing act atop a highwire has worked so far. Yet the longer it goes on, the chances that a single misstep will bring the coalition, and Merkel down, increase dramatically with each passing day.
*Author’s Note: Very brief update this evening, I’ll follow up with a more detailed update tomorrow.*
Gas is flowing once more from the Baumgarten pipeline hub in Eastern Austria following a major explosion that killed one worker and injured eighteen. Gas Connect Austria said the site had been shut down while firefighters worked to bring the blaze under control. Gas deliveries to parts of southern Austria have been affected. The pipeline that runs through Baumgarten brings gas from Russia to Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Hungary, and other European nations including Germany. Italy is so dependent upon the gas being piped through Baumgarten that it anticipated the worst and declared a state of emergency shortly after the explosion. At current, it seems that the move was premature. A major disruption in gas supply doesn’t seem likely right now.
Nevertheless, the Baumgarten explosion highlights how fragile the European natural gas pipeline network is, and how susceptible it is to a major disruption, man made or otherwise.
The shadow of the European Migrant Crisis continues to loom over the continent with its influence being felt in social circles, economic matters, and most prevalently, in domestic politics. The waves of refugees from Syria and North Africa, coupled with the rash of terror attacks in recent years is reshaping the political landscape of Europe. These events are the catalyst that has brought a number of right wing political parties in from the wilderness and placed them in political mainstreams of many European nations. Electorates from Warsaw to Central Europe are shifting right. Even Germany has not been immune from the shift. In last month’s election, Alternative for Germany, a right wing party, made significant gains, a precursor that a new political reality could very well be on the horizon for the central and eastern areas of the continent.
Now it’s Austria’s turn. On Sunday the conservative People’s Party staged a political upset in snap parliamentary elections. The party’s leader, 31 year old current foreign minister Sebastian Kurz, is expected to be chosen by Austria’s president to form a new government once the results are finalized. The People’s Party captured 31.4 percent of the votes and emerges from the elections as the strongest political force in Austria. The new government, when formed, will be a coalition. But it will be a far different coalition than any that Austria has seen in recent years. Conservatives will not be the junior partners this time around. The main partner of the People’s Party in a new coalition will likely be a populist party with similar political leanings like the Freedom Party. Back in May the Freedom Party almost captured the presidency. The results of that election allowed Brussels to breathe a sigh of relief and hope that Europe’s amour fou with populist, right wing politics was over once and for all.
Last month’s German elections, and today’s results in Austria show beyond a shadow of a doubt the relationship between European electorates and right wing political parties is anything but a fling. Not surprisingly, immigration was the main issue in Austria. While governments dally on effectively dealing with immigration problems, and the European Union sits on its hands hoping the immigration issue will disappear at some point soon, European voters are putting these leaders on notice. What happened in Austria today was no aberration and it will serve the EU well to keep that in mind.
Come Sunday, Jean-Claude Juncker, Donald Tusk and company will likely be in need of a heavyweight infusion of Xanax to calm their jangled nerves. Italy is facing a critical political moment this weekend. As fate would have it, Italy is not alone. Austria is in a similar situation. The primary difference between the two EU members is that Italian voters will be going to the polls to decide on a constitutional referendum while Austrians will be selecting a new president. The results of both events hold potentially far-reaching consequences for the European Union. We discussed Italy yesterday, so this update will be, in large part, a summary of the upcoming election in Austria.
Sunday is a second chance for the Freedom Party and its candidate Norbert Hofer to capture the presidency. He was defeated in a second round runoff by Alexander Van der Bellen, former head of the Green Party, by a razor thin margin. Hofer and the Freedom Party challenged the results and because absentee ballots had been mishandled, Austria’s Constitutional Court decided that the entire election had to be held again. And so it will be on Sunday.
The significance of this election cannot be undervalued. The president of Austria is mainly a ceremonial post lacking the responsibility of running the day-to-day operations of the government. Yet many Europeans remain very concerned about what a Hofer victory will bring about though. To them Hofer is a far-right wing, anti-establishment candidate cast in the same mold as Donald Trump. Should he win the election on Sunday, it will further solidify the ascendancy of Trump-like politicians across the continent. But a victory by Van der Bellen will not be a sign that the populist, anti-establishment wave has reached its high-water mark. At the most, a Van der Bellen win gives the EU and politicians around Europe time to fortify their positions in preparation for the next electoral swing towards populist candidates.
One year ago, the prospect of a right wing candidate becoming president of a Western European nation-state was nearly impossible to fathom. Now, following Brexit and Donald Trump’s victory, the prospect is becoming quite plausible in places like France and Austria. The world is watching and waiting to see how this weekend’s drama plays out. And right now in Brussels, the EU leadership has to be wondering incessantly about what Europe will look like come Monday morning.
The votes have been tallied and Alexander Van der Bellen appears to have narrowly defeated Freedom Party candidate Norbert Hofer in Austria’s presidential election. On Sunday, the race was declared ‘too close to call’and polls gave Hofer a slight lead. Today, once the postal votes were counted and factored in, Van der Bellen has come out on top. 12 percent of Austria’s 6.4 million voters cast their ballots as postal votes, so the number of votes that remained to be counted was significant.
The presidency in Austria is largely a ceremonial post, however, this election came to symbolize Austrians disaffection with the government’s handling of the migrant crisis. Austrian society is deeply divided and Van der Bellen will be tasked with helping to reunify the nation.
The election also served to highlight the growing trends of nationalism in European nations amid the migrant crisis. The inability of the EU to effectively deal with the crisis has infused many far-right political parties and enabled them to reach new political heights. While the Austrian presidential election is now over, the far-right will continue to be a force in Austrian politics. The same goes for the rest of Europe.
It’s obvious that the United States is not the only place where many voters are disenfranchised with establishment politicians and their inability to solve issues. Europeans are of a similar mind and that is becoming evident now.