Europe is watching closely as Austrians go to the polls in a presidential election run-off on Sunday. There is concern that the election could bring about the first far-right head of state in the European Union. Freedom Party candidate Norbert Hofer was virtually unknown on the international stage, and for that matter, not very well known in Austria before the migrant crisis exploded. In the first round of the presidential election Hofer won with 35 percent of the vote.
The first round result rattled observers across Europe. It signaled the end of the two-party system that has dominated Austrian politics since the end of World War II and indicated the widespread discontent and frustration that Austrians have regarding their government’s handling of the migration crisis. Austria has taken in 90,000 migrants last year at a time when unemployment numbers were starting to rise. Although the government eventually clamped down on immigration and asylum seekers, it was not enough to curb the rise of the far-right.
Hofer’s opponent is Alexander van der Bellen, a former Green Party leader who is running as an independent. Polls suggest the contest between the two will be close. The results of the first round came as a shock to the ruling Social Democrats and their coalition partner, the People’s Party. This will mark the first time since 1951 the head of state will not come from either party. Both parties are struggling to recover but neither will be able to reassert their influence until either the next round of parliamentary elections in 2018 or in the event of snap elections before that.
Following the election results tomorrow, I will post more on the race and the aftermath.
How quickly is Europe approaching the breaking point? Concern is increasing across the continent about the refugee crisis currently facing many nations and the EU as a whole. If the flow of migrants into Europe is not scaled back soon, the EU could be faced with a scenario where border-free travel, which is guaranteed under the Schengen agreement, could end. The principle that Schengen is built around has been a foundation of the EU since its founding. The influx of refugees seeking to escape the horrors of the wars currently raging in the Middle East is taxing Europe and has many around the continent questioning the durability of border-free internal travel when the external borders of the EU are not secure. And as Schengen goes, so could the entire EU.
On Monday, EU interior ministers will be meeting in Amsterdam to discuss the possibility of suspending Schengen rules for a period of two years. Reinstating national border controls could help alleviate the burden that the crisis has placed on certain nations. Some European states have temporarily suspended Schengen in order to contend with the crisis better. On Saturday, Austria joined Denmark, Sweden, and Norway in restoring national border control measures. These four nations, along with Germany, are pushing to keep border controls in place for an extended period of time. Germany introduced similar measures on its border with Austria in September, but they are scheduled to expire in May.
A sizeable fraction of the continent’s frustration with the crisis is being aimed at Greece. Many EU politicians blame Greece for not effectively controlling the EU’s external border with Turkey. Austrian Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner has even threatened to temporarily suspend Greece’s membership in the Schengen zone if the country does not improve its control of the border. Nearly 37,000 refugees have arrived in Europe since 1 January. The overwhelming majority of these have arrived in Europe by way of the Eastern Mediterranean route and crossing from Turkey into Greece.
The EU’s response to the refugee crisis has not been either effective or unified. Monday in Amsterdam, interior ministers will either begin to take action and address the matter of the internal border issues, or, through inaction will pave the way for the possible unraveling of Schengen, as well as other pillars of the European Union.
Some European Union nations are beginning to impose border controls and checks in an effort to cope with the influx of immigrants from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Eritrea. Germany announced that It would place checks on its border with Austria. Shortly after, Austria, Slovakia and the Netherlands announced that they would also be tightening border controls. Hungary is also moving ahead with its own border controls by midnight. The Hungarian plan includes completing a fence along the border with Serbia and stricter measures for dealing with illegal immigrants going into effect.
The current situation stems from Germany welcoming the refugees with open arms and agreeing to accept a large number. Perhaps the decision was made as a way to get other EU nations to do more for the refugees. As time goes on, though, the apathetic responses of other EU members remain unchanged. So now Germany finds itself in an awkward and not entirely unfamiliar position. It can either come out of this situation appearing indecisive or as attempting to strong arm its EU neighbors into taking actions they really do not want to take.
This afternoon EU ministers are holding an emergency session in Brussels to try and work out a comprehensive, coordinated plan to deal with the influx of migrants. No concrete results have appeared yet. Central and Eastern European nations are balking at plans to accept fixed quotas of migrants.
As it faces its largest humanitarian crisis in decades, Europe has not yet come together in putting together a plan to contend with the waves of refugees and asylum seekers. The Schengen Agreement, signed in 1985, was designed to assure passport-free movement between EU nations. The recent moves to impose border controls are allowed, however, only for temporary time allotments and in extreme circumstances.
A permanent solution needs to be found soon. Otherwise, the future of a border-free Europe will be uncertain. Much like the Greece Debt Crisis, this latest challenge to the European Union seems to be doing little more than eroding the power of the EU.