A Scandal in Austria and the Far Right’s Fortunes in Europe
Earlier this month, a video circulated online of the chairman of the far-right populist Freedom Party of Austria (F.P.O.), Heinz-Christian Strache, drinking and talking at a holiday villa in Ibiza with a young woman whom he believed to be the niece of the Russian oligarch Igor Makarov. Strache, in a tight-fitting low-necked gray T-shirt, slouches against the back of a sofa, an array of vodka bottles before him, as the woman tells him that she would like to invest a quarter of a billion euros in Austria as capital “that can’t be deposited at a bank.” After insisting that any transactions must be “in conformance with the law”—and, at one point, remarking on the woman’s dirty toenails and wondering if she’s really as rich as she says she is—Strache appears to agree to a proposition. The woman would buy a fifty-per-cent stake in Kronen Zeitung, an influential Austrian newspaper read by upwards of forty per cent of the country, which Strache thought would help the F.P.O. in the upcoming election. He also envisioned adding a public TV broadcaster to her portfolio—a state capture of the media landscape that makes so many leaders these days, including, reportedly, Donald Trump, salivate. In return, Strache suggests, the woman could set up a construction company in Austria that would be rewarded with public contracts.
The publication of the video—which was shot in 2017 and published, on May 17th, by the German weekly Der Spiegel and the daily Suddeutsche Zeitung—resulted in Strache’s resignation as Vice-Chancellor and the swift collapse of the Austrian government, a coalition of the F.P.O., and the center-right Austrian People’s Party, led by Sebastian Kurz. Two years ago, at the age of thirty-one, Kurz became the youngest head of state in the world. New elections are now scheduled for September, and investigations into who staged the sting operation are ongoing. There was also speculation that the release of the video was timed to discredit far-right nationalist and populist parties that announced that they were expecting a “historic” sweep in the European parliamentary elections. Voters in all twenty-eight E.U. member states turned out last week and over the weekend. But if the election was framed as a test of these parties’ strength, the results may be somewhat illusory.
In France, for example, President Emmanuel Macron called the potential victory of his main opponent, Marine Le Pen, and her National Rally (formerly National Front), an “existential threat” to the E.U. Le Pen, in return, predicted that her victory and those of her kindred parties—in Italy, Poland, the U.K., and Hungary, among other places—would be an “historic feat.” Such either-or narratives, as might have been anticipated, proved cheap. Le Pen came in first on Sunday, and she picked up half a million more votes than she received in the 2014 European election. But she earned a slightly smaller proportion of the over-all vote, and her party will actually lose two seats in the Parliament. In his young party’s second-ever election, Macron, facing exceptionally low approval ratings at home and besieged by a popular uprising that has changed the course of his Presidency, came in behind Le Pen by less than a point. His La République En Marche! party will now enter the European Parliament for the first time, with a mandate to further his “European Renaissance” agenda. Because the Party will be centrally positioned, and therefore able to make alliances with the left and the right, it may end up having more power than anyone anticipated.
The Brexit Party won in the United Kingdom, but it did so in an election that wasn’t supposed to happen, and for a governmental body that the country was no longer supposed to be a part of. Right-wing parties also won in Poland and Hungary, but these were hardly insurgent campaigns—nationalists are a part of the political establishment in both countries. But the continued erosion of the stronghold of traditional parties was evident on the left as well. In France, the Green Party doubled its number of seats, thanks, in part, to young voters. In Germany, the Green Party, which entered the national Parliament for the first time in the nineteen-eighties, came in second and doubled its results from five years ago; one in three first-time voters in Germany chose the Greens. Over all, the nationalist block in the European Parliament fell short of winning a third of the seats, as many leaders (and Steve Bannon) claimed they might. Instead, they will hold about fifty-eight seats out of seven hundred and fifty-one. Across Europe, liberals and greens gained more seats than the right-wing populists and nationalists did; Pro-European parties won two-thirds of them.
In a survey taken ahead of the vote, more than half of the polled citizens of member countries thought that the European Union will fall apart in the next twenty years. Two thirds of the respondents also said that they have positive feelings toward the E.U.—the highest percentage since 1983. That discrepancy represents the gap between an emotional idea of Europe and its current incarnation, in far-off agencies that issue regulations; in my reporting, in many different countries in Europe, the most frequent remark I’ve heard is some version of the idea that Europeans want an E.U., just not as it exists now. French voters want protections from lower-wage Eastern European laborers and price competition on agricultural exports; Germans want a fairer debt-repayment scheme; Poland’s Law and Justice Party likes the symbolism of being part of Europe but otherwise wants to be left alone, while leftists there want the E.U. to reinforce liberal principles; Italy’s xenophobic far-right Deputy Prime Minister, Matteo Salvini, of the League, wants to change the deficit rules. But there are matters on which there is more of a consensus: in the face of a rising China and a receding America, Europeans want defense and security, and also substantive plans for addressing climate change; in fact, nearly half of the voters in Germany said that environmental protection was their top concern. If European leaders could at last offer coherent responses to these concerns, it would go a long way in boosting their legitimacy.
For the past two years in Austria, Kurz, youthful and brash, was held up by conservatives as someone to emulate. “Up until last week, many people on the center right in Europe saw Kurz as a kind of hero,” Jan-Werner Müller, a professor of politics at Princeton, told me. This idea extended beyond Europe: Trump’s Ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, made clear, after arriving in Berlin last spring, that he was more interested in meeting the “rock star” leader of the small country next door than the vastly more powerful Chancellor of the country in which he was being paid to behave diplomatically. Kurz brought the F.P.O., a party founded in 1956, and whose first chairmen were former S.S. officers, into his government promising to tame them. “If you ask people today, what does the center right stand for, I think most people could not really give you an answer,” Müller told me. “And this vacuum of ideas has made it easier for the center right, in a very opportunistic way, to mainstream the far right as a kind of desperate measure.”
On Sunday, Kurz was one of few center-right leaders in Western Europe to claim success for his party in the chaotic scramble of the European elections—at 34.6 per cent, Kurz presided over a nearly eight-point increase from five years ago, the kind of results that mainstream conservative parties in Germany and France are desperate for. Then, on Monday, the Austrian Parliament declared no confidence in Kurz’s leadership and voted to oust him, making him the first Austrian Chancellor since the Second World War to be removed by his peers. His opponents on the left claimed, perhaps opportunistically, that he had shown an unwillingness to engage in dialogue and “contempt for parliament and Austrian democracy.”
With his government’s downfall, the prevailing sentiment in the liberal European press is that Kurz got what was coming to him. But gauging the public reaction will be more complex. Müller pointed out that a similar thing happened the last time that the F.P.O. entered a governing coalition, in 2000—it collapsed two years later due to infighting. The maneuverings of the Chancellor at the time, Wolfgang Schüssel, who allowed the F.P.O. to split and seemingly self-destruct, were considered a feat. But bringing the F.P.O. into the government, Müller argued, had legitimized its far-right positions. The Party was eventually able to rebuild its image and recruit new leadership, before it won twenty-six per cent of the vote, in 2017. “The fact remains that no right-wing populist has yet come to power anywhere in Western Europe or North America without the collaboration of established conservative elites,” Müller wrote, last week, in the London Review of Books. Indeed, over the weekend, Heinz-Christian Strache won a seat in the European Parliament.