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.