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Home Opinion The Eurosceptics' victory in Austria
Austria • Election • Euroscepticism

The Eurosceptics' victory in Austria

Markus Wagner - 14 October 2013

The three eurosceptic parties that made the headlines in Austria by securing 29.7% of the vote are supported more for their anti-establishment and anti-government stances than for their anti-EU views

On the face of it, the results of the Austrian elections on 29 September were a major success for Eurosceptic parties. In total, 29.7 per cent of Austrian voters endorsed parties with broadly Eurosceptic platforms (see Table 1 and here). The most prominent of these parties is the radical-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), which won 20.5 per cent of the vote, three more than in 2008 and its highest score since Jörg Haider’s years as party leader. A new Eurosceptic party, Team Stronach, stood for election for the first time and won 5.7 per cent of the vote. Finally, the FPÖ’s sibling and rival on the right, the Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ), narrowly missed entry into parliament, obtaining 3.5 per cent of the vote.

Austrian election results 2013

Source: Ministry of the Interior

These parties are openly sceptical of European integration and frequently underline the negative effects of EU membership. For instance, the FPÖ opposes further bailouts of Southern European countries and demands a UK-style budget rebate. The Team Stronach, a party founded by the eccentric millionaire businessman Frank Stronach, campaigned for the introduction of 17 ‘national’ Euro currencies instead of the current single Euro.

The parties’ opposition to Europe is not purely economic. The FPÖ uses the issue of Eastern enlargement to combine its anti-immigrant rhetoric and its Euroscepticism. It attacks the free movement of labour within the EU, particularly from poorer countries to the ‘East’. But the open borders are said to let in more than just cheap foreign workers and benefit seekers: they are also portrayed as providing easy access to international criminal gangs. Meanwhile, the Team Stronach, which does not take up anti-immigrant positions, focuses on what it sees as the anti-democratic and overly bureaucratic aspects of the EU.

Yet the apparent success of the Eurosceptic right in Austria is paradoxical. On the one hand, these parties have indeed done very well at the polls, and their positions on Europe are unambiguous and very much in opposition to the status quo. A significant number of Austrian parliamentarians will be able to vote against pro-Euro measures, even if not enough to block a two-thirds majority.

On the other hand, it would be difficult to argue that those Austrians who voted for these parties clearly wanted to send a Eurosceptic message. The reasons why each of these parties garnered support were varied. In general, the three parties are supported more for their anti-establishment and anti-government stances than for their anti-EU views. The FPÖ is also popular among some voters for its openly anti-immigrant and anti-Islamic views. The EU is an important and non-negligible reason why these parties were so successful last weekend, but Euroscpeticism is by no means the only or even the primary explanation for their popularity.

This is particularly the case because the EU played such a marginal role in the 2013 election campaign. Few voters cared a lot about the EU: only 5 per cent named European issues as the most important problem in the pre-election survey we carried out as part of the Austrian National Election Study. The parties themselves did not campaign heavily on European topics. The FPÖ concentrated more on anti-establishment rhetoric and on social policy matters, and its emphasis on EU matters was lower in the campaign than expected. Even more surprisingly, the Team Stronach, which came to prominence partly because of its founder’s Eurosceptic views, campaigned mainly on topics such as national renewal, competent economic policy-making, and transparency and honesty.

Moreover, the popularity of Euroscepticism and its strong parliamentary representation are nothing new in Austria. Austrians have always been among the more Eurosceptic members of the EU. For example, data from the Eurobarometer shows how support for the EU has been consistently low in Austria, more similar to the UK than to Germany or France (see Figure 1). However, the single European currency is relatively popular in Austria compared to in other countries: in 2012, 56 per cent of Austrians saw the Euro as a ‘good thing’ for Austria, and only 30 per cent as a ‘bad thing’. Popular Euroscepticism in Austria expresses opposition to transnational bureaucracy and open borders rather than to economic integration.

Figure 1: Percentage of respondents who think EU membership is a ‘good thing’, 1995-2011
 
Note: Copyright European Union 1995-2011.

Euroscepticism is also not new in terms of party rhetoric, as the FPÖ and the BZÖ have taken up anti-EU and anti-Euro stances for quite some time. In terms of parliamentary seats, Eurosceptic parties will in fact have one fewer seat than before (51 instead of 52).

In sum: Austrians have elected a chamber with many Eurosceptic parliamentarians, but we cannot say that these representatives have a clear and strong mandate to oppose the previous government’s pro-European stance. Nevertheless, these parties will surely continue to speak out against measures to bolster the Euro and to deepen European integration, and they may even claim increased support for their positions.

What can the past and likely future governing parties, the Social Democratic SPÖ and the Christian Democratic ÖVP, do to win the argument against these parties? Given the entrenched nature of Euroscepticism in Austria, the answer might be: very little. It is not clear, for instance, that the mainstream parties could win over citizens by talking more about the EU and making the case for deeper integration and for a tighter Eurozone. Moreover, their almost constant presence in government means that pro-European stances are associated with the grand coalition, which is becoming ever more unpopular in Austria. Nevertheless, opinions about the EU may become more positive as the intensity of the Euro crisis weakens and the European economy starts to recover.

Finally, what are the implications of this result for the 2014 European elections? The safest prediction at the current time is that the radical-right FPÖ is likely to do well. It is unclear whether its main competitor and the surprise winner at the last EP election, the anti-European party List Martin, will be able to repeat its 2009 performance. The Team Stronach, another potential rival, is already showing signs of falling apart. This means the FPÖ is well-placed to take advantage of anti-European, anti-Euro and anti-government sentiment at the 2014 elections. What will be interesting to see is whether the campaign is actually focused on EU-related topics or whether parties will prefer to talk about national matters and use the elections as a proxy war. In any case, it seems clear that anti-establishment, Eurosceptic voices will remain strong in Austria for some time to come.

Markus Wagner is a post-doctoral research associate at the Department of Methods in the Social Sciences, University of Vienna

This is a contribution to Policy Network's work on Understanding Populism .

Tags: Austria , Radicalism , Election , Opinion , Populism , Extremism , Youth , Crisis , Economic , Financial , Economic Crisis , Financial Crisis , Far-Right , Radical Right , Extreme Right , Trust , Freedom Party of Austria , Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs , FPÖ , Alliance for the Future of Austria , Bündnis Zukunft Österreich , BZÖ , Jörg Haider , Social Democratic Party of Austria , Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreichs , SPÖ , Austrian People's Party , Österreichische Volkspartei , ÖVP , Social Democracy , Social Democrat , Christian Democrat , Christian Democracy , Anti-immigration , Xenophobia , EU , European Union , Nationalism , Euroscepticism , Eurosceptic , Anti-politics , Team Stronach , Frank Stronach , Team Stronach for Austria , Team Stronach für Österreich ,

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