By Rene Wadlow
Although the current President of Austria, Alexander Van der Bellen, long-time president of the Ecology Party, had been able to defeat his far-Right opponent in the presidential election of May 2016, he could not prevent the creation of a coalition between Austrian People’s Party (conservatives) and Freedom Party (far Right). Thus, on 18 December, the New Prime Minister, Sebastian Kurz presented to the President his coalition government with Hanz-Christian Strache, leader of the far-Right Freedom Party (FO) as Deputy Prime Minister. The FO holds six of the sixteen posts including key Ministries of the Interior and Defense, but also Health and Social Affairs, key ministries that can influence conditions for refugees and migrants.
The Freedom Party had made refugees and migrants the chief focus of its electoral campaign, stressing in particular Islamic migrants said to be waiting at the frontier ready to rush in and take over all the farm houses without appreciating Vienna waltzes. Austria is likely to join, at least in a de facto way the Visegrad group of States: Poland Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, hostile to migrants and unwilling to settle their quota of migrants set by the European Union.
The new Prime Minister, Sebastian Kurz, had been the Foreign Minister in the outgoing coalition government of Conservatives and Social Democrats. He does not share the anti-European Union attitudes of the FO. Thus there have not been the cries of alarm which had been raised in 2000 when the FO, led by the high-profile Jorg Haider, had for the first time entered the government. At least in public, there is a more
“wait and see” attitude among other European leaders, all the more so that Austria is to hold the rotating European Union presidency for the second half of 2018. However, the Turkish government, not known for its respect of minorities or human rights, has expressed concern for the Turkish minority in Austria.
It is not sure that the Freedom Party will push for a restoration of an Emperor and for the re-incorporation of Hungry and the Czech Republic, once the “jewels of the Empire”. However, dual-citizenship has been offered to the German-speaking citizens of South Tyrol lost to Italy in 1919 as a result of the breakup of the Empire. But as Robert Thurman of Columbia University has said “Never before have the world’s people been so challenged to form a ‘global humanity’. The worst enemy of a global identity is the regressive effort to re-establish some of the ‘long-lost empires’ in the present era.”
The rise of a backward looking, narrow nationalist current in Europe needs to be watched closely. Although there was originally some concern that the Freedom Party had neo-Nazi elements (in practice not really “neo”, just men active in the 1936-1945 period returning to activities) it is not the Nazi past of which conservative Austrians are nostalgic. They recall a myth of a pre-1914 Empire when Vienna was a political-cultural force. The Empire was “multi-national” while the current Austrian Right is narrowly nationalistic. Its impact will probably be folkloric, but it must be closely watched. More than just being watched, a cosmopolitan counter-current needs to be developed.