Why Austria’s Election Should Worry Liberals

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Chairman of Austria’s far-right Freedom Party Heinz-Christian Strache delivers a post-election speech at the St. Marx Hall in Vienna on October 15, 2017. Photo: ALEX HALADA/AFP/Getty Images

Although 31-year-old Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz and his People’s Party claimed victory in Austria’s national election on Sunday, the real winners were the right-wing, anti-immigrant Freedom Party, who garnered more than a quarter of the vote and dragged the conservative People’s Party’s platform to the right on immigration issues.

It is not yet confirmed whether Kurz will choose to break his party’s decade-long grand coalition with the center-left Social Democrats and form a government with the far right instead, but it hardly matters: His platform shared the Freedom Party’s positions on border controls, deportations, and radical Islam.

At least some of these positions will become policy in his administration, even if he decides that the optics of forming a government with a partner that attracts a neo-Nazi fringe are too toxic. If, on the other hand, he does choose to form a coalition with the far right, nobody is talking about the E.U. sanctioning Austria as it did the last time the Freedom Party joined a government in 2000.

After the nativist coup of Brexit, close calls in the Netherlands and France, and the strong showing of the far right in Germany last month, it shouldn’t be surprising that the country where far-right nationalists now have their best shot at joining a government is Austria. Kurz played a role in the government’s reversal of Austria’s previously welcoming refugee policy last year, and orchestrated a tightening of borders on the Balkan route to reduce the influx of migrants. The wunderkind minister has guided his party toward a harder line on immigration, riding voters’ fears of Islam and resentment of their country becoming a way station for people seeking better lives in Germany or France.

Kurz is a very different person than Donald Trump, but has accomplished a similar feat of rebranding a national conservative party as his own movement and winning over voters by pledging to crack down on undocumented immigrants. That he is a generation younger, more intelligent, and more connected to the political mainstream than Trump makes him in some ways a more compelling messenger for the new right-wing nationalism.

That Kurz found success by lurching to the right, specifically targeting immigration and Islamophobia, offers a vision of how successful a center-right/far-right voting coalition can be in the current climate. His party favors tighter border controls, lower caps on refugee admissions, lower benefits for those who stay, expedited deportation of rejected asylees, and a crackdown on radical Islam. He shares the far-right’s skepticism of the European Union but knows better than to smash the institution, and his government has instead been pushing for the E.U. to invest more in policing its borders. His politics are otherwise typically conservative.

With Germany and France staring down anti-immigrant rightists of their own, it will be hard for them to say “no” to these insurgents’ demands without paying a price. Boosting border security has already become a mainstream position even among liberal leaders. French president Emmanuel Macron recently called for “a real European asylum office” and “a European border police force … which guarantees rigorous control of borders everywhere in Europe and assures the return of those who can’t stay.”

Liberal democracy in Europe is now on the defense, and the issue forcing the dymanic is how to respond to a migrant crisis that is clearly destabilizing Europe.

That’s not a ding on the refugees, asylees, and economic migrants from Syria and elsewhere, who just want to live somewhere safe and prosperous, but rather a recognition that mass movements of people such as Europe has experienced in the past few years are inherently destabilizing.

Indeed, the rise of the far right is itself a symptom of that destabilization. Voters are worried about how the influx of migrants will affect their way of life and losing patience with their national and supranational governments’ response to this crisis, so they latch onto far-right promises to make the foreigners go away.

Some of that is racism and xenophobia, to be sure, but there’s also a genuine concern that their governments are failing to protect them from the effects of Europe’s biggest change event since the fall of communism. Europe has a problem with migrants, and only the far right is selling a solution to it.

German chancellor Angela Merkel’s conviction that Germany and Europe can afford to absorb hundreds of thousands of immigrants and has a moral obligation to protect refugees is admirable and true, but being morally right no longer buys a secure chancellorship in Berlin. Indeed, Merkel admitted last year that her handling of the surge in asylum seekers was costing her politically. In last month’s election, she found out just how much it had cost.

The far right promises to answer the public’s anxiety about immigration with authoritarian measures: harsh deportation regimes, border controls, racial and religious profiling. If Merkel’s awkward coalition doesn’t manage to hash out some positions on refugees, asylum, and security that address this anxiety effectively without sacrificing liberal values, the influence of the German far right will only grow. Macron faces a similar predicament, with the fortunes of France’s National Front depending on his success or failure as president.

Even though they have yet to take direct control of a Western European government, the new nationalist right is undoubtedly setting the agenda in Europe right now. Fueled by economic and nativist anxieties over the migrant crisis, it is upsetting the balance of European politics and threatening to end the era of relatively good feelings between the center-right and the center-left.

How do you solve a migrant crisis without violating human rights or deporting people into harm’s way? As long as the beleaguered European mainstream can’t come up with a good answer to this question and execute it, right-wing radicals will arise to fill the void.

Why Austria’s Election Should Worry Liberals