Europe’s mixed election messages

By Arthur I. Cyr

“Don’t play with fire.”

That was the campaign theme of Alexander van Der Bellen, the leader on the political left who has just won a runoff election to be president of Austria. The odds-on favorite, according to Austrian polls, had been Norbert Hofer, leader of the Freedom Party, a right-wing movement hostile to immigrants from other nations. The incendiary slogan was an oblique reference to Adolf Hitler’s Austrian origins. In recent decades, resurgence of extreme nationalism in Austria has been cause for international attention and concern. Meanwhile, a hard-fought referendum in Italy has led to decisive defeat of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who pressed for far-reaching reform of government. He declared he would resign, and parliamentary elections are likely. Nearly 70 percent of Italian voters participated in the referendum, and the result is interpreted as a rebuff to the European Union as well as Renzi. Seeming cross-currents of Austrian stability and Italian revolt only confirm that national differences remain significant. Comprehensive unification of Europe remains a distant, perhaps impossible goal. They are only the latest in a series of surprising national decisions related to the EU. In June, a referendum in Britain narrowly decided to leave the confederation. That has still to be negotiated.

In 2012, a Netherlands coalition government fractured over EU budget rules. The far-right nationalist Freedom Party sparked that crisis by abandoning the coalition government.

This party is characterized by extreme hostility to European economic and political integration, and also to immigrants. Yet Prime Minister Mark Rutte is still in power. In 2005, Dutch and French voters decisively rejected a proposed European Constitution. EU ambitions had grown steadily more utopian, with visions of a benevolent Brussels-based “Eurocracy” managing people. An expanding body of European law encouraged belief that commercial coordination is the same as political unification.