A man carries a EU flag, after Britain voted to leave the European Union.
The defeat of the far-right politician Norbert Hofer in Austria’s presidential election on Sunday conjures up the writings of Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach (1830- 1916), who quipped about her country: “Austria is a small world in which the big world holds its rehearsal.”
The larger European stage sees a wave of various forms of populism – including the extremism of Hofer – as a danger to Europe’s unification project.
In short, Europe’s mainstream parties breathed a collective sigh of relief over the election of the staunchly pro-EU Green Party politician Alexander Van der Bellen as Austria’s new president.
Now that Europe can exhale, Austria’s ambassador to Israel, Martin Weiss, told The Jerusalem Post on Monday: “One should be careful of over-interpretations.
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However – according to most political observers – this Sunday, an optimistic, pro-European, pro-internationalist campaign carried the day and won a clear-cut majority. And that counts for something.”
Weiss added: “All exit-polls show that Mr. Van der Bellen’s explicit pro-EU stance was one of the main election motives for his clear-cut victory.
Our Jewish community took an unprecedented step in this election: it gave – for the first time ever in its history – an explicit recommendation for one of two political candidates.
“The Austrian Jewish community saw in Mr. Van der Bellen ‘not the lesser of two evils’ but the better qualified candidate, who has for many decades been a friend of the Jewish community and a friend of Israel,” he said.
The Brexit victory – the departure of the UK from the EU in June – was the shock therapy that put Europe’s members on their toes about the potential collapse of the EU.
“What happens here today has relevance for all of Europe,” Van der Bellen said prior to his victory. The relevance carried more weight in Austria, largely because the Alpine state has always retained a sizable extreme right-wing movement. The Green Party won 53% of the vote. Hofer garnered 46.7%.
Hofer’s Freedom Party secured inclusion in the government in 2000, prompting the EU to impose diplomatic sanctions on the country.
Israel recalled its ambassador to Vienna.
Then-prime minister Ehud Barak said the party’s presence in the government “should outrage every inhabitant of the world.”
Concern about the Freedom Party continues, 16 years later. Washington Post commentator Charles Lane tweeted on Monday: “Good to see Austria decided not to have another Nazi president.
#KurtWaldheim” Waldheim, a former Nazi involved in war crimes in the Balkans, served as Austria’s president from 1986-1992.
It is unclear where Van der Bellen is headed concretely on the Israel front.
He supports the labeling of products from settlements in the disputed territories, according to the website Die Jüdische (The Jewish), a popular Vienna-based news and opinion outlet run by Israeli journalist Samuel Laster.
Laster, who is in Jerusalem for the Jewish Media Summit, told the Post that Hofer called for Austria to break diplomatic relations with the Jewish State during the Second War in Lebanon.
Israel sought to stop Hezbollah rocket attacks in its territory and mistakenly killed an Austrian soldier who was part of a UN military contingent in Lebanon. Hofer claimed that “this attack was planned and targeted.”
Will the defeat of Hofer serve as a bellwether for the national elections in France, the Netherlands and Germany, where far-right parties and populism are gaining ground? In a year where attitude surveys and polls have plunged into a free-fall of unreliability – and populism has scored victories on both side of the Atlantic – unpredictability seems to be the only constant.
The writer is a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
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