Good news from Europe?

The immediate impact on Israel and Jews in Europe is that the uncertainty will lead to empowerment, not only of antisemites on the continent and Islamist extremists.

December 5, 2016 22:00
3 minute read.
austria swastika

A protester with a mock European flag with a gold star representing Austria appearing as a swastika that has been crossed out [File]. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Less than 12 hours after the defeat of far-right candidate Norbert Hofer in the Austrian presidential election, a wave of Brexit/Trump-inspired populism seems to have broken on Vienna. There was a “red-whitered signal of hope and change,” said Dr. Alexander Van der Bellen, who beat Freedom Party leader Norbert Hofer. He was referring to the colors of Austria’s flag.

In May, Van der Bellen had also won, but by such a narrow margin that a court ordered a new vote. Yet the Austrian poll may not be all that it appears. European Union leaders see it as a victory over the populism that was eroding the establishment. It was a “sigh of relief,” wrote Katya Adler, BBC Europe Editor. Nationalism and anti-globalization and anti-immigrant ideas were defeated.

But Norbert lost by a margin of only 53 to 46% for a largely ceremonial office. Van der Bellen is not exactly an establishment politician – he was a former leader of the Green Party and an academic. The presidency is largely ceremonial.

This tells us that for almost half of the electorate the radical Right represented by Hofer was palatable. It is also telling that the electorate chose to ignore numerous reports in the Austrian media that Van der Bellen’s father was a highly ranked and very active Nazi agent.

In the 2000 parliamentary elections, Jorg Haider led the Freedom Party to second place with 21% of the vote. Since then it has received between 10% and 26% of the vote.

Austria remains a country where the far Right polls well.

As moderates in Europe were applauding the Austrian outcome, more than 60% of voters were handing Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi a resounding defeat in a referendum.

Southern and northern Italian states all rejected the referendum which commentators say is a larger symbolic test of euroskepticism and populism.

CNN claimed that the populist opposition of Beppe Grillo might come to power and “scrap the Euro, go back to the Italian lire and perhaps even follow Britain out of the European Union.” Grillo is from the populist Left, but the Right was also celebrating. Northern League leader Matteo Salvini wrote “long live Trump, long live Putin, long live Le Pen and long live the League.” Marine Le Pen agreed, tweeting that the Italians had disavowed Renzi.

The failure of the centrists in Italy brings to the fore those like Grillo, who once claimed that “Hollywood producers of Jewish origin” were harming Mel Gibson’s career and has said he finds Israel “frightening, it’s behavior is irresponsible.”

They represent the rise of the extremists.

The extremists provide easy answers to Europe’s ills, which they see as caused by decades of centrist control by Social Democrats and Christian Democrats that failed to deliver on either the promise of the EU or the promise to protect the continent’s borders. Some see this as a “redbrown” alliance, like that of the communists and radical right brown shirts undermined European democracy in the 1920s and 1930s because of their radical solutions.

They, too, used the ballot box to come to power.

But today’s populism is a bit different. First of all, it takes inspiration from beyond the continent in the UK Brexit vote and in the US election of Donald Trump. The UK and US tended to be the most stable countries in NATO, now they are inspiring the potential breakup of the common market. There is also the specter of “fake news” and “Russian propaganda” that hangs over these elections.

The problem in Brussels is that EU leaders such as European Council President Donald Tusk do not articulate a policy response to populism. In January, European Commission chief Jean Claude-Juncker blamed member states for mishandling the refugee crisis and “failing to deliver on what we need to do and what needs to be done.”

In March, Tusk appealed to “illegal economic migrants… do not come to Europe.” He told a conference of the G20 in September that Europe was reaching its “limits” and could not longer “host new waves of refugees.” However, more than 300,000 migrants have flowed into Greece this year.

Thousands have died in the Mediterranean making the crossing. More than 1.3 million applied for asylum in 2015.

Europe faces an existential crisis. There is little to applaud in the Austrian election. The immediate impact on Israel and Jews in Europe is that the uncertainty will lead to empowerment, not only of antisemites on the continent and Islamist extremists, but also regimes such as that of Bashar Assad in Syria.

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