Austrian thrilling elections will have far-reaching impacts on EU political developments

After a passionate two-day scrutiny, Alexander Van Der Bellen (supported by the Greens) narrowly defeated his far-right wing opponent, Norbert Hofer (Freedom Party of Austria), therefore becoming the new Austrian President (50,3% vs 49,7%). Notably, the ecologist candidate only managed to win thanks to the postal votes counted today, whereas yesterday night the anti-EU Hofer was leading by some 144.000 votes. Therefore, such a narrow defeat is likely to have long-term implications for Austrian and European politics.

Most importantly, these elections showed that the consensus for the far right in Austria is higher than thought in Brussels and the other Member States and that FPO will have the opportunity to build on this success in order to boost its performance at the next parliamentary elections. A large majority of people living in the countryside backed the tough stance of the 45 years old candidate on refugees and the EU. With almost 50% of the population showing strong disaffection with the political system, the mainstream parties will have to take much more into account their concerns if they want to avoid a catastrophe at the next political elections.

In particular, as it is shown by our recent analysis on TTIP, Austrian public opinion is the most opposed to TTIP and, at this point, it is difficult for the government to approve the Trade Agreement without losing further ground to the far right, which is explicitly opposing the agreement. In particular, a large majority of OVP’s electors (EPP) holds negative views on the proposed Transatlantic Pact. Also, the new Green President is quite sceptical over TTIP and these elections only strengthened the anti-TTIP camp in Austria (for more information on the positions of the main candidates and political parties in Austria check out our special report).

Despite the final defeat, the pressure of FPO on the parties in the government will increase further, in particular with regards to the stance on the migration crisis. The previous Faymann government already threatened to take drastic measures to stem the influx of refugees from the Italian border, namely the closure of the Brenner Base Tunnel. Such tension can also be further kindled by the recent electoral result. Being a son of refugees himself, the newly elected President Der Bellen opposes a quota over the number of refugees to be received in the Alpine country and will likely contrast any stiffening of the government’s position over the welcoming of refugees from war-torn countries. Although the President is not as powerful as the government in this regard, his position is going to be supported by the Green Party, which is now emboldened by the electoral success (and performing well in the opinion polls).

Currently, FPO is leading by far in the opinion polls for the next legislative elections in Austria. If such a result will actually materialize, a participation of FPO in the following government would be likely, probably in partnership with the Christian Democrat Austrian People’s Party. However, the new President repeatedly claimed that he will never appoint a FPO-led government. Such a perspective would likely lead to a political crisis, whose consequences will be felt far beyond Austria’s own borders.

More broadly, while a total disaster for the European project in Austria has been avoided at the last minute, the close result of these elections will be used to fuel the enthusiasm of other growing far-right and Eurosceptic parties, which are campaigning for Brexit or will run in important elections the next year in France and Germany. Brexit-ers have been narrowly denied an extraordinary chance to capitalise on the victory of an anti-EU candidate in Austria, although they will still try to make the most out of his strong performance.

Later on, the Eurosceptic Alternative for Germany and the French National Front are both set to score a good result in the upcoming elections in Germany and France, respectively. As these two countries are often considered to be the drivers of European integration, 2017 will be an important year for the European Union as a whole and the final outcome of these elections will impact on the course of European politics for the next few years.