A political earthquake shook Austria yesterday evening, when the far-right anti-EU candidate Norbert Hofer received about 36% of the votes, trumping every other candidate by more than 10 points. Coming just 2 weeks after the referendum in the Netherlands that rejected the EU-Ukraine agreement, this is likely to impact on the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and other trade agreements, at a time when President Obama, Angela Merkel and other European leaders are trying to build a favourable momentum in Hannover. Substantial impact on other EU policies, such as migration policy is also foreseeable.
The opinion polls published before the elections substantially underestimated the far-right, as they attributed to the Austrian Freedom Party (FPO) candidate only 22%-23% of the votes and they were not certain about Hofer’s participation in the second round.
On 22 May Hofer will be challenged by the independent candidate (supported by Greens) Alexander Van der Bellen, who received about the 20% of the votes. Significantly, the candidates supported by the two parties in the government, namely the Social Democratic Party of Austria and the Austrian People’s Party scored particularly bad, as both received about 11% of votes. After such a bad performance, the natural question arises of whether the pro-EU government can survive until 2018.
More importantly, this election is not only important for the Austrian people, as its impact will be also felt in Brussels. In fact, both candidates participating in the run-off hold negatives views on TTIP. As their voting records in the European Parliament show, both the Greens’ and FPO’s representatives are opposed to TTIP and Tisa (Trade in Services Agreement).
It is worth noting that, according to the latest Eurobarometer, published last December, Austrian public opinion is the most opposed to TTIP among the 28 Member States.
The Austrian Greens and FPO share other common features. For instance, they both voted against the Juncker Commission, the European Defence Union and EU Economic Policy Coordination. As things stand at the moment, all other things being equal, the trends seem to indicate that the Austria of tomorrow will be less keen on further integration in economic and defence policy (although the FPO is way more Eurosceptic than the Green party and hence the eventual winner will make a difference).
Moreover, the eurosceptic party, guided in the past by the controversial leader Jorg Haider, supports the restoration of monetary sovereignty and stricter border controls. In this regard, the positions of the two leading candidates could not be more different. In fact, Van der Bellen is famous for his open attitude towards refugees. Therefore, the future refugee policy of the European Union will be heavily influenced by the outcome of the run-off between Hofer and Van der Bellen.
However, even if Hofer loses the second round, his stunning success in the first round is likely to lead the Austrian government to further stiffen its position on refugee policy, both at the national and European level. Significantly, FPO is currently leading in the polls for national parliamentary elections and the parties in government will try to recover part of their lost political capital, perhaps also by taking up some of the proposals put forward by the far-right party.
Read our full pre-elections report.
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