Friday, 2 December 2016

The EU may get its first far-right president. But does it matter?

Sunday may be a pivotal turning point for Europe, but not because of the presidential election in Austria. A referendum in Italy could bring the euro back to crisis point.

In May, when Austria held its first attempt at holding a presidential election, newspapers in the UK and the US were full of breathless coverage. "Austria is on the brink of electing Europe's first far-right president since WWII" they declared.

The BBC and The Guardian both used the occasion to run features about the 'rise of nationalism and populism in Europe', both of which curiously left out Britain's own UK Independence Party. 'Populism is other people' they convinced themselves. Now, after Brexit and Trump, the Anglo-American coverage is quite different.

And the coverage has returned, because the Austrian election is being re-run this Sunday, 4 December. 

In May, the far-right candidate Norbert Hofer, the leader of the Freedom Party, was beaten by Alexander Van der Bellen from the Green Party by just a few thousand votes. The two were facing each other in a shock second round after the country's main center-right and center-left candidates were eliminated. It was the first time a candidate from either the Greens or Freedom Party made it to the second round.

But the Freedom Party challenged the results, saying there had been irregularities in the vote. Austria's ultra-sensitive high court found that some of the envelopes used may have had faulty glue which would have caused them to not close all the way. So they ordered the entire election to be re-run.

Many experts had expected the Freedom Party's challenge to backfire, because Austrians did not want a repeat of the unpleasant, divisive and costly election (sound familiar?). But in fact, Hofer (pictured) has seen his popularity increase since launching the challenge. Seven of the past nine polls conducted before Sunday's election have shown him in the lead.

And so, we are again seeing the panicked headlines about post-war Europe imminently getting its first far-right head of state. Only this time, the British and American newspapers are not covering this as some foreign phenomenon. They are writing about how Austria's divided electorate mirrors their own, and how Hofer is using social media to spread lies about his opponent with impugnity, in the same way that Trump and the Brexiteers were successful in doing. 

In a comparison that is almost too on the nose, the Freedom Party has in recent weeks been spreading false rumors about Van der Bellen's health.

Can powerless presidents set precedents?

The focus on Austria may be a bit overblown. It is important to note that, like the vast majority of European heads of state, the Austrian president has very little power. 

For Americans, this may be confusing. There is an important distinction between a 'head of state' and a 'head of government'. In America, these two positions are held by the same person - the president. This is also the case in France. But in the rest of the countries in the European Union, the head of state is either a monarch or a president-equivalent of a monarch. These people have varying levels of power, but it is always very low. The real power lies with the head of government - the prime minister.

So Austrians voting for a far-right president is not nearly the same thing as if the French voted for a far-right president. The Austrian presidency is a mostly ceremonial function, created to replace the Austrian emperor. This is the case with many of the European presidencies such as those in Italy, Germany, Portugal and Greece - these positions were created to create an equivalent role in the new republics for the recently lost kings.

The R-word

There are two areas in which the president of Austria could cause trouble. He could, in theory, dissolve the parliament and call a new general election, pretty much on a whim. He can also push for a referendum. 

The dreaded referendum, the word which, after Brexit, causes heart palpitations for liberal democrats across the Western world. 

Hofer has already promised to push for a referendum on Austria's EU membership, if the bloc takes any further steps toward integration (though he's failed to specify what this means, and has since walked it back as polling indicated the vast majority of Austrians do not want to leave the EU). He's also hinted that he might push a referendum on re-introducing the death penalty, something that would get Austria kicked out of the EU anyway since it is forbidden by the EU treaties.

These referenda would be non-binding and merely advisory for the elected government. But guess what? So was Brexit.

What we've learned from the Brexit experience is that there is no such thing as a non-binding referendum. Once a referendum is won, public pressure to implement the outcome is too strong. Few voters understand that these votes are non-binding.

Western blinders

Viktor Orban, the head of government in neighbouring Hungary (who is, let's face it, pretty much a far-right autocrat now), learned this the hard way. He held a referendum earlier this year on whether Hungary should abide by the EU agreement to share the burden or refugees between EU states. 

Hungary is obliged to take in about a thousand refugees under the plan, and Orban voted against this in the Council and has been a vocal opponent of the plan. The public voted 'yes' by largely boycotting his referendum, and there were not enough votes cast to meet a quorum. When Orban tried to pass a law in the parliament banning migrants, as if the referendum had succeeded, MPs from his own party blocked him. 

It was the first domestic political setback Orban has received since becoming Hungary's "de-facto dictator" after his party won 2/3 majority in the Parliament. Meanwhile in nearby Poland, the hard-right Law and Justice administration which came to power last year has been dismantling Poland's judiciary and muzzling its media. 

All the while, the 'Western' media was happy to look the other way while two fellow EU member states have plunged toward far-right autocracy. Only when the spectre came to Austria in May of this year did they seem to be alarmed. Because Austria is still considered 'one of us' in the West, apparently, while former Warsaw Pact countries are not. 

Never mind that we have been in the same federal union with Poland and Hungary since 2004. Never mind that in these two countries the far-right has actual power as heads of government, rather than the potential symbolic power of an Austrian head of state. Apparently the Hofburg Palace in Vienna is the one we should set our hair on fire about, rather than worrying about who occupies the Hungarian Parliament in Budapest 230km down the Danube.

The Anglo-American media does seem to have learned some lessons in the intervening months since the first Austrian election, after their own capitals fell to the forces of populist nationalism. But they are still attaching importance to the Austrian presidency that just isn't there. 

And as the world focuses again on election results in Vienna this Sunday, there will be a far more important vote taking place in Italy on the same day. And that vote could have very extreme short-term consequences.

Renzi rolls the dice

Also on Sunday, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi is holding a referendum on whether the country should introduce a group of constitutional reforms. Italy's notoriously unworkable government is badly in need of these reforms, but there are concerns that it gives too much power to the prime minister's office.

A referendum about constitutional reforms may seem like a pretty inconsequential domestic matter. But if populist forces in Italy are successful in defeating the measure on Sunday (as polls indicate is likely) it could cause Italy's government to collapse, which could send the euro tanking and plunge Europe into a new financial crisis.

Renzi has, foolishly, pledged to resign if his measure is defeated. It was typical of his brash, bold style of center-left governance. But it appears to have backfired, with people now viewing the referendum as a vote of confidence in their prime minister at a time when his popularity is waning and the Italian economy is stalled.

As the polls turned against him, Renzi has dialled back his talk of resigning and now says we will decide after the vote. Italy's neighbors, and European banks, will be urging him to ignore his previous promise and stay on the job. Because with no mainstream Italian politician ready to take the mantle, the fear is that a snap election could usher the populist Five Star Movement - an ally of UKIP - into power. 

The prospect of such an election happening next year, at the same time as anxiety-inducing elections in France, Germany and the Netherlands, may be too much for the markets to bear.

That a desperately-needed reform of Italy's unworkable system of governance has been caught up in the global populist wave is tragic for both the country and Europe as a whole. Italy's impossible legislature has more than 900 members, designed in the immediate post-Mussolini period with a strong system of checks and balances that were designed to prevent a return to Fascism. 

But this system has made it impossible to govern the country, and as a result Italy has had 56 prime ministers since the end of the war 70 years ago - 17 of whom served less than a year. By contrast, Germany has had nine.

A victory for Hofer on Sunday will cause no run on the euro, nor is it likely to spook markets. It would be symbolic, and of course, very alarming. But the fact is that this symbolism was a lot more potent in May than in December. 

The West has woken up and realized Austria is not an anomaly. Headlines fretting about 'the first far-right head of state in Europe' seem silly now that a populist nationalist has become the president of the United States. 

Austria's presidential election is now a sideshow.

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