Is this the “return of Austria-Hungary”? Following the formation of the new right-wing government in Vienna, acknowledging the like-minded leadership next door in Budapest is a legitimate point — even if imagining the Austro-Hungarian empire rising from the ashes seems far-fetched. It’s also worth noting that this provocative historical analogy, as reported by Berlin-based daily Die Welt, was offered up by politicians in Germany. Sure, from the German point of view, it is a preferable reference for a far right on the rise than a much more obvious one.
Yes, in Europe, history is never far behind.
The march of more recent history includes the watershed decision in 2015 of German Chancellor Angela Merkel to allow into Europe a massive influx of refugees. The reverberations have now become particularly visible in Austria, where a coalition government of conservatives and far-right party FPÖ was sworn in yesterday, two months after a general election that saw the triumph of the improbably young Sebastian Kurz, leader of the People's Party (ÖVP). The 31-year-old's victory was only made possible by his hard-line stance on immigration and Islam, which was directly inspired by the FPÖ, making a coalition between the two seem like a natural fit. Kurz is now Europe’s youngest leader, and the FPÖ the most powerful far-right party on the continent, as it controls Austria’s interior, foreign and defense ministries.
As a result, some observers like Deutsche Welle's Bernd Riegert, are expecting to see Austria cosying up to the so-called Visegrad Group, an alliance that brings together Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary — all central and eastern European countries led by right-wing populist governments opposed to immigration policies and refugee quotas decided in Brussels.
“Together, they could play the nationalist card and show EU headquarters in Brussels the middle finger,” Riegert writes.
But attention will now swing back to the continent’s historical power. For in Germany, too, the far-right party Alternative für Deutschland has become a kingmaker of sorts, albeit for different reasons. Its spectacular rise and the 13% it garnered in the September election, coinciding with an equally spectacular setback for the Socialists and Angela Merkel’s CDU, has thrown a spanner in the works of coalition-building.
It’s been three months since the election, and Germany still doesn’t have a government. Since the collapse of coalition talks with the Green Party and the liberals from the FDP, Merkel’s only remaining options are to convince a reluctant and badly bruised Socialist Party to stay on in the grand coalition that’s been ruling since 2013 — and therefore make the AfD the biggest opposition party in Parliament — or to form a minority government, something for which there is no precedent in Germany.
The momentum that started in 2015 continues to be with the populists. What will history hold for 2018? Eurosceptics are rising in the polls ahead of Italian national elections and deadlocked Brexit negotiations are sure to test the very foundations of Europe. But posterity will also note that 2017 was the year a committed and charismatic (and also young) defender of the European Union named Emmanuel Macron defeated the daughter of a French post-fascist named Le Pen. Yes, history keeps marching in Europe — in which direction, we still can’t quite tell.