“Don’t play with fire.”
That was the campaign theme of Alexander van Der Bellen, the leader on the political left who has just won a runoff election to be president of Austria. The odds-on favorite, according to Austrian polls, had been Norbert Hofer, leader of the Freedom Party, a right-wing movement hostile to immigrants from other nations.
The incendiary slogan was an oblique reference to Adolf Hitler’s Austrian origins. In recent decades, resurgence of extreme nationalism in Austria has been cause for international attention and concern.
Meanwhile, a hard-fought referendum in Italy has led to decisive defeat of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who pressed for far-reaching reform of government. He declared he would resign, and parliamentary elections are likely. Nearly 70 percent of Italian voters participated in the referendum, and the result is interpreted as a rebuff to the European Union (EU) as well as Renzi.
Seeming cross-currents of Austrian stability and Italian revolt only confirm that national differences remain significant. Comprehensive unification of Europe remains a distant, perhaps impossible goal.
They are only the latest in a series of surprising national decisions related to the EU. In June, a referendum in Britain narrowly decided to leave the confederation. That has still to be negotiated.
In 2012, a Netherlands coalition government fractured over EU budget rules. The far-right nationalist Freedom Party sparked that crisis by abandoning the coalition government. This party is characterized by extreme hostility to European economic and political integration, and also to immigrants. Yet Prime Minister Mark Rutte is still in power.
In 2005, Dutch and French voters decisively rejected a proposed European Constitution. EU ambitions had grown steadily more utopian, with visions of a benevolent Brussels-based Eurocracy managing people. An expanding body of European law encouraged belief that commercial coordination is the same as political unification.
Historically, unpredicted developments and unpalatable populism consistently appear. France, Italy and the Netherlands are among six founding nations of the original European Economic Community, established in 1957. Eight years later, President Charles de Gaulle of France threatened to destroy incipient integration during 1965-1966 over Brussels efforts to collect customs duties independently from member nations.
Dutch representatives led the opposition to de Gaulle, and over the decades generally backed European political as well as economic integration. Eventually, France became supportive of the EU. Brussels eventually achieved independent financial resources.
The contemporary European Union has broadened geographically and deepened economically. Austria joined in 1995, along with Finland and Sweden. A unified commercial market was achieved in the 1990s. Multinational corporations have been instrumental in this integration and underwrite enormously expanding capitalization. Political uncertainties mask this positive reality.
European integration initially involved using economic means to a strategic end, namely peaceful reengagement of Germany in Europe. That was defined during World War II, and has been achieved to a remarkable degree. The vision has become our reality and is more important than inevitable disagreements. Hitler’s legacy of militarized hate is dead.
The European common currency is an appropriate symbol of the uneven, and at times unpredictable, course of integration. The euro is used by only 19 of the 28 members of the European Union, years after being formally established. The EU would survive demise of the currency unit, or withdrawal of several members. We focus too much on news at the expense of long-term goals.
In Europe, democracy has been affirmed. Powerful market forces encourage further economic integration, despite conflicts within and between members.
— Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of ‘After the Cold War’ (NYU Press and Palgrave/Macmillan). Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Arthur I. Cyr: Europe’s mixed election messages
“Don’t play with fire.”