European Union

Simmering Europe

Print edition : July 08, 2016

A rally against the Austrian government's planned re-introduction of border controls at the Brennero Pass border crossing to Italy on May 7 at Brennero, Austria. Photo: Getty Images

Right-wing protesters demonstrate against refugees, Islam and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin on May 7. The sign "Volksschaedling" (enemy of the people) is a word from former Nazi propaganda. Photo: Hannibal Hanschke/REUTERS

REFUGEE and migrant influx is becoming a major political issue throughout Europe. In response to the pressure of public opinion and the anti-immigrant sentiment prevailing in the country, Austria has decided to effect police controls at Brennero, the alpine pass at its border with Italy, which has been a transit point for refugees coming from the south. Vienna has repeatedly talked about the possibility of fencing the border at Brennero—an important frontier, historically, for both countries and for Europe at large. Brennero divides not only Austria and Italy, but also Tyrol into North and South. South Tyrol, a region where Austrian culture prevails, became an Italian territory after the First World War. The fascist regime in Italy had tried to “ethnically cleanse” the region, but in the process evoked the hostility of the local population.

After the Second World War, there were acts of terror in South Tyrol as part of a movement for its independence from Italy. The crisis was resolved following the De Gasperi-Gruber agreement. Austria’s entry into the European Union (E.U.) buried the crisis. Now, paradoxically, Austria has reopened the wound of the division of Tyrol through its plans to restrict the refugees at Brennero.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is fighting a difficult political battle over her “open door” refugee policy, said: “If we close Brennero, Europe will fall.” Her position is important not only for Europe but also for Austria and Italy. Germany has not withdrawn from its effort to manage the crisis even after the arrival of more than 1.2 million people in Europe in 2015 as it has not put a cap on the number of asylum seekers.

The refugee crisis is undermining the whole of Europe. In Austria, as in some other countries, it is an important cause of the change in the political climate. The Austrian presidential election held on April 24 witnessed a tough political struggle, with Norbert Hofer of the Freedom Party (FPO), one of the latest far-right populist parties that is rising in Europe, getting 36 per cent of the total votes in the first round. Hofer, whose final vote share after the run-off on May 22 was 49.7, is one political leader who has shocked the E.U. The traditionally strong parties of Austria, the Socialist Party of Austria (SPO) and the Conservative People’s Party of Austria (OVP), got 11 per cent each of the popular vote in the first round, something unheard of in post-War Austria.

Angelo Bolaffi, an Italian scholar of German society, said: “The OVP and the SPO were the most important parties in Austrian politics since the Second World War.”

Other traditional parties are also losing votes in all the European states as the anti-refugee sentiment is running high. Opinion polls in many countries are unanimous on this aspect.

Two stark examples of this phenomenon are Sweden, home of social democracy, and Holland, home of progressive pluralism.

The Swedish Democrats, a right-wing populist party, got more than 17 per cent in the opinion polls conducted in May. According to the surveys, this party, however, consistently got more than 20-23 per cent of the popular vote.

The Freedom Party, a right-wing populist party led by Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, is the first nationalist party to get 25 per cent of the popular vote in all the recent poll surveys. As one of the six countries that signed the Treaty of Rome, which led to the founding of the European Economic Community in 1957, Holland is one of the most important member-states of the E.U. If a right-wing populist leader of a founding member of the E.U. is elected to power, it would become a historic event.

In Germany, the most powerful nation in Europe, the refugee issue is at the centre of the political debate. The anti-immigrant Alternative for Deutschland, or AfD, the three-year-old German right-wing populist party, got 13.6 per cent of the vote in the mid-election opinion polls. (Germany will hold a general election in 2017.)

In the regional parliamentary elections in the three landers (regions) of Germany in early March, the AfD displayed its new political strength by winning 23.6 per cent of the popular vote in Saxony Anhant, a poor region of East Germany; 15.1 per cent in Baden Wurttemberg, a rich and conservative region in West Germany; and 12.5 per cent in Rhineland-Palatinate. In Saxony Anhant and Baden–Wurttemberg, it surpassed the left-wing Socialist Democratic Party (SPD), a coalition partner of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), placing it in a better position to challenge the coalition in the general election.

Economic crisis

What triggered this situation in European countries? What happened in Europe in 2015? Europe has been affected by a serious economic crisis for several years, which has become the fodder for right-wing populism and left-wing radicalism to grow.

In the first half of 2016, the economy showed signs of recovery, but these signs are insufficient and are dominated by too many injustices.

Since the beginning of 2015, more than 1.2 million refugees have arrived in Europe. The wars near the borders of Europe, in Iraq and Syria, and in faraway Afghanistan and some African countries have forced millions of desperate men, women and children to flee their homelands. Germany has taken in the largest number of refugees followed by Hungary, Sweden and Austria.

The rise of the right-wing

The immigration policy of these countries had an impact on the outcome of the voting intention polls in which the right-wing parties gained in Germany, Sweden and Holland.

In September 2015, opinion polls gave the AfD only 5 per cent of the votes. However, in January 2016, the AfD got more than 10 per cent of the popular vote. The change in popular sentiment was a result of the influx of immigrants between October and November 2015.

During this period, the situation was chaotic in Germany. Humanitarian organisations and local administrations in Germany, particularly in the southern regions, came under immense pressure. Bavaria, a conservative region of Germany, was the most affected by the crisis. It is ruled by the Christian Social Union (CSU), an ally of the CDU.

In short, Germany was in a state of emergency. Angela Merkel’s liberal policy towards refugees was under attack by the conservative wing of the CDU and the CSU.

Did Angela Merkel make a political blunder? Germany is in need of migrants to sustain its economic structure. The German population is aging. Economic migrants from within Europe are needed to fill the gaps in the economy and in the welfare state. Also, they have useful skills for the German labour market.

These are the reasons for Angela Merkel’s liberal immigration policy.

The coincidence in the electoral tendency of Germans shows that immigration is an important reason for their choosing to vote for the AfD.

While the right-wing populist party is becoming more and more important even in Germany, the majority of people are still choosing parties that are pro-Europe and have a pro-liberal policy towards immigration.

In Germany and, perhaps, also in Austria, the majority of the people are pro-Europe. In the presidential run-off in May, Austria’s Green-liberal candidate, Alexander van der Bellen, won against Norbert Hofer.

Angelo Bolaffi said the victory of the Grunen (the Green party of Germany) in Baden-Wurttemberg might represent the first step for a national CDU-Grunen coalition after the 2017 federal election. A Grunen-CDU coalition rules in Stockard.

The economist Paolo Guerrieri explained that the new signs of growth in the European economy were an outcome of the boost in Germany’s public spending in order to manage the immigration issue.

Monetary policy

In a less pessimistic tone, it can be said that there is a problem brewing that could lead to a dramatic change in the German position towards Europe, which could impact the whole of Europe. It is the coincidence between the refugee crisis and the “monetary policy” by the European Central Bank.

Natale D’Amico, economist, former assistant of the European Central Bank’s President Mario Draghi, and former Minister in the centre-left Italian government, said: “The German people give a lot of importance to savings. Savings with ‘negative interest rates’ are, therefore, controversial in Germany.” This “sensitive” issue is discussed widely by the public, and by all social classes in Germany.

The European Central Bank has evolved a strong “quantitative easing” policy to fight the recession, which has brought down the rate of interest on savings to near zero.

Savings, welfare state, and stable wages are all important elements of the “German social contract”. The quantitative easing policy attacks the savings of the middle and working classes, who see their savings as an important element of their wealth. This is the reason behind the German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble’s criticism of Mario Draghi.

The monetary crisis caused by zero interest on savings and the anti-refugee sentiment might lead to a tough situation in Germany. Germany may choose to break up the European Union in order to defend its social contract. This is the real danger for Europe.

Claudio Landi is an Italian journalist and a prominent broadcaster of Radio Radicale.