What The West Can Learn From Austria (& Italy)

Prof. Alexander Van der Bellen, an economist and fiscal expert, waves to his supporters after his speech during a campaign rally in Vienna in April 2016.  Photo: EPA

While the Italian Referendum is being passed as part of the alt-rightwing wave that is sweeping Europe, the Austrian Presidential Election is being perceived by the media as a sigh of relief that the wind of alt-rightwing populism has been temporarily stopped. More often than not, they try, in a lame fashion, to claim that the breakup of the European Union is a gift for Russia. It has nothing to do with alt-rightwing populism and nothing to do with Russia. It just happens to be that, before the Austrian vote, the alt-rightwing populists had a message that resonated with the voters. However, this election and referendum really showed us two things.

First, while some in the media are tempted to do so, the events in Austria and Italy should not be seen as a ‘win’ nor a ‘loss’ for Russia. They are probably wondering how these results might be advantageous or disadvantageous towards Russia. They’ve been tempted to accuse Russia of interference in elections in the United States and Europe. While none of the sort would fly in a court of law (and, after investigation, proven to be a fallacy in the case of the elections in the United States), they use this McCarthyist tactic to pin these alt-rightwing politicians being in cahoots with Russian President Vladimir Putin. This tactic has more to do with absolving themselves from the real problem and shutting out a debate on why this is really occurring. Yet, while it’s counterproductive to do so, if one does want to look at this through that lens, the Austrian Presidential election is a ‘win’ and the Italian Referendum is a ‘loss’ for Russia.  A broken Europe is not in Russia’s national interest. Quite the opposite. As its largest trading partner, it much rather see a united Europe rather than a divided one.

Second, and more importantly, the (second consecutive) victory for Alexander Van der Bellen and the ‘No’ campaign victory in Italy show us that the European Union’s austerity measures and harsh financial policies are not welcome. In Austria, they are willing to give an economist and fiscal expert a chance to guide the country out of this puzzle. In Italy, they welcomed what the anti-austerity comedian, Beppe Grillo, had to say. In short, they have no more faith in the politicians who have continuously imposed austere measures—on both sides of the aisle. These measures have incited dangerous political dynamics in some European Union countries, which reflects the growing popularity of the alt-rightwing and xenophobic populism, with the occasional slip towards lucid fascism. The refugee crisis has expedited this conundrum and, to the chagrin of some, Russia can be a suitable partner as they have a vested interest in resolving the crisis.

These are the two main reasons for the outcomes in Austria and Italy. The message from the Austrians was that they want no part in the austerity measures and no part in the alt-rightwing and xenophobic populism. However, what they (both Italians and Austrians alike) do want is for the European Union to address their economic hardships with smart politics. Removing both the sanctions on Russia and ending the austerity measures would go a long way to addressing those issues. Ending the sanctions would resume trade with one of its largest trading partners thereby reenergizing a hurting business sector. Whereas ending the austerity measures would also greatly improve the most vulnerable—the middle and low-income class. It is the most vulnerable who are inclined to vote for the xenophobic and alt-rightwing politicians. Thus, ending these measures would most certainly help end this disturbing trend.

The reason for the shift towards dangerous politics in Europe and the United States has nothing to do with Russia or any other country, it is their own doing. For those in the media who want to lay fact-free blame on a third party are committing shoddy journalism and, in fact, are the very ones to blame because they are allowing this dangerous trend to continue. They are doing a great disservice to the public that they are trying to inform.

If the European Union or the United States want to end the trend towards this ugly style of politics, it might want to begin reintegrating countries like Russia and others that will benefit its economy. Equally, it might also want to look at changing its economic policies where the economy works for all, not just the top 1%. While both Europe and the United States have a long way to go, Europe is slowly understanding this conundrum but the United States is stuck in a self-inflicted quagmire.

That explains the underlying issues that led to the results in the Austrian Presidential election and the Italian referendum but it will not end there. These events are not part of an overall scorecard. These bizarre twists will continue as long as the middle and low-income classes are not heard in both the United States and Europe. The longer this goes on, the worse and more dangerous it will get.

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