The fears that Europe will have its first far-right head of state since World War II have been allayed, for now, by the defeat of Norbert Hofer of Austria’s Freedom Party in a run-off election for the country’s presidency on Sunday. Meanwhile, in Italy, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has resigned following a referendum vote which sought the people’s approval of far-reaching constitutional changes which would have increased the power of the central government. The exit of Renzi, a pro-European Union centrist, has far-right politicians now clamouring for fresh elections.
After the UK’s decision to exit the EU earlier this year and the election of Donald Trump as US president — both on the back of an anti-globalisation and anti-immigration sentiment — there are fears that other countries will follow suit. But the results from Italy and Austria have not presented a clear picture, and apocalyptic statements about the end of the EU or globalisation as well as looking at the Austrian verdict as a turning point, are premature. While nativist politicians, including France’s National Front leader, Marine Le Pen, have welcomed Renzi’s exit, the vote in Italy is not comparable to Brexit. Renzi was seeking to reform domestic laws, ostensibly to revive the country’s stagnant economy and moribund bureaucracy. But the changes would also have led to a decrease in the power of federal units and a strong Centre. The defeat of his referendum and his exit must be viewed primarily through the prism of Italy’s domestic politics. On the other hand, Hofer’s defeat to Alexander Van der Bellen, the former head of the Green party, was not as decisive as it now appears. The run-off election was precipitated because Van der Bellen’s margin of victory in May was a mere 30,000 votes. While his vote-share has increased ten-fold, the country remains deeply divided.
In 2016, many of the institutions that have formed pillars of the global order since the end of the cold war — from the EU to NATO — have been brought into question. The rise of the new, nativist extreme right-wing in Europe is certainly a cause for concern. But the verdicts in both Italy and Austria show that the direction of Europe’s political and economic future is far from written in stone. And the political churning is likely to continue, at least till France, the Netherlands and Germany go to the polls in 2017.