Austrian Eurosceptics play on suspicion of EU

As some celebrate Eurovision win, others take a darker view of Europe

Austrian Freedom Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache, a tanned and charismatic rhetorican and protegé of the late Jörg Haider, he views the  poll as a protest vote against the left-right grand coalition government. Photograph: Reuters

Austrian Freedom Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache, a tanned and charismatic rhetorican and protegé of the late Jörg Haider, he views the poll as a protest vote against the left-right grand coalition government. Photograph: Reuters

 

While the rest of Austria celebrates Conchita Wurst’s Eurovision win, the sound of music in the Salzburg beer hall has a minor, Eurosceptic key.

In the wood-panelled hall, supporters of the right-wing populist Freedom Party (FPÖ) are guzzling local beer and singing along to the song Du hast mich tausendmal belogen” (You lied to me a thousand times).

Ostensibly about an unfaithful lover, the song summarises succinctly the FPÖ’s thinking on the European Union.

Though one of the continent’s original Eurosceptic parties, the FPÖ has had a bumpy election campaign. Its original lead candidate, MEP Andreas Mölzer, was fired after saying the EU’s love of regulations made the Third Reich seem liberal in comparison. EU migration policies, he added, were turning the bloc into a “negro conglomerate”.

In the beer hall his replacement, Harald Vilemsky, pushes every hot button but fails to trigger a response from the lukewarm audience. Things pick up when he promises a referendum on the Schengen open border system, which the FPÖ says has put Austria on the front line of European cross-border crime.

He has barely mentioned Romania and Bulgaria when a voice in the audience cries out Schweine! –“pigs” – to loud applause.

“Schengen would be great if it worked, but it just allows freedom of movement for criminals,” said Vilemsky.

It’s clear the crowd is here to hear FPÖ leader Heinz-Christian Strache, a tanned and charismatic rhetorican and protegé of the late Jörg Haider.


Protest vote
The 44-year-old views the poll as a potential protest vote against Austria’s left-right grand coalition government of Social Democrats (SPÖ) and conservative People’s Party (ÖVP). Together the coalition partners look sest to capture about 51 per cent of the vote, while the FPÖ hopes to finish third with 20 per cent.

Austria’s Europhoria evaporated soon after its belated entry in 1995, replaced by ambivalence. Despite low unemployment and considerable economic benefit from eastward enlargement, some 41 per cent of Austrians think EU membership is more to their disadvantage than benefit.

This week, news magazine Profil lashed out at Austria’s political mainstream for taking the FPÖ bait, flirting with populism, double- speak and hypocrisy on EU affairs.


Guilty parties
“The main guilty parties” for Austria’s EU ambivalence,” it argued, “aren’t the tabloids or the FPÖ but . . . in the government’s own ranks.”

EU analysts in Vienna suggest Austrian Eurosceptism’s bark is worse than its bite. “We have a lot of politicians who are good defensive footballers, talking about what they’ve deflected from Europe, and not enough offensive players who get stuck in and explain how they influenced European decisions in the Austrian interest,” said Paul Schmidt of the Austrian Society for European Politics.

“But when you ask whether they would be happier leaving, people pull back. They know it’s still better being part of the club.”

Back in Salzburg, Strache poses for photos with supporters, hoping a high weekend turnout will boost FPÖ influence in a new European parliament’s Eurosceptic bloc.

Strache is open to working with all parties that “behave decently”, from Geert Wilders’s PVV in the Netherlands to Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France, Italy’s Lega Nord and Britain’s Ukip. “The only taboo for us is anti-Semitism; we feel the people don’t want to hear that,” he said.