New Austrian president warns of growing EU populist movements

Former Green leader Alexander Van der Bellen defeated far-right candidate

Austrian president Alexander Van der Bellen delivers his inaugural speech at the Federal Assembly in Vienna, Austria, on Thursday. Photograph: Heinz-Peter Bader/Reuters

Austrian president Alexander Van der Bellen delivers his inaugural speech at the Federal Assembly in Vienna, Austria, on Thursday. Photograph: Heinz-Peter Bader/Reuters

 

Austrian president Alexander Van der Bellen has warned Europeans, frustrated by “incomplete and vulnerable” integration project, to be wary of falling for the growing populist temptations.

The 73 year-old former economics professor conceded it was “neither simple nor uncontroversial” to expect 28 advanced democracies to work closely together. But he said the alternative was worse: “nationalism and small-state parochialism”. And in his inaugural address on Thursday the former Green Party leader presented himself as proof that the slide towards authoritarian, populist nationalism is not inevitable.

“I see the greatest danger in being seduced by apparently simple answers,” he told the Austrian parliament. “Let us not be seduced, let us not be distracted from the work of a united Europe. Maintaining this peace project is worth all our efforts.”

Mr Van der Bellen was elected to the largely ceremonial post last month, dashing the hopes of Norbert Hofer of the Freedom Party (FPö) to become post-war Europe’s first far-right, anti-EU head of state.

But Mr Van der Bellen’s inauguration has shifted attention back to Austria’s little-loved grand coalition of Social Democrats (SPö) and conservative People’s Party (öVP). Post-war Austria’s default government form has long fallen out of favour with voters and, though Mr Hofer failed in his presidency bid, his populist FPö is Austria’s most popular party with 30 per cent support.

Reform rows

There is persistent speculation that, amid ongoing reform rows with his coalition partner, Austria’s new SPö chancellor Christian Kern may may soon call snap general election – a year early.

Given his FPö’s poll lead, leader Heinz-Christian Strache is anxious to get on with it, hoping to join likely populist voter swings in the looming Dutch parliamentary and French presidential elections. In a calculated provocation, Mr Strache and his MPs refused to applaud Mr Van der Bellen’s inaugural speech.

Many of them took issue with how the new president, a self-described wartime “refugee baby”, used his inaugural address to take swipes at their anti-immigrant rhetoric. With an eye on Friday’s Holocaust memorial day, Mr Van der Bellen described the murder of millions of European Jews by the Nazis as “part of our history”.

“Austrians belong to the perpetrators and the victims,” he said. “I consider this the darks side of our Austrian history.”

In its annual report, the Simon Wiesenthal Centre has attacked “decades of failure” and a “lack of political will in Vienna” to address the country’s Nazi past.

“In a period of more than 40 years, not a single war criminal has been convicted by an Austrian court,” noted the Nazi-hunting organisation.

Thursday’s inauguration of Mr Van der Bellen ends a year-old political odyssey that went into extra time last May when, after losing the run-off by just 30,000 votes, Mr Hofer’s FPö secured a re-run because of voting irregularities.

That re-run had to be postponed due to non-sticky glue used in postal vote envelopes.

Mr Van der Bellen’s long road to the Hofburg palace has now been immortalised by Austria’s 2016 word of the year. Deep breath: Bundespräsidentenstichwahlwiederholungsverschiebung. Which translates as: federal president election run-off repeat postponement.