If EU govts won't change policies, far right leaders may replace them – socio economist
Economic and migrant troubles in Europe are pushing people to the streets, and the public is now turning to alternative parties - UKIP, Front National, and ones that until recent years have been almost unheard of. The elections in Austria saw a narrow defeat for the far-right Freedom Party, and the UK is considering leaving the EU for good. Will the process go further and will Europe give up its liberal values, with the Union falling apart due to the tensions? And if the right wing is getting an upper hand, then what about the leftist movement? And finally, how can European governments turn the trend around? We pose these questions to a social economist and a professor at the University of Linz in Austria - Friedrich Schneider is on Sophie&Co today.
Sophie Shevardnadze: Friedrich Schneider, social economist, professor at the University of Linz in Austria - welcome to the program, it's really great to have you with us. Professor, so, a far-right candidate almost wins the presidential vote in Austria, far-right parties are making gains in France and in the UK, Hungary, other EU member states. Now, do you believe this is the result of the Euro crisis, financial instability and migrant issues? So, is several years of economic trouble enough to make Europeans forget their traditional liberal values, like tolerance, openness, social welfare?
Friedrich Schneider: Oh, I don't think so. We have right-wing parties, not all are far to the right, but there are truly conservative right-wing parties, and in most European countries, their highest vote share is one third - so two thirds are not right. But, we have this problem, and as you said correctly, major causes for this movement to the right are the refugees, the Euro crisis, high unemployment rates.
SS: So, Austria's presidential election saw a narrow defeat for far-right Freedom Party member Norbert Hofer. His opponent beat him by less that 1% - is this proof of the right-wing parties' limitations? Or, the opposite - of growing popularity?
FS: Now, it is... this high share mostly comes from the protest movement. Voters are not very satisfied with what the government is doing and more or less punish the government, sending signals through a vote for Hofer, and almost half of the population voted for Hofer. So, for most voters this is not a shift to the right; as I said, third of voters are right wing. So, rest are protest voters, and voters want to send a signal to their governments: "change your politics, and if you change your politics, then I might vote for you at the next general election".
SS: Okay, but, professor - in your opinion, this near 1% defeat for this right-wing party candidate, is this a success or is this a failure? Do you think they will grow more popular after this defeat or on the positive?
FS: I think it's a success and failure simultaneously. It is a success for the right-wing party in Austria, the FPÖ, certainly, they've never got so many votes. But I know quite sure that they will not get so many votes at the next general election, when voters can make a choice between not only two candidates, but only between various parties. We have a new government now in Austria, and they have - I hope! - learned their lesson and will change the politics. So, it is completely open. It is a signal, it is a serious signal, I am considering this, but there's still 2-years time to change something, and if they change something, this popularity of the right-wing party might also dwindle.
SS: So, the vote was practically 50/50. It's clear that country is divided. Will the elected president need to take on some of the populist ideas to appease the other half of the population that didn't vote for him?
FS: He will certainly have to make an effort to be a president for all Austrian voters. That is a difficult task, that would also be a difficult task for Hofer if he would have been elected, but I really think he has to make great effort to win all Austrians. But, on the other side, the President in Austria has by no means the power that your president, in Russia, has. So, he can do a few things, but more or less, his main task is representation, his main task is to be critical, but he's not able to set up his own program and force the government to implement it.
SS: So that's what I'm thinking: the role of the President, it's pretty nominal, it's ceremonial. Why has there been so much fuzz about this particular vote?
FS: It's ceremonial, yes, but he has some... He can fire the government, he can refuse to appoint a minister - that he can do. But, I think he would never dare to do it against the majority of the voters. So, yes, he has some influence, but in general he's a pure representative figure. That is also the reason why 50% of the Austrians voted or almost 50% of the Austrians voted for Hofer, because they wanted to send a signal to the government: "If you do not change your behaviour, if you do not change certain things, this might be the outcome". So, it's a clear-cut message, and let's hope that the government has learned its lessons.
SS: So, the headlines after this Austrian election, they read, for instance: "Shadow of Nazism looms over Austria", or "Wake-up call for Europe", or "Far-Right Thwarted!" and so on. But Hofer campaigned on strengthening borders, protecting Austrian jobs, spending less on immigration - I can see why the population supports him. Why was everybody scared of him winning?
FS: Now, look, what the press and the media were writing was some overstatements. Yes, Austrian, German and a lot of European voters are afraid of the refugees, if hundreds of thousands are coming. We took 80,000 of refugees in Austria - that's something! And we are not used to doing it, so people are afraid, people ask the question - "What will happen? How can we integrate them?", and people are getting more and more insecure in their behavior, and then, as in a lot of countries, including your own, they cry for a strong man - and that is also happening here. If we make a good information, if we make some policy changes, if the government succeeds in reducing unemployment - the greatest concern of Austrians - then, this popular move will dwindle.
SS: So, amidst the Eurozone crisis, the migrant crisis, terror threats, European citizens turn to the far-right. Does that mean that they don't feel secure with their current leadership? Does the public believe that only a radical and tough stance can protect them at this point?
FS: A part, a minority of the voters - 15-20% are thinking this - not the total 50%,those who voted for Hofer. A part is thinking this. There's some dissatisfaction with the European government, and we're not in an easy situation. The Euro is stabilized now, we have some problems with Greece, yes, but the Euro is very-very stable currency with no inflation rate - opposite to your country - with a good outlook. The economy is the thing which worries a lot of voters. The world economy is weak, exports are not going as well, so jobs get lost, and this makes voters angry. Voters expect from their government that they will have a job and that their job security is kept.
SS: So, President of the European Commission, Jean Claude Juncker openly came out and said: "I do not wish for the Freedom Party candidate to become president of Austria". Why is it acceptable to openly denounce a presidential candidate of an EU state?
FS: I think this was a very risky statement. I wouldn't have done it. I think the Austrian President is the affair of the Austrian voters. Full stop. All this intervention from the outside is not very helpful, yeah? We should be quite distinct and clear on this. I really think we don't need this advice from outside - for such a thing. Due to this, I really think, outside statements and outside politicians should be more careful.
SS: You know, the story with Juncker reminds of the case of Jörg Haider, a far-right politician who actually won the vote in Austria and was set to become Chancellor, but had to step aside due to EU pressure. I understand where the EU is coming from, in these cases. I don't personally like that candidate, but isn't that infringing on the will of the people, expressed through a fair vote? I mean, imagine if the UN sanctions U.S. over Donald Trump's victory, for instance...
FS: Yeah, I would also reject this, you are right. In 2001, when Haider was in the government with the Free Democratic Party, we had a strong movement outside Austria, against Austria. I criticized this there, too. Now we have a right-wing party in Denmark, governing, we have a right-wing party in Finland governing, we have a right-wing party in Hungary governing - we have a lot of right-wing parties now in Europe, so I really think this policy is not anymore feasible. One can warn, but one shouldn't interfere. If Austrians want this type of President, they should elect it, and they should live with it and bear the costs, if it's a bad person.
SS: So, Professor, here's another thing - European far-right parties may seem the same on the surface, but in reality, they are about different things, and often, strongly dislike each other. For instance, the Dutch anti-Muslim Eurosceptics hate the French Front National. which, in turn, loathes British UKIP - and you can see that when you look at the right's inability to bloc together in the European Parliament. So, if Europe's far-right isn't able to form any kind of alliance - should we really be worried about them?
FS: Each country has to be worried about them. I am worried about the right-wing parties as I am worried about the left-wing parties. So, I really think we should be worried because of their political goals, of their political wishes and their political actions. I am strictly against violence and I am strictly against that you win not with the arguments, but win with the fights. They don't like each other to some extent, some form alliances, you are right, this is very open but there's no strong European right-wing movement - you are right on this, and, personally, I am happy about this.
SS: So, British right-wing UKIP party is competing with the mainstream right for votes, and to counter that, David Cameron is putting the question of leaving the EU to a national referendum. Do you feel like the far-right parties or far-right politicians are forcing the mainstream politicians to change their policies? I am not just asking about Britain.
FS: To some extent they are doing this, but this happened also with the left-wing parties: being more generous with social benefits and other things. We have a movement at this moment more to the right, yes, more to a nationalistic policy. This is correct, the influence is there, and I have some concern about this influence on other governments, but if you are in coalition, like in Denmark, like in Finland, then you have to make concessions. So, yes, this concern is there, but I think, with the questions and the tone of your questions, you overstate things. You always ask in a way - "now we have these very-very strong right-wing movements in Europe" - we have a right-wing movement, I do not deny this, but it is not as strong to dominate everything.
SS: Well, it's definitely stronger than it has been in years, and this is a trend that can be noticed across Europe. I am a journalist, I am obliged to overstate my questions - bear with me.
FS: You are right.
SS: Another question is: the migrant crisis is viewed as one of the main reasons behind the Freedom Party's popularity in Austria. But Austria has already been taking an increasingly tough stance on migration: it has closed its borders with Hungary to migrants, built a fence on the border of Slovenia, introduced controls and passed the law that allows to reject asylum seekers at the border. Is the Freedom Party's rhetoric much different from the line which Austria is already following today?
FS: No, no. This partly comes from the Freedom Party, these ideas, but the two governing parties now realize that they have to undertake some tough measures, but the origin is a different one, and we should also really say this: we have in Europe no solidarity. It was Germany, it was Austria, it was Sweden who took refugees, and if the other countries would have take some - by no means so many - we wouldn't have this problem. But all of a sudden, Austria realized: "Oh, I am a good guy and I am punished for being the good guy, and if I'm punished for being a good guy, I am a net financial contributor and the other take my money but have no solidarity in the refugee thing" - this, this was a reaction to become tough, and this has nothing to do with right-wing and right-wing movement. It was a clear lack of European solidarity and, maybe, we will get European solidarity back, then it might be different, but Austria and Germany were punished for being humane and then the voters and the politicians in Austria clearly said "No, that's not the game that we like to play". We take the most, and the other take none and get all the money.
SS: The EU forged a $6 bn deal with Turkey to help hold back refugees travelling to Europe. Now, Turkey recently lashed out at Brussels saying the promised funds haven't been allocated as of now. What is the EU waiting for? And do you think it's money well spent?
FS: This is a very difficult and good question. The problem with Turkey, I think, is a very serious one. Turkey is turning a democracy into a dictatorship, that's the first point - it's very obvious, when there are clear signals and Erdogan, the president, has this wish and wants to do it. That's the first thing. The second thing - the money is well spent if it will go to the refugees. Turkey has 2,5 million, Turkey was not one of the "bad guys", it was a "good guy". It took the refugees, like Lebanon who has far over a million, or Jordan and other countries. So, giving money so that refugees stay in Turkey and if the war is over, can go back to Syria or Iraq - I think it's a wise policy. Now, your question, whether this works or does not work, is totally dominated by the political situation. Political situation in Turkey is not so good, and especially the political tension between Turkey and the EU is growing, hence all arrangements may be at stake. So, here to make a prediction, I think at the moment it's not possible.
SS: So, the BBC recently aired the documentary called "The Last Whites of the East End" - it caused a storm, with some people dismissing it as racist and xenophobic, and then others are saying that it illustrates the fact of mass migration on British communities. Why is it so difficult to talk about changes migration is bringing to Europe?
FS: Migration was not a problem in Austria, from the former Yugoslavian countries. It was not a problem, we took a lot of them, we integrated them, and most of them are now Austrian citizens. It is something different if you have to take up 80,000 people from Syria, Iraq and partly from North Africa, with a different cultural background and, 40-50% are real refugees from Syria who lost everything. Other ones took up this chance, whether they come from Morocco or other parts of Northern and Central Africa, and say: "Okay, I want to have a better life in Europe, too". The ability to integrate these people, who start to speak a language which you do not understand, not a single word, with a completely different cultural background, was totally underestimated, in all European countries, whether it's Germany, whether it's Sweden, whether it's Austria, who took the biggest part. Here we have a big problem of integration, and, on the other side, it is not clear whether the civil war in Syria is over, or in Iraq is over, how many would like to stay in Europe, or how many would go back. It's a very difficult situation, so far we didn't have... from the Yugoslav civil war it was clear for them: "Okay, if we could live in Austria" - they live in Austria for 15-20 years, but a part of them is going back. So it's not so easy to handle this, but these are Europeans, okay, they speak Bosnian or Serb language, or Croatian language - it's a different language, but still, it's a European language with a European mentality. So, this is a big difficulty and no one here has a perfect solution to integrate them.
SS: So, as you said, unemployment is also behind the rise of "fringe" politics, right, with radical right and radical left. Youth unemployment levels in Southern European countries hover around an astounding 40%, while in Scandinavia, Germany, they are as low as 6%. So, with this kind of economic disparity, which is pretty obvious, how can the Euro economic alliance hold together?
FS: To fight unemployment is not a European task - we have, on the European level, a monetary policy. Whether this was a mistake or not will be another long and controversial interview. I think it was not, but a lot of other people do think this. But, the situation in Greece, Spain, Portugal, in Italy, is, to some extent, vastly different from those of the Scandinavian countries. In these countries reforms to be more flexible on the labor market are coming now, and hopefully will have an effect in rising employment and decreasing unemployment. But the situation is very much different from country to country and we have no European strategy to fight unemployment. We have some European means in infrastructural help, which might help to reduce unemployment, but to reduce unemployment is the task of every European government and the European governments should fulfill this task and should have good plans. Once this is set, one can be quite successful - look at our neighbor, Germany, who had high unemployment, who was labeled as "ill man" of Europe, etc, etc, at the beginning of this century, and look at Germany now - so I think, other countries could make similar movements, and then, they would also declining unemployment rates.
SS: Thank you so much, Professor. Thank you for this interview. We've been talking to Friedrich Schneider, social economist and author, professor of economics at the University of Linz, discussing the rise of the right-wing in Europe, its reasons and consequences. That's it for this edition of Sophie&Co, I will see you next time.