Elephants in the Room

Europe Is Ripe for a Return to Establishment Politics

Anti-migration parties may become victims of their own success.

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz delivers a statement in Vienna on May 22.
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz delivers a statement in Vienna on May 22. Hans Klaus Techt/AFP/Getty Images

The collapse of the Austrian governing coalition over the weekend was a shock not only for Austria but also for Europe more broadly in the run-up to this week’s elections for the European Parliament. Far-right populists had been expected to do well—and still could. But it may be that the political cost of open pandering to Moscow on the far-right’s part, along with a diminishment in the continent-wide migration crisis, could lead to a more establishment politics in Europe, slowing the polarization and fragmentation that threaten the trans-Atlantic alliance.

It’s not much of a surprise that Heinz-Christian Strache, the leader of the anti-immigration, right-wing Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), was seemingly willing to make a deal to use Austrian government money to enrich a Russian oligarch in return for a campaign contribution—as a video sting revealed, plunging the party into chaos. The FPÖ, after all, signed a mutual cooperation agreement with Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party in 2016, and the Russian president famously attended the wedding of FPÖ-nominated Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl in 2018.

But that Strache actually got caught on camera in a venal and almost comedic scene demonstrating the lengths the FPÖ is willing to go for Putin was the last straw for center-right Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who moved for new elections. It’s hard to see how the FPÖ can recover politically—and Kurz has taken an enough-is-enough tone in bringing down his own coalition government. As an individual, Kurz remains exceptionally popular for an Austrian chancellor, which will likely sustain his Austrian People’s Party. Polls show Kurz up and the FPÖ down.

There’s also a question of knock-on effects around Europe among parties that share a profile like that of the FPÖ: hard on immigration and soft on the Russians. Many voters could still cast a protest vote for parties such as the FPÖ, the Alternative for Germany, or the National Rally in France on the immigration question, knowing in the back of their heads that these parties are cozying up to the Kremlin. But with the blatant Russia adoration of the FPÖ video in front of them, voters may think twice, and the outcome for anti-migration forces around the continent may not live up to expectations.

Migration remains a major concern of European voters. A recent YouGov poll of 8,000 citizens in eight European Union countries shows that a grand total of 3 percent think that “all is well” on the migration front, and only 14 percent believe the EU has done a good job handling the crisis. Overall, immigration is the voters’ No. 1 concern heading to the polls this week.

But the fact is that migration numbers today are falling, and fast. Migration numbers today are falling, and fast. A deal with Turkey has kept the Balkan route closed, Italy’s new government has essentially sealed its external borders, and new asylum requests in the EU are down by half since peaking in 2015.

What does this mean for the coming elections?

On May 27, after EU election results come in, much of the media will likely focus on the best Europe-wide result ever for Euroskeptic parties. In Italy, Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini’s League will likely become the country’s largest party. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party is set to take over 55 percent of the vote and potentially pick up two seats. And new parties with tough positions on migration like Vox in Spain and the Brothers of Italy are also on track to break onto the scene and pick up additional seats.

These narratives miss the two most important potential takeaways: Anti-migration parties may become victims of their own success, and traditional, mainline parties that have adapted their policies and messaging may be able to hold the majority in the center.

Data from several countries hints at these trends. On the first point, in Italy, Salvini has built his political rise on the migration issue, but in his role as minister of the interior, he’s also quite eager to take credit for having reduced the migrant flow through Italy’s ports by 98 percent compared to two years ago. Over time, it will become difficult for him to claim both that he’s been uniquely effective at reducing migrant flows and that immigration remains a threat.

On the second point, although slow to move and adapt, some of the continent’s traditional mainline parties have also staked out a tougher position on migration. This is particularly true in Germany, where the Christian Democratic Union, under new, post-Angela Merkel leadership, will likely limit its losses to a handful of seats; the Alternative for Germany cannot seem to break too far north of the 10 to 12 percent mark nationally, which means a gain of only about four seats. In many ways, it was precisely this strategy that Kurz took with the FPÖ: Get tough on borders, focus on the economy, and keep the right wing in its own Russian box.

The case is similar in France—and if hard-line, anti-migration parties cannot gain significant numbers of seats in these big countries, it’s hard to see them gathering the numbers they need by cherry-picking a seat here and two seats there in the smaller countries.

There’s no doubt that migration is one of the major wedge issues used by Russia to stoke resentment and disaffection with European governments and the EU. There has been no greater gift to Moscow’s narrative about the dysfunction of the EU in recent years than the migrant flood in the summer of 2015.

Today, however, beginning with Austria and looking around the continent, it seems that pro-Russian, anti-immigration parties are under more pressure than anyone expected. That could be a good sign for the future of the trans-Atlantic alliance that still constitutes the world’s economic and political center of gravity.

Jan Surotchak is regional director for Europe at the International Republican Institute, overseeing the Institute’s initiative to counter Russian meddling, the Beacon Project. The views expressed in his articles for FP are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the International Republican Institute. Twitter: @jansurotchak

Daniel Twining is the president of the International Republican Institute and a former counselor at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the International Republican Institute. Twitter: @DCTwining