Brussels, Belgium. 6th June, 2018. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker gives a joint press conference with Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz.

Reactions at the European level to the extreme-right participation to Austrian governments (1999 & 2018)

avril 2019

The wave of populism has been ravaging Europe for a while now and there seems to be no end to it yet. Austria is a  particular case. Extreme right, or as some call, far right parties, have gained an immense electoral support by the Austrian people three times with almost 10 years interval each time- in 1999 with 26.9 percent, in 2008 28.24 percent, and once again in 2017 with accumulated 26 percent. The careful eyes of Brussels are quietly observing and rolling slightly.

By Marleen Moor

"Austria, far right & the EU: 1999 vs 2017"

From the European Union’s point of view, the situation is setting an uneasy and nervous tone, above all in the historical course of the EU, which is constantly shaken by growing populism and increasing extreme right participation on the EU level. The Austrian case highlights well that the extreme right comes and goes - nowadays still, these political parties are big players in the political arena and become part of the coalition in the government. The Austrian case shows as well, that extreme right parties offer solutions and promises that seem to be very attractive to its voters – the public feels more convinced by their electoral programs and thus decides to vote for these parties. 

Figure 1- Combined electoral support for FPÖ and BZÖ in parliamentary elections.
Source: Election Resources on the Internet: Federal Elections in Austria - Elections to the Nationalrat (National Council) 

Parliamentary elections results between 1999 and 2017 for the extreme right in Austria

In 1999, the Freedom party (FPÖ) showed a strong performance - it earned 26.9 percent of the votes. Back then, the leader of the Austrian Freedom Party was the charismatic Jörg Haider (Atkins 2017). To illustrate the on and off attractiveness of the Austrian extreme right for the electorate in Austria, Figure 1 shows the percentages of electoral support for FPÖ and BZÖ in parliamentary elections from 1999 to 2017. In 2002, there is a sudden drop in support which then starts to increase again in 2006 and finally hits its peak in 2008 with 28.24 percent of votes. In 2013 and 2017, the support for the extreme right remains on a rather similar scale - 24.04 and 26 percent respectively (European Election Database; Bodlos & Plescia 2018). 

Let’s now look at some more recent history to see the differences more closely. Austria’s current right-wing government was sworn in on December 2017. This date was also significant for two other reasons. Firstly, Sebastian Kurz, leader of the conservative People’s Party (ÖVP), became chancellor and the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) returned to power. The People’s Party won 32% of the vote in the October 2017 elections and secured 62 seats in the 183-seat national council. The Freedom Party secured 26% of the vote and 51 seats (BBC 2017). Both parties managed to find common ground in the coalition talks, one aim of which was to introduce measures to reduce immigration (Weisskircher 2018). The common goal of both parties to reduce immigration facilitated the coalition talks to a great extent and both parties thus found their common vision. 

Sanctions of the EU in 1999 versus 2017 and the shift in attitudes

In 2017, EU leaders and institutions silently accepted the coalition deal between the far-right force and the conservative ÖVP (Gotev 2017). Nigel Farage’s tweet explained well the EU’s sentiment: “…no one says a word. Eurosceptic politics is now mainstream” (Gotev 2017). This situation creates a great contrast with the situation back in 2000, when the EU had imposed sanctions on Austria as a reaction to the Austrian Freedom Party’s entrance into the government. 14 EU member states imposed sanctions on Austria by freezing bilateral relations, there were no contacts or ambassadorial meetings held at an intergovernmental level,and finally, Austrian candidates were not supported when EU international offices were assigned (Gotev 2017). 

It seems that to some extent, the roles of Austria and EU have reversed. On certain topics at EU level, there has been a lot of reaction from Austria to EU key speakers. For example, Sebastian Kurz openly criticized Angela Merkel, a woman considered nowadays as one of the emblems of the EU, on the 2015 migrant’s relocation policies (Bell 2018). In this topic, extreme right networking is also present, since Mr Kurz has managed to find allies in the Italian government to join him against Merkel’s ideas (Bell 2018). 

Austria leading the Presidency of the Council of the European Union and Common Dialogue between Extreme Right parties

Austria’s presidency of the Council of the European Union started on the 1st of July of 2018 and lasted until the end of 2018. In the discourse of its presidency, it was possible to sense that Austria is much inspired by the extreme right discourse - a summit on immigration was hold and concrete phrases such as stopping ‘illegal immigration’ were also highlighted. One of the main topics was also the improvement of  Austria and Russian relations (Gotev 2017). 

According to Shuster, in countries such as ‘‘France, Germany, but also Italy and Sweden, parties that had ruled from the center for decades have been weakened and pushed aside by populists and demagogues who speak the language of division: nationalism against globalism, the patriots against the traitors, the people against the Establishment’’ (Shuster 2018). Language of division is the mechanism through which far-right governments in Europe can find a common ground, using images aimed at division in their discourses in the national contexts. By using emotional discourses in the EU institutions, they further emphasize the conjunctive element of division amongst the far-right parties. It is through this mechanism that far right parties can secure their positions in unity at EU level. 

When looking at other examples in the European Union in terms of active far or extreme right movements, it is very important, in this context, to emphasize as well the role of Italy. The party Lega Nord and its leader Matteo Salvini present two aims: to have a strong anti-migrant and an anti-Brussels positioning (Bremmer 2018). Here as well, network plays a big role - Salvini is actively engaging in conversations with other far-right parties in the EU to gather more supporters for the anti-immigration position.

Pro-Russian sentiment in Austria and Italy in the midst of the sanctions

The rise of far-right in Austria, but also in other EU member states has provided a window for rapprochement with Russia which intensifies the idea that extreme right parties have a tendency to have close relations with Russia. In 2018, both Austria’s and Italy’s new governments including far-right parties have signed cooperation agreements with Russia (Henley 2018). 

In fact, Austria’s relations with Russia are so advanced that security observers  are sending out worried signals to Austrian counterparts. According to specialists, “national security services should pay more attention to Russian influence on the far-right and extreme right, an issue that has essential relevance to national security”(Weidinger; Schmid; Krekó 2017). Many countries, such as the UK, or the Baltic countries, have issued detailed reports about the threat of Russian information warfare,, while it should be noted that Russian espionage activities have been spotted in Austria (Weidinger; Schmid; Krekó 2017). 

There is also an economic dimension involved since both EU member states, Italy and Austria, hope for the relaxation of the sanctions Russia  faces since the annexation of Ukraine (Henley 2018). The EU has started to notice the growing enthusiasm of both Italy and Austria towards Russia - Kurz’s role here was to make sure that his EU partners are well aware that he is, after all, loyal to Brussels (Henley 2018). The close relationship between extreme right-minded governments of the EU such as Italy and Austria, adds an interesting dimension to the EU and Russia dialogue, in which extreme right parties are trying to renew a dialogue after the Ukraine crisis and Russia’s sanctions. 

To conclude, there is a clear difference in the attitudes of the EU towards extreme right participation in the government in Austria from the elections of 1999 until 2017. In 2000, there was a collective understanding of actions in the form of sanctions that needed to be taken in order to show reluctance towards the new Austrian government. After the 2017 elections in Austria, this type of activity could however not be observed. In that sense, is extreme right and populist discourse indeed becoming more standardized and mainstream?

The extreme right participation in the governments in the European Union has created a mechanism, which has allowed these governments to generate common ideas and reinforce their political views to become a counterbalance towards Brussels. Secondly, using examples such as Austria and Italy, it is possible to see that there are pro-Russian attitudes amongst some extreme right dominated governments in the EU which in turn, creates new communication with Russia on chosen topics.

Austria’s fondness towards the extreme right expresses itself well in the electoral history of the country. The fact that extreme right has been successfully included in the government’s coalition in both 2000 and in 2017 shows that despite its somewhat extreme nature, Austria’s citizens have chosen to vote for and to be represented by these parties. In addition to Italy and Austria, there are other governments in the EU who have currently extreme right or far right parties in their governments such as Hungary and Denmark. This means that these European Union’s member states will look for supporters of their ideas from other far right governments and thus, will try to collectively influence political views at EU level. A growing number of European governments with extreme right members will create a counter-balance to the rest of the governments in the EU. In the light of those findings what will be the new dynamic of EU relations between its member states? Only the future will show.

Références bibliographiques

SHUSTER, Simon. « Sebastian Kurz Is Bringing the Far-Right into the Mainstream | Time ». Time, 29/11/2018,
Disponible sur : <> (Consulté le 30-04-2019).
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Cette chronologie présente les grands jalons de la vie politique européenne (élargissements successifs, référendums nationaux, élections européennes, etc.) et s'articule autour des différentes thèmes abordés dans les articles du dossier "Une vie politique européenne ?".