2016 has been a busy year for member states of the EU, and it doesn’t look like it is going to calm down any time soon. Austria recently voted for their new president (a largely ceremonial role), but with 0.6% between the winning independent/former Green Party candidate Van der Bellen (50.3%) and far-right FPÖ (Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs – Austrian Freedom Party) Hofer (49.7%), the election was too close to call until the postal votes were counted. While we can rejoice at the fact that Austria will not have Hofer, a man who carries a gun for ‘protection’ due to increased migration and threatened to use the (limited) powers he would have had as president to their full extent by potentially dissolving parliament, we must also consider the fact that 49.7% of the Austrian electorate voted for him. The country was quite literally divided down the middle, and while Van der Bellen may have secured the role in the end, we cannot ignore the fact that such huge numbers supported, and continue to support Hofer’s ideologies.
The Austrian presidential election isn’t the start however, and it certainly isn’t the end either. Europe has been seeing a shift – some might say a lurch – to the right recently. In Germany, AfD (Alternative für Deutschland – Alternative for Germany) received 24.3% of the vote in the local elections (2016) in Saxony-Anhalt, 15.1% in Baden Württemberg and 12.6% in the Rheinland-Palatinate. Their membership numbers continue to rise and currently stand at around 20,000 – this is all for a party that was formed in 2013 on a largely EU-sceptic message. Since then the AfD has turned ever more to the right, as seen in their most recent manifesto and its outward islamophobia.
This year has also seen Sweden and Denmark reintroduce border controls in response to the migrant crisis, while Denmark also approved policy to seize belongings from migrants entering the country over the value of 10,000 DKK (around €1,344). The Dansk Folkeparti (Danish People’s Party) grew to be the second largest in last year’s election, jumping from 12% to 21% over the period of just four years, while in Sweden the Sverigedemokraterna (Sweden Democrats) recently polled at 24.5%, making it the largest party in the country. Like the AfD and the FPÖ, they both oppose immigration and multiculturalism in their respective countries. The UK has seen similar with the somewhat slower success of UKIP (UK Independence Party) toeing a similar party line to the above mentioned parties. The fear of immigration has largely dominated the campaign leaflets, slogans and speeches in the build up to the UK’s EU membership referendum tomorrow (23rd June). Across the Channel, France has seen the steady rise of Marine Le Pen of the Front National, while the Netherlands has Geert Wilder of the Partij Voor De Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) spreading a similar message of intolerance, ignorance and a desire to look after ones ‘own’ before others.
Tomorrow is a big day for the UK, its closest neighbours, the EU and in all honesty, the world. The campaign has been vicious – focusing on immigration, the economy and… immigration. The EU is by no means perfect, but to throw our toys out of the pram when the going gets tough is hardly the answer, nor a solution. The Leave campaign seems to be plagued by an old world view of the UK and its former empire. Like Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’, there is a harking back to a time that for some were the ‘glory days’ – the days when the sun never set on the British Empire. Personally, I am of the opinion that colonialism isn’t something to be celebrated, but for others it seems to be a tough pill to swallow that the UK cannot bark orders as part of a union (as a side note, it seems to be forgotten that while the EU is a union, the UK plays a heavy role in the decision making process and continues to carry substantial weight behind it as a key player). I certainly hope that Friday brings the news of a vote to remain in the EU – it would be sad to see the UK turn its back on the EU as a project, and as a union.
Sadder still is the prospect of further exit referenda in the near future – if the UK does decide to leave, it will place the future of the EU as a whole on thin ice at a time when all member states need to pull together. Alongside the rise of right wing parties across many member states, we face an interesting chapter in the as-yet-unwritten future of Europe.
(I do not own the rights to this image)