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Austria’s presidential vote on Sunday was billed as a political landmark for Europe: the first election of a far-right populist head of state since the second world war. Then thevote count started. The Freedom party’s Norbert Hofer may still end up in the Hofburg palace, elected for a party founded in the 1950s by a former SS general. But the result ison a knife edge and the Green party’s Alexander Van der Bellen could easily prevail. It’s down to postal votes. Vienna hosted two victory parties last night: a surreal end to a surreal campaign.
Regardless of the outcome, Mr Hofer’s rise is a reminder of some political chill winds in Europe. Other European far-right politicians have not yet come as close to power as the Freedom party. But if Mr Hofer succeeds, it would be possible to trace an arc of illiberal politics through Poland, Hungary (and to some extent) Slovakia and Austria that stretches from the Baltic sea to the gateway of the Balkans.
To varying degrees some of their ruling politicians share a nationalist, anti-immigrant, anti-Islam, anti-EU message. And, for all the grumbling, there isn’t much the EU can do about it. The main question is where populists, the far-right or anti-establishment parties will make their mark next, be it in France, Holland or some day in Germany. Read more
AfD supporters march in Saxony-Anhalt, one of the German regions with elections Sunday
Germany’s anti-immigrant Alternative für Deutschland party found itself without a home in the European Parliament on Tuesday after the assembly’s European Conservatives and Reformists group, the political home of Britain’s Tories, gave them a firm push out of the door.
In the tersest of one-sentence statements, the ECR confirmed it had “invited” its two AfD members to leave. Just in case they didn’t get the message, it went on to say that, if they choose to stick around, “a motion will be tabled to expel them” at the next meeting of the group’s executive on April 12.
The decision by the ECR to open its doors to the AfD after the party’s success in the 2014 European Parliament elections was a headache for David Cameron from the start. The move was an embarrassment at a time when the the British prime minister was trying to improve relations with Angela Merkel, the German chancellor who saw AfD as threat to her Christian Democrats on the right. Read more
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Mr Kenny with Irish president Michael Higgins after formally dissolving parliament Wednesday
To date, no eurozone leader who has guided his country through a bailout has emerged politically unscathed on the other side. Portugal’s Pedro Passos Coelho was deposed as prime minister in November after inconclusive general elections. Earlier last year, Greece’s Antonis Samaras suffered a similar fate at the hands of leftist Alexis Tsipras. And Spain’s Mariano Rajoy is looking increasingly unlikely to win back the premiership in Madrid after informing King Felipe VI this week that his coalition-building efforts were going nowhere. Can Enda Kenny end the losing streak?
The Irish prime minister asked for parliament to be dissolved yesterday, setting the stage for a three-week sprint to election day on February 26. Mr Kenny is already touting his economic record, and to any outsider, that would seem to be enough to put him over the top. Ireland is expected to be the fastest-growing economy in the EU in 2016, which would be the third year running. Its unemployment rate of 8.6 per cent, while still high, is lower than the eurozone average and well below the 14.7 per cent rate when Mr Kenny assumed office in 2011.
Despite that record, opinion polls have stubbornly shown his Fine Gael party unable to get much above 30 per cent, a good-sized decline from the 36 per cent they took in the last general election. More troublingly for Mr Kenny is the demise of his coalition Labour party, which has seen its support cut in half. Without Labour, it’s unclear who Fine Gael would go into coalition with – which could produce a similar result to that faced by Mr Rajoy and Mr Passos Coelho, who emerged from their elections atop the largest party, but one too small to cobble together parliamentary majorities. Read more
After weeks of waiting, Gunther Oettinger has replied to a letter from the Polish justice minister that compared the German commissioner’s criticism of Poland’s media reforms with. . . the Nazi’s crimes of the second world war.
The letter, which we’ve posted here, is surprisingly polite, with a perky hand-written “Dear Colleague!” to start. This marked a shift in tone from the original missive from Zbigniew Ziobro, who tartly complained last week:
You [Oettinger] demanded that Poland be placed under ‘supervision’. Such words, spoken by a German politician, have the worst possible connotations for Poles. For me, too. I am the grandson of a Polish officer who, during World War II, fought in [Poland’s] underground Home Army against ‘German supervision’.
But Brussels is determined not to get into a war of words with Warsaw. This tactic was tried and failed with Viktor Orban, the populist leader of Hungary, who was happy to spar in public with the commission over his reforms while becoming increasingly popular at home.
The Polish government has sent a punchy defence of its media reforms to Brussels, accusing the EU of getting its facts wrong and warning of the “undesirable effects” any crackdown on Warsaw will bring.
The letter to the European Commission’s first vice president Frans Timmermans, which can be read in full here, lays out Poland’s defence of its decision to sack senior management at state media outlets. Read more
Beppe Grillo arrives at a polling station near Genoa during last week's election
The only more interesting political spectator sport in Brussels these days other than the fight over the next European Commission president is the battle between the three euroceptic political groups in the European Parliament to secure allies from the sudden surge of anti-EU and anti-establishment parties that are coming to town.
On Tuesday, two of the most prominent potential kingmakers arrived in Brussels on the same plane: Beppe Grillo, the Italian comedian turned political insurgent who heads the Five Star Movement and its 17 newly-minted MEPs, and Matteo Salvini, leader of the Italian separatist Northern League, who arrived with 5 seats.
Both were being courted by the two new big eurosceptics on the block: Nigel Farage, the bombastic head of the UK Independence party, and Marine Le Pen, his counterpart for France’s Front National, who both are trying to form their own seven-country party groupings going into the new session. Read more