Houston, we have had a problem! The leader of the Austrian sovereignist party had to resign after having involved in what was already defined as the greatest scandal of the last 50 years. Heinz-Christian Strache, Freedom Party (FPÖ) chief and Austrian vice chancellor, was caught on video while discussing government contracts with an alleged Russian investor, in return for campaign support. He left the government, of which his force was the junior coalition partner of Sebastian Kurz’ Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), one week ahead the European elections.
These are bad news for the League and its “captain”. Matteo Salvini lost his best foreign partner, and the only one in government. Strache’s FPÖ found its place within the Europe of Nations and Freedom group (ENF), the parliamentary body where all the anti-European forces sat in this expiring European legislature. ENF group is the group of the League, too. After the 26 May elections, the two parties are expected to keep working together in the European Parliament, but now it has to be seen how the big scandal will affect the public opinion in Austria.
European vocation of Austria
Austria never watched so east. After the second world war, on the contrary, the country worked to regain a normal place within the European geo-political framework. As well as Germany, Austria too was divided in four zones of influences, controlled by the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Soviet Union. It took a decade to Austria to come back to independence. It was only in 1955 that the territorial division and military occupation came to an end.
Since then, Austria committed to military neutrality, and devoted itself to the Western doctrine. The country asked to be part of the European Communities, and became a NATO partner by taking part in peacekeeping activities. The fact that Austrian politicians can be in such type of business with Moscow is something completely unprecedented to Austrians.
Salvini to become weaker in Europe?
What happened in Austria will not hit Salvini’s domestic popularity. The League will be the most voted political party, no doubts about that. On the other hand, Strache’s scandal is being already producing domino effects on Salvini’s agenda. Italy has been harshly criticized for the imbalances of its public finance and the economic agenda to be put forward by the Italian government. And no FPÖ hand came to rescue the Italian ally.
By leaving his post as party chief and vice-chancellor, Strache stressed that FPÖ “wants to continue implementing the government’s program”. Which means no deviations from EU financial thresholds, no change of the European rules. Because none of all this is foreseen by the political program of the Austrian government with FPÖ on board. That’s a problem, for Mr. Salvini.
The “captain” of the Italian far-right, euro-skeptic, party, has repeated many times that EU parameters on deficit and public debt are counterproductive tools, since they undermine growth instead of stimulating it. But Austria wants to stop the Italian project. More precisely, it was the Austrian Finance minister, Hartwig Löger, a politician from ÖVP, chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s Austrian People’s Party, to attack the neighboring country. “By deliberately pushing ahead with the Italian debt spiral, it can no longer be ruled out that Italy will become a second Greece”, he warned. “We are not ready to pay for the debts of Italy”.
League-FPÖ not made to stay together
The developments illustrate how reliable can sovereignist partners can be. It should be clear by now how different are such forces, focused on their own national interests by definition. The confrontation on fiscal policy is nothing but a further proof of the incompatibility of these kind of parties. They have very little in common, and as a consequence very little to share. FPÖ declared itself against Europe, and then showed to be a convinced defender of austerity, promoted by their allies on the domestic scene.
Are sovereignists made to stay with Putin?
One thing in common however is that both Salvini and Strache have close ties with Russia. Vladimir Putin is indeed a point in common between the anti-Europeans of Austria and anti-Europeans of Italy. Both claim less Europe for more Italy and more Austria. But is it really so? Apparently not. It is just about replacing Brussels with Moscow.
Thus, the Austria scandal raises another question mark. How credible are parties talking about national sovereignty and pushing for less Europe, while working for be under the dependency of another countries? In Italy apparently voters don’t care. Do they in Austria?