Trans-Europe Express: Tanks against migrants

Sent out every Friday at noon, Trans-Europe Express gives you an insider's view of the most important coverage from across the EURACTIV media network, its media partners and much more.

The rhetoric about sending troops to the Brenner Pass was especially reactionary. But Austrian Defence Minister Hans Peter Doskozil felt compelled to use it anyway.

Declaring that the landlocked country was ready to use tanks and soldiers to stop refugees from crossing its border with Italy, he couldn’t have been any clearer about his government’s resolve.

The question is why. Are Austrians so naïve as to imagine that the militarisation of their border with Italy would solve the migrant crisis?

But that was not the point. The idea was to reach out to potential voters in October’s forthcoming national election, who might otherwise vote for centre and far-right parties, more opposed to multiculturalism and immigration.

Pollsters are already calling for a Socialist Democratic Party (SPÖ) defeat in the October vote.

In a May poll, current coalition partners the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) would win 35% of the vote, while the anti-immigrant Freedom Party (FPÖ) would get 25%.

The centre-left would be the big loser, with the Socialists getting 21% and the Greens 9%.

Hence the sense of emergency communicated by Doskozil’s threat. It was as much about his government’s fear of losing power as it was about the non-existent threat posed by refugees.

Truth be told, this wasn’t the first time the SPÖ has reached out to the far-right. Undoubtedly eyeing the poll numbers, in May, Chancellor Christian Kern did not rule out a coalition with the Freedom Party.

The two parties already sit in a much-criticised coalition in Burgenland. But a national coalition would break Social Democrats’ longstanding policy against entering national coalitions with the far-right FPÖ.

That’s why the threat to militarise Austria’s Italian border is so significant. Not because the migrants are much of a problem right now – few are crossing the border anyway – but because it augurs a far more fundamental shift in Austrian politics.

If the Socialists can privilege a party that is both nostalgic for the Nazi era, and bedfellows with Italy’s Northern League and France’s National Front, the so-called populist surge is by nowhere near over.

It just means that its momentum has shifted, geographically, to where it would naturally be strongest. Given the nationalist, anti-migrant politics of Austria’s neighbours, the consistency makes more sense.

All the SPÖ are doing, in threatening to stop refugees with tanks, is normalising the paranoid rhetoric typical of the Visegrad countries, for whom immigration and diversity is far less familiar than to Vienna.

The future of populism may be hazy in Paris and Amsterdam but it is still in the process of becoming what distinguishes the eastern from western halves of the EU.

That Austria would be the transitional point makes perfect sense, given its proximity to its former imperial holdings.

The Inside Track

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