Austria in starting blocks for European elections campaign

File photo. Manfred Weber, candidate of the conservative parties in the European Parliament, speaks on the second day of the 31st Party Congress of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in Hamburg, Germany, 8 December 2018. [David Hecker/EPA/EFE]

The European elections campaign began just one day after the end of the Austrian Presidency of the Council of the European Union, with a special guest. EURACTIV Germany reports.

The EPP’s “Spitzendkandidat,” Manfred Weber, not only was the guest of Federal Chancellor of Austria Sebastian Kurz at the traditional New Year concert but also immediately took the opportunity to provide the direction for the election campaign.

He particularly targeted the populist, nationalist parties, including Kurz’s partner in government, the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ). This could cause tension inside of the coalition. EURACTIV Germany reports.

Broad right-wing populist platform in progress

In any case, the FPÖ has spent the last few days refining its DNA, once again focusing on the refugee issue. The social organisation Caritas is being attacked, having been accused of running an “asylum industry.”

There are also demands for there to be a hard line towards young people undergoing training who, having had their asylum application denied, should not be granted right of residence by the end of their training, but should instead be immediately deported.

The FPÖ’s “Spitzenkandidat” for the European elections, Harald Vilimsky, said that the President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker, who has been the FPÖ’s repeated target for months, was just embarrassing the EU.

Its coalition partner, the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) responded with an uncomfortable silence, which caused grumbling within the party. But, as is so often the case, this was because there was no desire to have a public argument.

However, this argument cannot fail to materialise with respect to European policy, if only because right-wing populists, as Vilimsky suggested in an interview, have been holding discussions about having an enlarged EU parliamentary group for months.

The group’s common element was expressed in the following statement, “we don’t want any extremists, any radicals but those saying that the EU should change and be reduced down to its core tasks.” With this statement, there are hopes of displacing the social democratic S&D, the second largest group in the European Parliament.

Vilimsky seeking confrontation with Karas

Moreover, the FPÖ has already chosen a source of friction in its coalition partner, the ÖVP – the party’s group leader in the European Parliament, Othmar Karas. Karas is a convinced European, who has sometimes made this known within his own party when it thought it was opportune to jump on a popular wave.

This was the case, for instance, when adjusting family benefits to foreign workers’ respective costs of living if their children do not live in Austria but in their home country. Karas, who has been an MEP since 1999, is regarded as one of Austria’s most experienced and respected MEPs. However, he has retained his decision on whether he will stand again for the coming weeks.

In contrast to the other four parties, who will or would like to make it into the next European Parliament, the ÖVP only intends to announce its candidates now in January. For the time being, the only thing that is certain is that Kurz wants to make the posting of MEPs into the European Parliament dependent on preferential votes.

One motivation for this is to make the elections more attractive to voters by letting them have a say. This could ensure that there is a mobilisation and therefore higher voter turnout, which was only at 45% in 2014.

Karas himself has had positive experiences in this regard. Moreover, due to its preferential voting campaigns, the ÖVP managed to finish first both in 2009 and 2014. The party is also considered to carry the banner of Alois Mock, the politician who pushed and went through with Austria joining the EU. It is now 30 years since Austria filed its application to become a member.

Parties looking for self-affirmation

The 2019 European elections are also important for Austrian opposition parties to raise their profiles. The new chair of the social democrat SPÖ Pamela Rendi-Wagner would also like to bring a sense of achievement to the party, sending the Andreas Schieder, the parliamentary leader who she replaced, into the race.

The Greens, who have not been represented in the Austrian parliament since October 2017, hope to at least be represented in the European Parliament again with the former member of the Austrian National Council Werner Kogler.

The liberal NEOS movement is hoping for the same thing with Claudia Ramon. Much is also at stake for the ÖVP, which is focusing on defending its leading position and want to use the European elections as general validation of its policies. Part of this is also having profile of a “pro-European party.”

The issues being debated play into the ÖVP’s hands. The priorities that the EPP wants to set with Weber and which he discussed with the Australian Chancellor are completely in line with the ÖVP. These ideas also gain majority support among the electorate.

In future, the principle of unanimity should be left with, instead, the majority principle, in the interest of having an effective foreign and security policy. In addition, an EU-wide digital tax and a financial transaction tax should be introduced – laws that have not gone beyond the discussion stage so far. Finally, an end to EU accession negotiations with Turkey is also on the agenda, a long-term request of Kurz also supported by Weber but which has not yet gained a majority.

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