Those who believe in the idea of a united Europe, the so-called pro-Europeans, were left with mixed feelings following the results of a referendum in Italy and a repeat presidential election in Austria. While the “No” victory was expected in Italy, few could imagine such a big difference between the two camps. Meanwhile, moderate Alexander Van der Bellen’s relatively comfortable win over far-right candidate Norbert Hofer in Austria was welcomed with relief. Clearly both ballots and their results are being interpreted on an international level in both pro- and anti-European terms and the same will apply in the upcoming elections in the Netherlands, France, Germany and maybe Italy, next year.
It is hard to say whether the Italian “No” vote exclusively reflects the negative attitudes of Italian voters vis-a-vis the EU. What is certain is that Italians voted against Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and his government and the vast majority of those who showed their disapproval were young voters. At the same time, it is obvious the Austrian electorate got scared when faced with the possibility of electing a far-right president and reacted with a larger turnout. About 3 percent more voters cast a ballot this time round, mainly in Van der Bellen’s favor.
Irrespective of the reasons that determined the election results, no one can deny their European dimension. It is no coincidence that Marine Le Pen, who likes to come across as Europe’s all-encompassing leader of far-rightists, populists and anti-Europeans, did not miss the chance to comment on both results, triumphantly with regard to Italy and comfortingly in the case of Austria. So the question that needs to be answered quickly is why anti-European sentiment expressed through boundless populism, ethnocentrism and a sensational rise in the acceptance of far-right views in many countries has prevailed and how it should be dealt with. Especially considering that all of these countries became EU members of their own free will – some were practically begging to be admitted – with no internal reaction. Meanwhile, everyone knew that admission meant relinquishing certain sovereign rights.
The most widely accepted, and easy, explanation regarding Euroskepticism is that European citizens are reacting to a decision-making process which affects them and takes place through faceless mechanisms in Brussels. At the same time, they are reacting to the austerity they believe is being imposed by Germany. This might be true up to a certain point, because no alliance has ever existed without some common rules and a leading power. No one knows how the situation in Europe will evolve, but the key issues are still the same: broadening inequalities between rich and poor must be contained, unchecked capital transfers in different directions must be restricted, and the welfare state must be maintained. It’s a difficult situation. Especially with populists, extreme rightists and anti-Europeans in power.