Anti-E.U. campaigns may help at the polls, but campaign promises fade quickly

It’s easy to see why parties across Europe gain from campaigning with an anti-European Union agenda. From Sebastian Kurz in Austria to Andrej Babis in the Czech Republic, euroskeptic party leaders saw victories in fall 2017 by putting their own countries first.

But these politicians quickly discover the limits to their anti-E.U. agenda in Brussels. Anyone who thought Kurz’s Oct. 15 victory would move Austria away from Brussels and “closer to the East and the new Europe” of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia is likely to be disappointed.

Kurz headed to Brussels for post-election meetings with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker as an E.U. reformer but returned to Vienna an E.U. defender, bluntly announcing that we are “on the German side.”

Early indications suggest Babis, whose ANO party won the Czech Republic elections on Oct. 21, also isn’t likely to upset the Brussels consensus. Babis faces his own troubles finding a coalition partner but, like Kurz, is discovering the limits of an anti-E.U. agenda.

Anti-Europe works at home, but less so in Brussels

Running against the E.U. attracts voters in national elections, particularly when national interests are at stake. During the Austrian campaign, Kurz declared he was “for a strong Europe in the big questions but decisively against a social union.” Accordingly, he called for adding a five-year residence requirement for workers in Austria who are E.U. citizens before they could become eligible for Austrian social benefits. Kurz said the savings would help offset some of his roughly $14 billion in proposed budget cuts.

Excluding working E.U. citizens from the Austrian social benefit system would violate European principles of free movement, while the social equality of workers is a cornerstone of E.U. law. Kurz suggested the United Kingdom had negotiated a similar E.U. exclusion before the Brexit referendum.

But it is one thing to call for big changes to E.U. law as part of a tough campaign and another to ask Brussels to put E.U.-level cooperation on hold until those changes are addressed. For now, it’s inconceivable that Kurz would spend all his political capital in Brussels to redeem a popular campaign pledge, much less follow the British lead in using exit threats to gain concessions.

The E.U. itself is taking a harder line on migration issues

Kurz and Babis campaigned on promises to shield their countries from a new influx of migrants, as well as limit the social burden of existing immigrants. Babis, for example, claimed “Europe could not solve the problem.”

Babis may be acting like the bearer of hard truths, with his post-election declaration that illegal immigration needed to be stopped. In reality, few in Brussels disagree with him — and E.U. efforts have led to a sharp downward trend in migrant arrivals in Europe over the past 16 months.

Today many in Brussels would agree that the E.U. was not adequately prepared for the refugee crisis. Kurz and Babis, in fact, line up with the current Brussels consensus on refugee policy — namely, seal external European borders, admit no illegal immigration and work with migration-control partners in Africa. This will make it more difficult for either to profile themselves as anti-E.U. on migration.

Watch Brussels push back — after the election

E.U. leaders rarely comment on national campaigns — by design. But once the election winner is declared, Brussels becomes an outspoken advocate of pro-Europe policies.

Here’s an example: Juncker recently sent his congratulations to Kurz. Juncker reminded Kurz of his responsibilities as upcoming president of the European Council and wished him success in forming a “stable, pro-European government” — a message that many saw less as a blessing than as a warning.

Kurz may fall in line for other reasons. His proposed coalition partner, the anti-Europe Freedom Party, campaigned for Austria to leave the E.U. The Freedom Party is deeply stamped by far-right politics — from its founding by ex-Nazis in the 1950s to the youthful activities of its leader Heinz-Christian Strache in the neo-Nazi scene. Austrian elites were taken aback when the New York Times wrote that the country’s Nazi past had suddenly resurfaced.

Concerns about extremism helped spur coordinated European bilateral sanctions the last time the Freedom Party joined a governing coalition with the People’s Party in 2000. Kurz needs to put all of this behind Austria — and swearing a new allegiance to Brussels helps.

In the Czech Republic, Babis and ANO’s successful anti-establishment message played to Czech skepticism of the E.U. — but Babis also finds himself tied to Brussels in conventionally establishment ways. Agrofert, the large holding group for the agricultural, foodstuffs, chemical and media companies he built, continues to benefit from E.U. subsidies.

With the European Anti-Fraud Office investigating a separate, nearly 2 million euro E.U. subsidy to his family’s Stork’s Nest Resort near Prague, it is difficult to see Babis choosing a head-on collision course with the European Union as prime minister. He will still need support from Brussels on a number of his post-election goals, including food quality.

In Central Europe, the newly elected reformers appear to have become the reformed. During the national campaign, every candidate calls for E.U. reform, and each means something different by it. But winners soon find their positions on the E.U. under great strain.

Michael Burri teaches at Temple University and is on the board of the Austrian Studies Association.

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