Migrants waiting for a train to Munich at Wien Westbahnhof in September 2015. (Photo: Bwag

What happened in Austria?

Werner Faymann, Austria’s social democrat chancellor, has resigned yesterday. He famously switched sides in the EU migrant crisis - from one of Angela Merkel’s closest partners to one of her fiercest opponents. However, the shift to the right did not work well with the Austrian voters and the members of his Social Democrat Party (SPÖ). In the recent presidential elections 35% voted for Norbert Hofer of the right-wing populist Freedom Party (FPÖ). Faymann is the first European leader to resign as a direct consequence of the migrant crisis. What are the implications for other European countries?

by the Know Nothing Enquirer    10/05/2016

UPDATE 22/05/2016: The second round of the presidential elections will be decided by the postal votes - roughly 12% of eligible voters. Without these votes, the FPÖ candidate Norbert Hofer is leading by 51.9%. The final results will be announced tomorrow. 


UPDATE 12/05/2016: It was announced today that Christian Bell, the CEO of the Austrian National Railways, will become Faymann's successor. The second round of the presidential elections will take place on 22 May. 

In early September 2015, several EU member countries - most notably Germany, Sweden and Austria - partially suspended the Dublin III Regulation and allowed asylum seekers to enter their countries. The EU law determines which member country is responsible for asylum seekers who entered the EU illegally (e.g. without a visa). Usually this would be the country a refugee entered first - i.e member states with external borders - in most cases Italy, Greece and Hungary. By August most of those countries (especially the latter two) where overwhelmed by the huge amounts of asylum applications. Most of the refugees entering the EU come from civil war torn Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Eritrea but also from the Balkan countries. While the first group have very high chances of attaining refugee status, the latter are mostly economic migrants with very low chances of being recognised as refugees. The overwhelming majority entered the EU through Greece and Hungary via the “balkan route”. Thousands of refugees were stuck at Keleti Pályaudvar, Budapest’s main international train station, under catastrophic conditions. When Austria and Germany eventually announced the temporary lift of the Dublin III Regulation, over 6,500 migrants crossed the border within the first 24 hours. They were greeted by enthusiastic crowds at Vienna’s and Munich’s main train stations. 


However, the “welcome culture” and the policy of open doors did not last very long. Only a few days later the German interior minister, Thomas de Maizière, announced that border controls with Austria would be reintroduced and rail services limited. This prompted Austria to announce similar restrictions and introduce border controls with Hungary and Slovenia. In late October, the Austrian government decided to build a fence to further control the migrants entering the country. This triggered a chain reaction with all countries along the “balkan route” severely restricting the daily number of migrants admitted into the country, building fences as well as other “temporary technical hurdles” and eventually closing their borders completely to migrants without appropriate documents (Hungary already built its fence in June). Further north similar actions were taken by Denmark and Sweden. In the whole year of 2015, 89,100 people applied for refugee status in Austria - a 300% increase from 2014. As most refugees heading for Germany crossed through Austria, the amount that crossed the Austro-Hungarian border is significantly higher. 


In January 2016, Austria introduced a yearly limit on refugee seekers and a daily cap for those transiting to Germany. In early March, the “balkan route” was de facto closed when Macedonia closed its border to Greece. On 20 March, the controversial EU-Turkey deal came into effect. All “new irregular migrants” that arrive in Greece are sent back to Turkey. The EU pledged to accept one Syrian refugee for every Syrian sent back. This took the pressure away from the countries on the “balkan route” and the Northern European states - the preferred destination of most migrants.

Merkel Fayman

Angela Merkel and Werner Faymann in 2008. Not so friendly anymore? (Photo: Werner Faymann)

Many interpreted Faymann’s later actions in the migrant crisis as a rightwing shift by giving in to the demands of the FPÖ. Within the party this was a controversial move and the members are split on the issue. He, of course, also conceded to the demands of the centre-right coalition partner, the ÖVP.  In an interview with DLF, Hannes Swoboda, a former SPÖ MEP, criticised Faymann for his inconsistent politics in the migrant crisis. Instead of following the demands of the right to close the borders, he should have worked together with other European countries on a feasible long-term solution to reduce the number of refugees entering the country. Even though Faymann’s new outlook in the migrant policy is popular in Austria, the FPÖ was the main benefactor - the “real alternative”. Voters in the presidential elections punished the social democrats for their inconsistent actions. Of course, Rudolf Hundstorfer, the SPÖ presidential candidate, did not come across nearly as dynamic and charismatic as Hofer, which might have cost him some votes. Further, the party’s inconsistent outlook has not only manifested itself in Faymann’s recent 180 degree turn in the migrant crisis, but also by the SPÖ working together with the populists on communal and state level. the two parties are in a coalition government in the eastern state of Burgenland since last year.

The elections and Faymann’s resignation can be viewed as representative for the crisis of European social democracy. Europe’s populist right-wing parties have adopted many economic policies from the left. People across the EU are also disappointed with the secretive TTIP negations and do not see themselves adequately represented by mainstream social democratic parties - whereas most eurosceptic parties on the right are firmly against the proposed trade agreement. Many social democratic parties in power have shifted to the right, losing further credibility amongst their core voters. The French youth is currently protesting against their socialist president’s proposed labour reforms. The German social democrats are struggling to establish a clear profile after governing for years in a grand coalition together with the CDU. Or the Labour Party struggling to find a new profile after Tony Blair’s New Labour era. 


Must Angela Merkel fear a similar outcome? According to a recent opinion poll, only 36% of Germans would want her to stay chancellor for another term after the 2017 elections. And another poll suggests that merely over 50% would vote for CDU (30.5%) and SPD (19.5%) - the lowest result ever. 15% would vote for the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD).


The public opinion is quite similar in the two countries and the populist parties are popular - the AfD and the FPÖ also have very similar political views. They are both eurosceptic, anti-establishment, “anti-islam”, against Merkel’s handling of the migrant crisis and nationalistic. Of course there are big differences. While both parties see themselves as anti-establishment, the FPÖ was founded in 1955 and has been a part of the ruling coalition government at the federal level between 2000 and 2007 (with the ÖVP). The AfD, on the other hand, was founded in 2012 as an alternative to the political “mainstream”. 


Merkel did not abandon her “pro-refugee” position the same way as Faymann. She always demanded a “European solution”. With the EU-Turkey deal she achieved the closest European solution that the EU has agreed upon so far in the migrant crisis. This has appeased many of her critics in the CDU as the number of refugees arriving in Germany has decreased enormously. Moreover, despite the poll suggesting that the government has reached extremely low approval rates, only 15% would actually vote for the AfD - the only party that is completely opposed to the government’s crisis management. And most importantly, Merkel does not have to deal with Faymann’s social democrat “dilemma”. The SPD is suffering the most. In the recent state elections, only 12.7% voted for the party in Baden-Württemberg and 10.6% in Sachsen-Anhalt - less than the AfD in both states. Not exactly what you would expect from a “catch-all party” (Volkspartei). 


But what does this mean for Germany’s southern neighbour? As Faymann said in his resignation speech, Austria now “needs a chancellor whose party is totally behind him”. It won’t be easy.