Mitteleuropa, an area stretching from the North and Baltic seas to some of the Adriatic, represented a European “multi-ethnic dream” in the 19th and early 20th century. It comprised multicultural cities such as Trieste, Bratislava and Prague, and was home to a dynamic intellectual milieu that regularly produced pioneers such as Sigmund Freud and Italo Svevo. Vienna was the natural capital of this dynamic, cultural landscape.
Yet it all collapsed under the ashes of the First World War, and the subsequent disasters that followed the rise of authoritarian and fascist regimes in the region. The process of borderless European integration that started at the end of the Cold War had briefly revitalised this geographical area, but recent political developments show Central Europe is once again projecting a less reassuring and narrowly nationalistic face.
On December 15, two months after the parliamentary elections, Austria’s far-right Freedom Party (FPO) reached a five-year deal with the larger, conservative People’s Party (OVP) and officially became part of the country’s new coalition government.
Following the formation of the government, Austria’s new conservative chancellor Sebastian Kurz swiftly made it clear that he has no plans of backing away from the right-wing, anti-immigrant agenda that brought him electoral victory. Late last month, the Austrian chancellor urged the EU to consider establishing “safe areas” in refugees’ countries of origin to halt immigration to Europe, and said Brussels should not only organise this venture but also “back it militarily”. Kurz is expected to implement several other strict measures in the coming days to limit the rights of refugees and possibly Muslims living in Austria.
On January 3, during a meeting with his Polish counterpart, Mateusz Morawiecki, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban said “democracy has been restored in Austria because the Austrians who reject immigration elected a government that also does not want immigration.”
But what’s happening in Austria is not an isolated example.
In a sense, the whole of Mitteleuropa is going back to a pre-1945 climate of nationalism and xenophobia. Anti-establishment parties, demagogic mainstream nationalists and anti-immigrant far-right wingers already monopolise politics in Central European countries such as the Czech Republic and Poland. North of the Austrian border, an electoral breakthrough of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) shows that not even the strongest eurozone economy is immune to the substantial resurgence of right-leaning xenophobia in Central Europe. This is coupled with a number of xenophobic and anti-Semitic gatherings across the region – such as the white-only demonstration that took place in Warsaw featuring 60,000 nationalists, which was described by Poland’s foreign minister as a “great patriotic celebration”.
The formation of a right-wing coalition government in Austria was especially revealing of the current state of politics and public opinion in the Western world. Years ago, when the FPO entered into a coalition government in Austria for the first time, it created turmoil among the European and Israeli elites. Today, the very same public and media spheres are instead somewhat accepting of FPO’s right-wing extremism.
This comes alongside a tacit approval of anti-Muslim and anti-immigration sentiments. This approval is rooted in the irrational idea that immigration and globalisation represent a challenge to national/European traditions as well as to the identity of European citizens.
Today, the main worry in many EU spheres is not Austria’s vocal rejection of refugee quotas or its defence of the Christian connotations of the old continent. Instead, they are worried about whether the new Austrian prime minister and his cabinet will maintain a pro-EU stance.
About 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and in an era characterised by fears of migrations, all this touches, in fact, the inner soul of Western democracies: Are the years of multiculturalism gone? And, above all, are fascism and authoritarianism returning? In a fast-moving world, shaped by the changing faces of politics, the impact of fake news, and rising inequalities, these are reasonable, but, at times, not well-posed questions.
It does not make a lot of sense to talk about a return to the 1930s, nor suggest that the FPO or AfD will one day establish a fascist dictatorship. But this new, hardline, right-wing Austria may strengthen the existing Central European opposition to some EU policies. This will erode the European Commission’s attempts to stop the anti-liberal turn of Hungary and Poland even further.
Indeed, the Austrian government has already started showing what “nationalism in action” looks like. They are proposing to grant Austrian citizenship to the German-speaking Italians residing in the bordering regions of South Tyrol. This proposal, a clear example of ethnicity-based politics masked behind moderate faces and expressions, is generating tension between Italy and Austria.
Kurz suggested that they are simply respecting the will of the people from South Tyrol. He claimed that everything will be done in conjunction with the Italian government, and paradoxically argued that their proposal is made to forge “cooperation among the European states“.
The unfortunate truth is that this was simply one of the electoral promises of the FPO, a party aiming to protect German minorities in all territories once belonging to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In the 21st century, this is a bizarre and outdated attempt to return to ethno-imperial nationalism. If the EU, lobbying groups and European liberals aim to defend a supranational union and preserve the richness of multicultural societies, they should make member states accountable for not respecting some of the EU’s core values. Legal provisions are already available, and EU treaties are prohibiting discrimination and supporting “a society in which pluralism … tolerance … solidarity and equality … prevail.” Before any cultural revolution and long-term investments in education or wealth redistribution, this would be a first, practical starting point for a democratic struggle.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.