The Austrian presidential elections in December 2016 gave me an important insight into contemporary West European politics. Although independent candidate Alexander Van der Bellen was eventually voted in over the far-right candidate, Norbert Hofer still received 46 percent of the vote. This meant that around three million Austrians preferred a candidate that adopted Eurosceptic as well as Islamophobic rhetoric over a candidate that was formerly a member of the green party in Austria.
The results from the presidential elections sent a clear message to the government – people were dissatisfied with the status quo. The government reacted by introducing right-leaning policies to try and attract some of the right-leaning citizens. During one of the breakout sessions Dr. Ceka highlighted that this was a common tactic used by countries that had rising nationalist sentiment; traditional parties were forced to coerce voters that were on the border between center-right and right to vote for them instead. Dr. Ceka also highlighted the case of Emmanuel Macron who used a different tactic to tackle the issue. There has been a rise in support for the far-right in France as well but instead of appeasing the unsure right-leaning voters Macron targeted everyone else. His campaign was built on pro-EU rhetoric and after winning the Presidential election he celebrated with the anthem of the European Union.
Macron and Hofer are incredibly different when it comes to policies and goals but one thing they have in common is that both of them are anti-establishment.
In the West European Politics class I took in the spring semester we tried to identify some reasons behind the rise in far-right support as well as various approaches that different countries were taking to address the almost radical nationalists. The topic of migration came up in class numerous times and the rapid increase in migration was mainly attributed to the 2004 Eastern expansion of the European Union as well as the recent refugee crisis.
Even though the Eastern expansion offered some people better opportunities it meant that the labor market was becoming more competitive and people that were previously complacent in the labor market were adversely affected by the increased competitiveness. When people are fleeing war, however, it is more drastic then being offered a “better opportunity” in Austria – for them, migration was a life or death decision that they made when they left their countries and as soon as they are accepted by the Austrian government as refugees their status in Austria becomes different from that of economic migrants. Understanding this distinction was very important to some of the experts that we talked to during our trip.
Distinguishing refugees from economic migrants was important to some of the experts we were fortunate enough to talk to because of the different status that each “migrant” resultantly receives. A refugee is protected by a variety of international as well as regional laws and countries can face a lot of political pressure as well as economic sanctions if they violate those laws. An economic migrant, on the other hand, receives relatively less protection compared to a refugee. Although members of the European Union are required to maintain an open labor market to allow for free movement of labor between member states, member states do have the authority to repatriate economic migrants that do not belong to an EU member state back to their home country. Some of the experts we talked to believed that this distinction was crucial for European states to properly manage the large influx of migrants to their states and – from what I understood – there was a general consensus among the experts we talked to that since refugees could not legally be prevented from entering the country, there should be more limits placed on economic migrants trying to enter the country.
From a political science and economics point of view this seemed to make some sense to me. A lot of political theory that I have read focuses on the state’s responsibility to its own citizens and this was a prime example of Austrian citizens wanting the Austrian state to put its citizens first. From the economics classes that I have taken I understand that more laborers means more competition in the labor market which puts downward pressure on wages which would, understandably, frustrate people who previously had higher wages. After a lecture by Dr. Deckard and Dr. Heslin regarding citizenship, however, I realized that my understanding of state responsibilities was very limited.
Dr. Deckard and Dr. Heslin identified citizenship as the right to have other rights. Historically this “prime” right has been tied to the individual’s country of origin. The state they were born in was responsible for protecting their rights. After World War II, however, it became clear that an international declaration of human rights was necessary to prevent the atrocities that occurred during the war. Thus the United Nations declaration of human rights was born and certain rights were granted to people regardless of state affiliation. One minor hiccup was that the United Nations could not forcefully require member states to follow their rights. Dr. Deckard and Dr. Heslin did identify a different type of citizenship – one that I had not come across in any of the politics, philosophy, or economics I had read before.
I wrote a reflection about Dr. Deckard and Dr. Heslin’s lecture on market citizenship in a previous post so instead of providing an in-depth explanation of what it is I will relate it to the current situation regarding migration in Austria. From what I understood there seemed to be a general consensus in Austria that migration needs to be reduced somehow. Hardliners on international law maintained their position on continuing to accept asylum seekers fleeing danger, but it seemed to me that they had a very strict definition of what “danger” is; this strict definition of “danger” meant that sending some people back to their country of origin was still legal, regardless of how unsafe they were in their own country. People who were not as familiar with international law, on the other hand, maintained that the Austrian state could and should do whatever necessary to protect Austrian citizens and in the current context this meant reducing the number of asylum applications that the country accepted.
In both circumstances it seemed that the right to have other rights was exclusive to people that were born in Austria. The one instance where there was not really any debate about accepting migrants was when it came to the migration of highly qualified skilled workers who presumably would perform very well in the Austrian labor market. The problem with offering rights to migrants based on their market performance, however, has problems of its own which I wrote about in my mid-trip reflection.
After meeting with experts who have worked with different migration-related organizations, organizations responsible for collecting data on migration, and organizations dedicated to providing refugees living spaces in Vienna, the topic of migration became much more complex. Using an interdisciplinary approach our professors showed us the nuances behind the subject. One of the most memorable moments for me was witnessing my professors who had dedicated a significant portion of their lives to studying a specific subject take center stage when their discipline was called upon to explain either the migration issue or the reasons for the rise of the far-right. The visits to the museums and other historical sites in Vienna contributed to the experiential learning – reflecting on the lessons we learned was easier when we could associate our lessons to significant places and objects. The professors who organized and participated in the trip successfully transformed Vienna into their classroom and we the students were lucky to have been a part of it.