Europe braced for upheaval as Italy and Austria go to the polls

In both races, anti-establishment populists are trying to disrupt the status quo


Even by 2016 standards, the week ahead could be a tumultuous one for the European Union.

Two key votes take place this Sunday, following close on the heels of the French centre-rights’s presidential run-off, in which François Fillon — a Thatcherite social conservative with a fondness for Russia — claimed an unforeseen, though decisive victory.

As a result, French voters are facing a right-wing derby, which could end with an unapologetic fascist moving into the Élysée Palace. The election of Marine Le Pen would be a crushing blow to the EU and to international progressive politics, and must be resisted.

However, even if the centrist compact holds — and progressives bring themselves to vote for an anti-immigration, anti-Muslim, anti-abortion, anti-same-sex marriage candidate — President Fillon’s sympathy towards Moscow will shift the balance of power in Europe, leaving Angela Merkel even more isolated than before.

Meanwhile in Italy, a referendum on constitutional reforms has evolved into a face-off between social-democratic prime minister Matteo Renzi and the Beppe Grillo, a eurosceptical former comedian and friend to Nigel Farage.

While there are strong arguments against the reforms that Renzi has proposed, the consequences of a ‘No’ vote could be far-reaching. Following on from Britain’s decision to leave the EU and the Netherlands’ vote against a free trade deal with Ukraine, a defeat of the reforms would be seen as another act of popular opposition to the EU, led by Grillo and his 5Star Movement.

Additionally, the FT warns today that the market instability caused by a ‘No’ vote could bring down up to eight of Italy’s struggling banks, sending shock waves across the Eurozone.

If the poll goes against the government — and the latest aggregation of polling data suggests that it will — by this time next week Europe’s leaders could be fighting yet another economic wildfire.

On the same day that Italy votes, Austria will hold a re-run of its presidential poll, with Green Alexander Van der Bellen facing off against the far-right Norbert Hofer.

In May, progressives breathed a sigh of relief as Van der Bellen was narrowly declared the winner, but the vote was annulled soon afterwards. Although there was no evidence of vote-tampering or fraud, technical electoral rules had been broken.

As before, the race is too close to call and tensions are high. Indeed, the atmosphere is even more fraught this time around given the Brexit vote, the election of Donald Trump and the proximity of elections in Germany, France and the Netherlands. Far-right nationalists in all those countries will be emboldened by a Hofer win, which will be taken as further evidence that Trump’s win was not a freak accident, but part of a larger populist surge.

On the other hand, a Van der Bellen win would provide some comfort to the continent’s progressives. After months in retreat, and a series of cataclysmic shocks, we could all do with some good news.

Niamh Ní Mhaoileoin is editor of Left Foot Forward. Follow her on Twitter

See also: Farage and Le Pen sound similar but represent very different brands of Euroscepticism

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