Can Europe Make It?

Populist snapshots: Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) in the European Parliament

This article looks at the basic framing devices of the Austrian Freedom Party's rhetoric in the European parliament, and some of their debates. It is taken from a Counterpoint series on populist rhetoric leading up to the European elections.

Marley Morris Andreas Mölzer Franz Obermayr Ulrike Lunacek Lena Kolarska-Bobińska
11 June 2014

Background

The Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) originated from movements that believed Austria should be part of a unified German nation. In 1986, Jörg Haider became party chairman, transforming the FPÖ into a radical right-wing protest party that positioned itself against the mainstream. It became known for its anti-establishment, anti-immigration and anti-Islam views.

Under his leadership, the party’s support rose from 5 percent in 1983 to 26.9 percent in 1999. In 2000, as the second largest party in Austria, the FPÖ formed a coalition with the ÖVP. The FPÖ subsequently faced internal disagreements and falling popular support. In 2005, Haider left the FPÖ, taking other senior figures with him, to set up a new rival party, the Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ). Under the current leadership of Heinz-Christian “HC” Strache, the FPÖ has largely regained the electoral support it lost during its period in coalition. Like Haider before him, Strache is a charismatic politician, making particular efforts to win over young people with stunts such as rap songs.

The ideology of the party under Strache is similar to that in the early years of Haider. It is “committed to protecting our homeland of Austria, our national identity and autonomy as well as our natural livelihood” and advocates restrictive policies on immigration and Islam. In the last European elections, the FPÖ secured 12.71 percent of the vote.

The FPÖ’s rhetoric is composed of at least three interlocking frames:

1. System breakdown

This frame applies to a series of core institutions that the FPÖ takes to be extremely valuable: the family, the nation (or “fatherland”), and the welfare state. For each of these “systems” (whether “the system” is the family, the nation or the welfare state), people admire and find comfort in its hierarchies and traditions. But others want to undermine this system for their own personal ends. In the face of this opposition, the system must be maintained.

2. Respect our boundaries

People who live freely inside the “boundaries” (whether literal or metaphorical) are compelled by interfering outsiders to follow their rules. The influence of the outsiders must be reduced or eliminated.

The FPÖ applies this frame both to the physical borders of Austria – international institutions like the EU have no right to intrude excessively in Austria’s affairs – and to the intangible borders of the family, national identity, private property, the church, and the individual. Each has boundaries that the FPÖ believes cannot be crossed. This frame upholds the FPÖ’s central value of freedom.

3. Reinstating common sense

Professional politicians have subverted the natural order of things, because they have no appreciation of nature, “real life” or the heartland. We need to listen to the non-professional politicians who have other forms of experience – they are in touch with reality and can find the way out of the mess the politicians have gotten us into.

From the EU to immigration, the FPÖ uses this frame repeatedly, contrasting Austria’s political elite – as well as EU politicians and officials – with the ordinary people whom they claim to represent. Particularly fertile ground here is the subject of immigration. According to the FPÖ, elite-driven policy-making on immigration is becoming more and more absurd, far removed from the immediate concerns of “ordinary people”. Only the FPÖ can restore common sense to Austria’s immigration policy. 

Here are three typical exchanges between Austrian Freedom Party politicians and other MEPs in the European Parliament:

1: EU citizenship for sale[1]

In January 2014, the European Parliament held a debate about EU citizenship, in light of the Maltese government’s recent initiative to sell citizenship of Malta – and therefore of the EU, given free movement laws – to high net-worth foreigners.18 European Commissioner Viviane Reding condemned the scheme as putting a price on EU citizenship. Andreas Mölzer, an MEP from the FPÖ, had the opportunity to speak.

Andreas Mölzer (non-attached):

Mr. President! The laissez faire way in which naturalisation is being treated has probably been a problem for quite some time. Several EU members are becoming the gateway into the European Union, whether with Spanish mass amnesties for millions of illegal immigrants or to win votes and thereby improve Romania’s state finances – one sole novelty is that in Malta there is now a fixed price for the passport. EU freedom of movement continues to degenerate into a more and more questionable business model, and as long as immigration into our welfare systems is possible and criminals with assets of unknown origin can easily buy the EU passport, nothing is likely to change.

 

It is in fact interesting that Commissioner Reding, ahead of the plenary discussion, said that only people with a real connection to a country should receive a passport. Such a principle should also apply to asylum seekers, that way we surely wouldn’t have parallel societies in which new citizens perceive learning a new language as an imposition. So it is high time to close the doors and end the selling off of citizenship to the rich as well as “poverty- migration”.

 

Counterpoint comment:

From the outset, Mölzer’s strategy is clear: draw a line between the Maltese government’s plans to sell citizenship and the FPÖ’s wider critique of immigration and the principle of freedom of movement. This rhetorical trick aims to associate terms such as “poverty-migration” with the Maltese “citizenship for sale” debacle. The Maltese scheme is, for many MEPs, a striking example of free-market economics impinging on cherished values – during the debate Viviane Reding herself says that “one cannot put a price tag” on citizenship. Mölzer takes this logic and extends it further – just as the Maltese scheme is an example of out-of-control “laissez faire” economics, so is the whole system of EU freedom of movement.

Mölzer frames the debate his way – he ties together his views on immigration with the prevailing opinion in the Parliament against the Maltese government’s scheme. Any response, we recommend, should do the same – it should tie one’s own views on immigration to the Maltese citizenship debate.

  

2: Third-country nationals[2]

In 2011, the European Commission proposed an amendment to the regulation listing the third country nationals that could travel to the Schengen zone without needing a visa. Among other things, this amendment included the introduction of a suspension mechanism to avoid abuses of visa-free travel. The rapporteur assigned to the proposal then made a number of amendments. In September 2013, MEPs discussed the proposal at a plenary session.

Franz Obermayr (non-attached):

Madam President! Even if the valued colleague Weidenholzer and Ms Lunacek don’t want to admit it, thousands of third-country nationals have abused both the EU asylum system as well as the EU visa system in recent years. Now a safety clause shall permit the suspension of visa waivers when illegal immigration becomes increasingly severe. And this clause is necessary! But it’s applicability lies at the discretion of the Member States. When there is an acute and problematic situation, one cannot wait until the Commission completes its lengthy decision-making process. Rather the visa restrictions need to be quickly and flexibly based on the changed immigration conditions and must be tailored accordingly. Once illegal immigrants are in the country – we know this from the past, from good examples and bad examples – a subsequent expulsion is difficult if not impossible.

 

Ulrike Lunacek (Greens / European Free Alliance):

Mr Obermayr! You have just claimed that thousands in Austria have abused their right of asylum. That is incorrect! You know very well that the number of asylum seekers in Austria has decreased significantly. And when you speak of a European asylum system and a European migration system – I don’t know what you are referring to: unfortunately we don’t have a common asylum system in Europe. Each country creates their own. Unfortunately we do not have a common migration policy. And we need this policy, rather than individuals that argue that a lot of asylum abuse is going on. It is about people having the freedom to travel and not about listening to you argue about those going in the wrong direction!

 

Franz Obermayr (non-attached):

Madam President! It was not actually a question, but an observation: that Ms Lunacek does not want to see the abuse of the asylum system in Europe, which also concerns Austria, is her problem. The fact is that due to the report at hand, it is clear that responsible politics is concerned with citizens, it is concerned with abuse, and that we need to find a solution.

That the solution doesn’t suit everyone is understandable from the point of view of Ms Lunacek, who represents a very well-known position. That is her point of view, I have a different point of view. That’s just how democracy is!

 

Counterpoint comment:

Obermayr paints a dramatic picture of the threat of illegal immigration – the issue, he suggests, will become “increasingly severe” and “acute and problematic”, involves “thousands”, and will be “difficult if not impossible” to deal with unless the FPÖ’s recommendations are taken. Obermayr effectively gives his audience an ultimatum: listen to me or our immigration systems face collapse. This is a use of the “System breakdown” frame: member states’ systems of immigration are at risk of falling apart as countries become overrun with illegal immigrants.

Ulrike Lunacek’s makes a clear effort to reframe the debate, challenging Obermayr’s use of the term “EU asylum system” and shaping the discussion so that it is on her terms. Obermayr struggles to respond, instead gesturing to differences of opinion – in effect saying that he agrees to disagree.

There is, though, one important weakness in Lunacek’s response – it does not address the concerns that Obermayr raises head-on. Instead, Lunacek rebuts Obermayr’s empirical claim about asylum seekers and focuses on the question of a common asylum system. But pointing out factual errors is not enough here. Lunacek needs to address the concerns that people have about fraudulent asylum seekers. Otherwise she risks being depicted as one of the professional politicians in the FPÖ’s “Reinstating common sense” frame, unwilling to address people’s concerns out of ideological rigidity and distance from reality.


3: Gender equality[3]

To observe International Women’s Day on March 8, 2013, the EU held a debate on the impact of the economic crisis on gender equality and women’s rights, with a focus on the situation of women in North Africa.

Franz Obermayr (non-attached):

Mr President! The topic of equality will soon also concern us in the drafting of the law on boardroom quotas. But how do equality and boardroom quotas fit together from the perspective of an employer? Madam Commissioner, imagine you as the best qualified of a group of applicants don’t get the job, because you are a man. This is communicated to you in this way. The reason for your job rejection in this case would be your sex. Such an absurdity would be a possible everyday consequence of introducing boardroom quotas. Equality is not only about increasing numbers and statistics, but about the subjective perception of individuals in everyday life. Therefore, the described job rejection would be the opposite of equality. Men and women would not be equal. From my point of view, it would be more important to fight the very real injustice of unequal pay of women in professional life. That is where politicians would have a lot to do, unfortunately also in my native Austria.

 

Lena Kolarska-Bobińska (European People’s Party):

Where do you see these quotas for management positions in companies? They do not exist; we are fighting for them. We are trying to implement this, but I do not think that there are many quotas in place. Perhaps there are isolated cases, but it is not systematic. I do not think that men are being persecuted in that sense.

 

Franz Obermayr (non-attached):

Mr President! First I would like to thank you for the question, and perhaps also for the opportunity for a clarification. I clearly said that this is problematic. I cannot imagine that the criteria is solely statistics and numbers, but that qualifications must also be considered. And to notice someone only because he is a man or she is a woman, I find unfair. Besides, in some countries there are, of course, others ways to get into the boardroom, either by appointment or by election. This too would create problems in some countries due to their legal structures.

Counterpoint comment:

Obermayr’s speech is an example of the “Reinstating common sense” frame in action. In this instance of the frame, professional politicians have devised a plan to introduce boardroom quotas – “an absurdity” – and the disastrous effects of the frame lead to “the opposite of equality”. Boardroom quotas subvert the natural order of the job market, where employers can freely choose who they want to employ. As a result, employers are forced to forgo choosing some of the best-qualified applicants and thereby discriminate against men on the basis of their sex.

This exchange shows that it is not enough to simply deny Obermayr’s frames. The danger with straightforward denial is that by negating Obermayr’s language – by saying that men are not being “persecuted” – Kolarska-Bobinska ends up reinforcing it. The frames need to be tackled with new ones – particularly the “Reinstating common sense” frame, which Obermayr uses most often in this example.

This Counterpoint report, Populist Rhetoric: Austrian Freedom Party was originally published on May 19, 2014. For the full Counterpoint feature in the series on populist rhetoric leading up to the European elections, including recommendations for how to respond to populist rhetoric, please see here.


[1]EU citizenship for sale (debate)’, European Parliament, 15 January 2014.

[2]Third countries whose nationals must be in possession of visas when crossing EU external borders (debate)’, European Parliament, 10 September 2013.

[3]Impact of the economic crisis on gender equality and women's rights - Eliminating gender stereotypes in the EU - Situation of women in North Africa (debate)’, European Parliament, 11 March 2013.

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