The Voice of Political Reason Speaks German, Not English

(Bloomberg View) -- Sunday's presidential election in Austria, in which the far-right candidate suffered a convincing defeat, makes one thing clear: European nations must find their place between two poles, the English-speaking one where nationalist populism is the new normal and the German-speaking one, where a majority considers it scary. 

There are plenty of specific reasons why Norbert Hofer, the Freedom Party candidate, lost to Alexander Van der Bellen, the former Green Party chairman, for the second time after suing successfully to force a rerun of the presidential election. Hofer himself and the Freedom Party leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, have blamed the defeat on the decision of center-right People's Party leader Reinhold Mitterlehner to back Van der Bellen late in the race. The right-wingers complained that the establishment had ganged up on them.

It's hard to say how important the political establishment's support was for Van der Bellen, given that the major center-left and center-right candidates for the largely ceremonial presidency had lost in the first round with a dismal showing. One could argue that it's equally possible courtly Austrians, treated to an extended election campaign, were turned off by 45-year-old Hofer's personal attacks on 72-year-old Van der Bellen, whom he described as the "absent-minded professor" and a Cold War-era Communist spy for the Soviets.

Hofer also suffered the indignity of initially losing a trial against a Social Democratic leader, Ingo Mayr, who had called him a Nazi. While Hofer won on appeal in October, the 5,400 euro ($5,750) fine levied against Mayr didn't mitigate the insult to Hofer.

One could also mention that the refugee crisis, which had pushed many Austrians into the Freedom Party's embrace, has eased this year. It was fresh in voters' memory in May when Van der Bellen barely edged Hofer by 31,000 votes, but it's no longer at the forefront of their minds. 

All these factors have probably contributed to Hofer's defeat. But they don't quite explain why the margin of Van der Bellen's victory has increased significantly in fewer than seven months. Even before the mail-in votes, which are expected to favor the liberal professor, Van der Bellen leads 52 percent to 48 percent. That means he's already more than 130,000 votes ahead, a formidable advantage in a tiny country of 8.5 million people.

The best explanation why the extra time Hofer had bought ended up working against him has nothing to do with Austrian domestic politics. It's something that happened elsewhere between the May vote and the weekend replay: Brexit. 

Before the U.K. voted "Out" in its June referendum, 31 percent of Austrians were in favor of their country's withdrawal from the European Union, according to the Austrian Society for European Politics. Immediately after the Brexit vote, that share dropped to 23 percent. The share of pro-European Austrians increased to 61 percent from 60 percent.

The cooling of anti-EU sentiment is typical of polls in many European countries after Brexit. And while polls matter less and less after many embarrassing mispredictions in the last few years, the Austrian election result is a far more reliable indicator that Brexit scared more Europeans than it inspired. Van der Bellen made support for EU membership, traditionally strong in a country where a three-hour drive in any direction takes a traveler across the border, the central theme of his extra-innings campaign. Hofer, like Brexiters, called it scaremongering -- but Austrians heard it as a voice of reason.

Brexit, with the domestic chaos it wreaked on the U.K. and the immediate withering of the country's international role, will continue to provide a negative example through the Dutch general election in March and the French presidential election scheduled for April. It will undermine the chances of anti-EU nationalists such as Geert Wilders of the Dutch Freedom Party and Marine Le Pen of the French National Front, as well as on the performance of the euroskeptic Alternative for Germany party in that country's October election. It may also make Italy's Five Star Movement more cautious about pushing for an exit referendum.

European nationalists celebrated both the Brexit vote and Donald Trump's U.S. victory. But Trump is a far-off circus show to most Europeans, and Brexit hasn't been fun for the U.K. so far. The nationalists throughout the continent are invested in a successful outcome of the U.K.'s bold move, but it may take years before British separatism yields any results worth boasting about, while the negative effects have been immediate. 

In a way, the U.K. has sacrificed itself for the continent's centrists, who can point to it and shake their heads, as Van der Bellen has done. British populism arguably established itself, along with Trump's U.S. campaign, as a beacon for disruptors of the European status quo, but it's a somewhat sinister waypoint.

Germany, where there's almost zero chance of a nationalist populist party governing after next year's election, is pulling the continent in the opposite direction. Austria has now joined it: While the Freedom Party is still popular, Hofer's setback will hardly be conducive to a particularly strong performance in a possible early parliamentary election next year.

The voice of protest, disruption and a nationalist revival speaks English these days. The voice of moderation, stability and unity speaks German. It's the clearest battle line in decades, perhaps since World War II, when the languages played the opposite roles.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story: Leonid Bershidsky at