Austria Populists Soften EU Stance as Brexit Shapes Campaigning

AUSTRIA-HUNGARY-EUROPE-MIGRANTS

Austrian police officer stands in front of migrants at a border crossing in 2015.

Photographer: Joe Klamar/AFP via Getty Images
  • Freedom Party supports more cooperation on security, economy
  • Campaigns enter final weeks before historic rerun in October

Austria’s anti-immigration Freedom Party took some bite out of its rhetoric targeting the European Union as it entered the final weeks of campaigning before October’s presidential election rerun.

“On the big topics, we have to work much more closely together,” Norbert Hofer, the Freedom Party candidate who narrowly lost the earlier vote for the presidency, told reporters in Vienna Monday, citing security policy and strengthening Europe’s economy.

To gain more influence over EU policy, Austria should form a “union within the union” together with Slovenia, Croatia, the Czech Republic and Hungary, Hofer said. The alliance of Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg -- the Benelux countries -- shows that small nations can increase their power if they cooperate, he said.

Austria’s unprecedented presidential election repeat is being shaped by voter attitudes to the EU following the U.K.’s decision to quit the bloc and the other 27 leaders’ decision to meet in Austria’s neighbor Slovakia next month to chart a path forward without Britain.

Hofer’s rival, former Austrian Greens leader Alexander Van der Bellen, is seeking to leverage worries over Brexit into a victory at the polls. One of his campaign billboards, presented last week, contains the slogan “Stronger together. No to Oexit,” referring to an exit from the European Union by Austria, or Oesterreich in German.

The Freedom Party, which is allied with Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France and the Alternative for Germany party, has congratulated Britain on its decision to leave the EU and said it would seek a referendum in Austria if either Turkey joins the bloc or more power is transferred to Brussels from Vienna.

Hofer said on Monday that a change of European treaties that weakened national parliaments and required a review of the Austrian constitution would be such an “extreme” development that a referendum would be required.

Austria’s Constitutional Court annulled the first presidential ballot in a July ruling that pointed to about 78,000 absentee ballots having been improperly handled. That decision hands the Freedom Party another chance to install the first far-right head of state in western Europe since World War II.

Latest polls suggest the rematch on Oct. 2 will be another close vote. Hofer is preferred by 53 percent of Austrians, compared to 47 percent for Van der Bellen, according to the latest Gallup survey conducted for the Oesterreich newspaper. The poll had a margin of error of 4.5 percent.

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