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The fault lines of the European project deepen

Far-right politicians across European countries have a knack for not letting a good crisis go to waste, writes CFACT Policy Analyst Duggan Flanakin.

While the revival of sovereignty is at the fore in a Europe torn by tensions at the very foundations of its solidarity, the instrumentalization of extreme politics undermines the European project and deepens the fault lines even further.

Take, for example, Austria’s Chancellor Karl Nehammer (pictured) wielding his nation’s veto power to block Romania and Bulgaria accession to the Schengen Area, despite both countries meeting the necessary criteria for accession.

His sole vote against each country’s accession (and in support of Croatia’s accession) to the Schengen Area has not only disturbed the good relations between Vienna, Bucharest, and Sofia but also drained Nehammer’s credibility across Europe.

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Nehammer used invented and self-serving statistics, then recycled his predecessor, Sebastian Kurz’ migrant crisis rhetoric with far less effect, to justify disqualification of Romania and Bulgaria.

Even Austrian president, Alexander Van der Bellen, criticized the decision saying, “the decision was not the right one. If the Schengen system does not work, why should we block Romania and Bulgaria? Why not allow them to join?”

Austrian political motivations also played a significant role here. 

Nehammer fears the rise of FPÖ, a right-wing rival for whom migration and refugees are election workhorses. This helps partially to explain his desperate Schengen veto decision. After all, when politicians are not connecting with voters and their poll numbers are falling, they do and say desperate things.

In the first regional elections since the Justice and Home Affairs Council (JHA) decision, the Austrian chancellor’s calculations have collapsed. The FPÖ still dominates the standings and their lead is growing.

But even if ÖVP (Nehammer’s party) succeeded and gained ground in the polls because of this stunt, it nonetheless demonstrates a deceptive desperation that undermines European solidarity.

In response to Austria’s veto, Romania has embarked on a diplomatic offensive to address concerns and generate support from other EU member states.

Romanian officials emphasize their commitment to European values and security standards, underscoring the nation’s readiness to contribute positively to the Schengen Area. Moreover, the country is actively engaged in dialogue with other EU nations to build a consensus that counters Austria’s real or imagined apprehensions.

But the Romanian government is also in a position to force the hand of Austrian leaders by hitting them where it hurts most: their bottom line.

Using its commercial relationships with OMV, a petrochemical company based in Vienna that privatized PETROM, the crown jewel of Romania’s oil and gas industry, the Marcel Ciolacu-led government refuses to grant the favors requested by OMV for the exploration of a Black Sea field.

A forthcoming JHA Council quarterly meeting at the end of this year will determine whether the Austrians will be forced to place the European project, founded by figures like Adenauer, Schuman, and Spinelli, above geopolitical games and so called national “interests.”

The European Union, already grappling with internal challenges, faces a delicate balancing act in managing the fallout from Austria’s decision. 

Striking a balance between regional interests and broader geopolitical realities will be crucial in maintaining the cohesion of the EU.

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