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Vol. 81/No. 1      January 2, 2017


European votes reflect impact of capitalist crisis
on workers

The Dec. 4 presidential election in Austria and constitutional referendum in Italy both confirm what the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom and Donald Trump’s victory in the U.S. presidential race showed. There is growing discussion and anger among working people about the grinding effects of the worldwide capitalist crisis, and no party that wants to win an election can ignore it.

These votes also highlight the impossibility of forging a new extra-national capitalist superpower in Europe, which is what capitalist rulers across the continent have tried to do for decades, pushing an “ever closer union,” a stated objective of the European Union.

The competing interests of the ruling capitalist families in each of the European nation-states are pulling the EU apart.

Contrary to the claims of the liberal media on both sides of the Atlantic, the election in Austria shows that what’s driving the working class is not xenophobia, but the search for an alternative in the face of today’s growing crisis.

Alexander Van der Bellen, a former Green Party leader, won the runoff against Norbert Hofer of the rightist Freedom Party. Van der Bellen said he will be “a pro-European president of Austria open to the world,” but insisted, “What I do object to is lifting the old borders.” The Greens put themselves forward as an anti-establishment party, opposing “unfair trade deals” and “privatization and corporate power.”

The candidates of the Social Democratic Party and conservative Austrian People’s Party were routed in the preliminary round, reflecting the impact on workers of rising unemployment and the influx of tens of thousands of refugees. This is the first time in 70 years that neither party will hold the presidency.

The runoff in May was overturned due to irregularities in counting the votes. In the second ballot, Van der Bellen increased his winning margin from 30,000 votes to 300,000. He made the Brexit vote in the U.K. a central theme of his campaign, saying Hofer would lead Austria out of the EU and that voters shouldn’t “play with this fire.”

Austria depends heavily on export markets in Germany and Italy. But Vienna didn’t join the EU until 1994 and supports a single market for trade, not an “ever closer” political or military union. It is not a member of NATO.

The Freedom Party has toned down its opposition to EU membership in face of opinion polls showing that roughly two-thirds of the population favors remaining.

Hofer ran an Austria-first campaign, focusing on defining and defending the Austrian “identity,” targeting immigration in general and that of Muslims in particular. “Islam is not part of our values,” he told the BBC.

Last year more than 90,000 refugees and other immigrants arrived in the country, which has a population of less than 9 million. This led to a polarized debate that has been at the center of bourgeois politics since. In February the government convened a meeting with officials from nine Balkan states, including six non-EU members, reaching agreement on steps that effectively closed that route into Europe for Middle Eastern refugees.

Italy: No confidence in EU

The referendum in Italy was promoted by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi as a way to deal with the country’s growing financial crisis by imposing labor “reforms” pushed by Berlin and Brussels to make Italian capital “more competitive.” Working people rejected it in a landslide, a vote of “no confidence” in Renzi’s government and the European Union. Renzi was soundly defeated both in the industrial north and the rural south.

Working people in Italy are among those hardest hit by the capitalist slowdown. Since 2008, the country’s industrial production has fallen 25 percent. Wages are lower than they were 10 years ago and youth unemployment is nearly 40 percent. The country’s third largest bank is on the verge of bankruptcy. The EU bureaucracy in Brussels and leaders of the International Monetary Fund fear a banking collapse in Rome would ripple throughout the continent.

Many workers blame the deepening crisis they face on the Italian government’s 1999 decision to adopt the euro, removing the Italian rulers’ option to devalue Italy’s currency to make exports cheaper and more competitive. Many fear they face the fate of workers and farmers in Greece, where the European Central Bank and capitalist rulers in Berlin have demanded deep cuts in wages and social protections as a condition for loans and bailouts to the country’s capitalist rulers.

The leading party in the vote “no” campaign, the Five Star Movement, was formed seven years ago by a leftist comedian and an information technology executive. It presents itself as an outsiders’ anti-party. Five Star got 25 percent of the vote in the 2013 general election and has won mayoralty races in Rome and Turin. The Northern League, a rightist party that campaigned against the referendum and advocates leaving the euro, polls some 16 percent.

After losing the referendum, Renzi resigned. National elections are likely soon. General elections are also scheduled in Holland, France and Germany. The economic downturn and the effects of massive migration will be debated in all of these contests.

On Dec. 8, the European Commission proposed that, beginning in March, EU member states should start sending migrants back to Greece, where more than 62,000 people are already stuck in squalid tent camps.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has turned away from welcoming migrants. She hopes shipping out refugees will help her win a fourth term as chancellor. For sure it will further fuel the anti-EU and anti-German political currents in Greece and Italy, the two main entry points for refugees from the Mideast and North Africa.  
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