Today's referendum on UK's membership of the European Union is a strong signal that the union needs to change, but a Brexit will have dire consequences and could ultimately threaten the union's future existence, says far-right EU-skeptic and failed presidential candidate Norbert Hofer.
The Freedom Party's Hofer, who missed the chance to become Europe's first far-right head of state by just over 30,000 votes on May 22nd, champions a slimmed down version of EU, a tougher joint stance on migration and refugees and air-tight outer EU-borders – and he urges the UK to stay and fight rather than cut and run, he told The Local Austria in an exclusive interview.
“It's great that the British people is given the opportunity to cast its vote. It doesn't behove a foreign politician to question the will of the British people,” Hofer says, adding, meanwhile, that he would personally ”consider it a great shame” if UK opts for a Brexit.
”I believe the EU will survive the blow, but the consequences could be severe. The risk is that it triggers a chain reaction of EU-referenda in other member states. A Brexit could set off a potentially dangerous avalanche.”
At the other end of the scale, he fears an exit of the EU's bad boy could mean critical voices will more easily be drowned out and the status quo maintained in Brussels.
”The UK has been an important critical correction to the mainstream course in Brussels. On a number of issues, the UK has had the courage to insist on its own positions, and to say: 'We disagree. This must be done differently.' If the UK decides to leave, we would lose a country that has the courage to point out the EU's weaknesses and act on them.”
To the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) and similarly-minded EU-skeptic political factions across Europe, who have seen firm growth in support during the past few years, a Brexit could hamper efforts to change the union from within while keeping it intact, says Hofer.
”The UK is a key partner in the process towards developing a new and less centralised union. I firmly believe the European Union has a positive future, provided that we abandon the idea of a centralised model.”
The Freedom Party and their European allies aim to shift decision-power from Brussels back to the national parliaments and scrap most of the so-called political union in favour of a slimmed-down economy focused co-operation.
Hofer's vision for a well-functioning EU includes, among other things, the dismantling of the European bail-out fund, the ESM, and the provision to be able to kick weaker member states out of the Euro zone if they weigh too heavily on financial stability and the shared currency. A first priority, however, is to create a joint EU plan to secure the union's outer borders, distribute refugees fairly and stem the influx of migrants, says Hofer.
He agrees with the pro-Brexit side's argument that Britain will better be able to secure its borders if it leaves the union, but only because the EU's approach to the refugee crisis doesn't work.
“If all outer EU borders were efficiently secured, there would be no need for the individual states to protect the inner borders. In the current situation, the UK can better protect its own borders, but if we manage to strengthen Frontex (EU's border management agency), we will be able to efficiently protect all our borders better, including the British borders.”
Furthermore, Hofer wants the EU to introduce mandatory registration and processing of asylum requests at the first point of entry and to more firmly distinguish between refugees and people who don't fullfill the criteria of asylum.
”We can't accept a situation in which refugees travel through a number of safe countries to seek asylum in the countries that provide the best financial support. I understand the refugees – I'd act in exactly the same way, but it's not a viable model,” says Hofer, who estimates that only between 20% and 25% of the people who seek entry to Europe are what he dubs “real refugees”.
“They should be granted temporary asylum in Europe and be distributed fairly – and when the reasons for their flight have ceased to exist, they will be needed back in their countries of origin to help rebuild their nations,” he says, adding that skilled workers should be allowed to stay if they can find jobs.
A total of 90,000 people filed asylum requests in Austria in 2015, while many more used the small alpine nation as a transit route to Germany and Scandinavia. Earlier this year, the former Austrian chancellor Werner Faymann predicted the number of asylum requests could rise to as many as 400,000 in 2016.
Faymann's government coalition of social democrats and conservatives stayed loyal for some time to German Chancellor Angela Merkel's crisis approach, but made a sharp U-turn on the refugee question last year.
It did little to save Faymann when the government coalition's two presidential candidates were sent packing after the first election round, which Norbert Hofer won by a 15% point margin to the runner up.
Faymann stepped down ahead of the second election round and was replaced as chancellor by fellow Social Democrat Christian Kern. Political pundits have said Faymann's departure may have satisfied some of the protest voters and thus helped the Green Party's candidate, Alexander Van der Bellen, to beat Norbert Hofer on the finishing line.
Hofer hasn't entirely given up on the presidency yet, however. His party has contested the election result over irregularities in the counting of postal votes at a number of polling places.
There are no indications of foul play by either candidate, but two prominent Austrian constitutional experts nevertheless estimate that the Freedom Party's complaint may well result in a new election.
”It's not something one would necessarily hope for, but the chance of it happening is relatively great,” says Hofer.
The Austrian Constitutional Court will announce its ruling on July 6th, just two days before the scheduled inauguration ceremony for Alexander Van der Bellen.
By Flemming Emil Hansen