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The presidential election situation that arose in Austria in May and will be repeated in October—a run-off between the Greens and the far right—has never occurred in Europe before. But it starkly reveals a fundamental political conflict that can be found in many Western democracies today. This conflict is not meaningfully described as one of “ordinary people versus the establishment.” In Austria, both the Freedom Party and the Green Party have been “established” since the mid-1980s; in Britain, Boris Johnson, one of the main faces of the Brexit campaign, is about as establishment as one can get in the UK; and Donald Trump is hardly the authentic representative of Main Street. Rather, on one side of the new conflict are those who advocate more openness: toward minorities at home and toward engagement with the world on the outside.
What seemed impossible even a year ago now seems fated. The European Union will probably be better run with Britain out, but it is unlikely to survive if the British next week decide to leave. “The Radetzky March” is particularly apt here because, though the focus after a Leave victory will be on Britain, the real disaster will befall Roth’s literary stamping grounds of Central and Eastern Europe. Indeed, in a very real way, the disintegration of Europe will be set off by Brexit, but it will take place far to the east.
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