Austria’s incoming right-leaning coalition took pains over the weekend to reassure partners the country would remain firmly “pro-European,” amid growing concern over the populist influence at Europe’s geographic and political crossroads.
After two months of talks, Austria’s center-right People’s Party (ÖVP) and the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) agreed to form a government. The country’s president is expected to inaugurate the new coalition Monday, making Austria the only Western European state with a government that includes an anti-immigrant, populist force.
“We have two parties forming a coalition here that want to actively help shape Europe,” said Sebastian Kurz, the ÖVP’s leader and the future chancellor, as he presented the new government on Saturday.
But that’s exactly what worries some European capitals.
“It’s never good news when the extreme right joins a government,” said Sandro Gozi, Italy’s state secretary for European affairs. Rome has been annoyed by Freedom Party calls to impose border checks on the Brenner Pass, Europe’s key north-south trade corridor, in order to keep out migrants.
“Democrats that believe in European values must keep a watchful eye on the coalition that is now in power in Austria,” said Pierre Moscovici, European commissioner for economic and financial affairs, on Twitter Sunday.
The Freedom Party, whose last foray into government in 2000 sparked censure from Austria’s EU partners, has flirted with anti-European positions for years and considers France’s National Front a close ally.
Europe’s political mainstream is concerned that Vienna will drift right on hot button issues such as migration and the future of the EU, positioning Austria closer to the more nationalist stances taken by some Central and Eastern European capitals.
Over the weekend, FPÖ leader Heinz-Christian Strache, who recently suggested Austria join Central Europe’s Visegrad Group alongside EU renegades Hungary and Poland, struck a more conciliatory note.
“We stand by the European Union, we stand by Europe’s peace project,” he said standing alongside Kurz. “We view one or the other position critically and have different positions that we will naturally articulate and look for partners on. That’s the democratic game.”
Just what game Strache is really playing isn’t clear, however. The FPÖ belongs to the Euroskeptic Europe of Nations and Freedom in the European Parliament, an affiliation critics say is inconsistent with a “pro-European” philosophy.
Even as Strache was intoning his allegiance to the EU, National Front leader Marine Le Pen and Dutch populist leader Geert Wilders were calling for its dissolution at a far-right summit in Prague. An FPÖ representative was also present. Le Pen called the party’s participation in the new government “excellent news for Europe.”
“We are opponents of the European Union,” Le Pen told the gathering, adding that the EU was “killing” Europe.
“I think this is something we have in common because the European Union is a disastrous organization which is leading our Continent to destruction through dilution by drowning it in migrants, by the negation of our respective countries, by the draining of our diversity.”
The Freedom Party’s position on Russia is also full of contradictions. The party, which struck a partnership agreement with Vladimir Putin’s political party earlier this year, opposes the international sanctions regime against Russia, but will nonetheless support the sanctions at the EU level, Strache said.
It’s unclear how much influence the Freedom Party will have on EU policy. Though it nominally will control the foreign ministry, its nominee, Middle East expert Karin Kneissl, doesn’t belong to the party. More importantly, Kurz, who served as Austria’s foreign minister in the previous government, plans to shift core responsibilities for the EU to the chancellery. That means he will have firm control of EU policy, much like Angela Merkel in Berlin and Viktor Orbán in Budapest.
While the ÖVP, which has been in government in various constellations since 1987, is solidly pro-European, Kurz has shown a willingness to divert from the political mainstream, most notably during the 2015 refugee crisis. He spearheaded an effort to close the migration route through the Western Balkans in the face of strong resistance from Merkel.
With Europe poised to make important decisions in the coming months on how to handle refugees fleeing Africa and other regions, Kurz’s voice will likely be an important one in the debate. Vienna is also due to take over the EU’s rotating presidency in the second half of 2018, offering him a prominent stage.
After recent comments by European Council President Donald Tusk reopened the divide over migration, Kurz made it clear on which side he stands.
“Tusk is right when he says that mandatory refugee quotas in the EU are not working,” Kurz said. “I’m going to push to change this dysfunctional refugee policy.”
That could end up putting Vienna in direct conflict with Merkel, who continues to insist on a quota system.
Many German conservatives, especially those to the right of Merkel, have welcomed Kurz’s ascension. Some Merkel opponents who believe the chancellor has taken her party into the center left regard Kurz as a model for re-energizing their own conservative values.
That’s also true within the European People’s Party, the alliance of center-right parties to which both Kurz’s ÖVP and Merkel’s conservatives belong. Kurz’s success in turning around the moribund People’s Party at just 31 to become the world’s youngest government leader has made him the group’s star.
While some in the group might frown over the fact that the Freedom Party will control both the interior and defense ministries, Kurz has met with little resistance at the European level.
The new Austrian coalition’s top priorities — security and migration — mirror those in most European countries and Kurz’s law-and-order approach has many adherents.
He is likely to make that case on Tuesday when he travels to Brussels for dinner with Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and Tusk. The purpose of Kurz’s first foreign trip as chancellor: to underscore the new government’s commitment to Europe.