December 28, 2017
By Hannah Fuchs and Dominik Kirchdorfer
The political prodigy Sebastian Kurz (ÖVP, EPP), the youngest chancellor in Europe, and his vice-chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache (FPÖ, ENF) form the new government of Austria. It is an exceptionally young government, both in terms of the age of the Chancellor and in terms of the years of political experience held by the heads of the individual ministries (on the ÖVP side, with few exceptions, only lateral entrants).
For now, the question arises, why? Why has Austria once again elected a conservative right-wing government, where the country should not have any rosy memories from 2000 to 2007? The most influential consequence of this coalition was probably the case of the Hypo-Alpe-Adria, “the biggest economic crime of the Second Republic”. After the agreement of the former Minister of Finance Hans Jörg Schelling and the creditors, the fixed costs of Hypo remain at 12.5 billion euros.
The current government is a response to the situation that evolved between 2008 and 2015, the years when both an economic crisis and a refugee crisis hit Austria (among others). Consequences usually occur with a time delay to the cause and the cause is gladly forgotten at the arrival of the consequences. Austria is known for its leisureliness. This can certainly be an advantage, but not when it comes to the electoral behavior of Austrian voters.
Above all else, the crucial moment for the FPÖ’s success, but also the ÖVP’s, was the refugee crisis. In this case, Austria has a split position geographically. It is the linchpin between Eastern European countries such as Hungary and Slovakia and southern Italy – both transit countries – and Germany, the country where most applications for asylum have since been submitted. Austria is the country with the third most asylum applications. While Germany and Sweden are still looking at things remotely, Austria has been torn between them. Northern Germany wants to leave the borders largely open (within the government, there are still disagreements). In the East, Hungary insists on uncompromising border closure and, in spite of indictments by the European Commission, inter alia. on the rights to freedom of association, protection of privacy and the protection of personal data, a black refugee policy. And in the south, Italy is overburdening its efforts to manage the refugees and the European external borders without significant support from the other EU member states. Around Austria, different scenes play out side-by-side, with actors representing very different interests.
In Austria itself, this image once again presents itself in a microcosm. As in many other European countries, where a high refugee quota prevails, Austria is also divided between its welcome culture and an influx of economic refugees, who are supposedly only social parasites. It therefore seems impossible that the then Austrian government could do justice to all the parties involved within the country and its European neighbors.
The new government faces the European challenge of making European policy with the most diverse interests from the fighting South, the shattering East and the rich North of Europe, while at the same time living up to the divided interests within Austria. The new Minister of Foreign Affairs, Karin Kneissl, a well-known Middle East expert and lesser-known non-party politician, brings hope that expertise will move in with the government. While foreign policy expertise is predominant and experience is lacking, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz brings his experience as a former foreign minister to his new post by reserving the key EU agendas for the Chancellery. The Austrian EU Presidency in the second half of 2018 will be important for Europe. Here, Chancellor Kurz will continue to contribute his experience on the subject of Europe. However, individual ministries are already reporting that they lack the budget to employ enough staff for the duration of the Council Presidency. Instead, one prefers to overwinter the Council Presidency and not attract too much attention, it is rumored in individual ministries. If at the same time scheduled massive austerity efforts should follow, not much else will be possible.
In Brussels Kurz is seen more as a conqueror of the populists, not as a populist himself, even though his campaign ran for a long time without a program and only with the slogan “Zeit für Neues” ( eng. “Time for Something New”). In 1999, Wolfgang Schüssel also used the same line. At the time, it hailed sanctions from the EU member states for his ÖVP-FPÖ coalition, of which this time there is no trace. The fact that EU Commission President Juncker and EU Council President Donald Tusk have so far had only positive, reassuringly pro-European words to say about the new Austrian government, but above all about the Chancellor, seems to stem from the EU’s desire to avoid anymore unrest in Europe. The two problem children Poland and Hungary are currently causing more problems for the Union than the still comparatively moderate Austria. With Juncker and Tusk showing confidence in the government, Austria’s relationship with the EU institutions remains secure and does not produce premature judgments and unnecessary tensions, both at the political and social level. That being said, the Commission cannot afford to continuously condemn any political change that deviates from their technocratic centre. This would only further fuel the prejudice that the European Union is undemocratic.
Ultimately, however, Europe also needs a bearer of hope, and the Continent had found that in Alexander Van der Bellen in December last year, whose electoral victory and clear pro-European stance made many in Brussels and other parts of Europe breathe easy again and after Brexit turned the political tables on populists, a wave which France also joined with Emmanuel Macron’s victory not long after.
It was also President Van der Bellen who repeatedly insisted on the government’s pro-European stance during the forming of the government and ensured that it was enshrined in the constitution that it would never be allowed to vote on the Austrian membership of the European Union. A year ago, his opponent Norbert Hofer still demanded a referendum on this very issue. Now he himself is Minister of Transport in a government that makes precisely this kind of referendum unconstitutional. Similar to the foreign policy principle of China, the FPÖ is now content to be able to implement its plans undisturbed in Austria and in exchange does not interfere in Europe.
Theoretically, the picture of Austria does not look as bad for Europe as it seems at first sight. Kurz and Van der Bellen can position Austria well as a mediator between the particular interests of Europe and, with the expertise of Kneissl, achieve the same position in the Middle East. Austria seems to have forgotten or repressed the consequences of the black and blue government of the years 2000 to 2007, but the sharp glances and critical voices both in Germany and in Europe are there. Just as Macron, with whom Kurz likes to be compared, has brought a fresh breeze to the EU bureaucracy, the new Austrian government also promises to bring more reforms with the former Foreign Minister and current Federal Chancellor Sebastian Kurz. But ultimately, the question arises, what these reforms should look like and with whom Kurz will align himself. “Europe should do more on the big questions and withdraw from the smaller issues,” is the motto of Sebastian Kurz on Europe. Does this mean a Europe of Regions as some federalists would like it? Or an alliance of nation states, as the ECR demands? Presumably, the sentence is deliberately ambiguous, as it probably does not represent a commitment to a model or vision, but should be seen as an attempt to appease all, just like his slogan “time for something new”. What and how much new will actually come of this, is currently written in the stars.
Author : EFF – European Future Forum