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Right-wing coalition in Austria threatens EU

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Bernd Riegert
October 16, 2017

The conservative Sebastian Kurz has emerged victorious from Austrian elections. As he now looks to form a government, he should carefully consider the dangers of partnering with the far-right FPÖ, says Bernd Riegert.

Austrian ÖVP politician Sebastian Kurz with supporters
Image: picture-alliance/AA/O. Marques

Former Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, a smart European, fears that Austria is undergoing "Orbanization." In his eyes, the potential rise of a strongly right-wing coalition between the People's Party (ÖVP) of chancellor-in-waiting Sebastian Kurz and the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) reflects the nationalist wave that is sweeping across the Alpine nation and which could lead to a complete restructuring of the state - as it has in Hungary under Prime Minister Victor Orban. If the young but totally power-conscious Kurz and the FPÖ Chairman Heinz Christian Strache become coalition bedfellows, migration policy and domestic security, as well as structural political issues, would begin to move in new, possibly questionable directions.

Deutsche Welle Bernd Riegert
DW's Bernd Riegert

Read more: Austrian elections: Young, conservative Sebastian Kurz's People's Party wins poll

Kurz and Strache share the belief that closed borders should be used first and foremost to keep asylum applicants and illegal migrants out of Austria. Kurz also convinced voters to cast their ballots for him through his partially incomprehensible calls for more deportation and migrant reception camps, either in Africa or on uninhabited islands.

The number of asylum applicants in Austria is falling. Most migrants come from EU states. And yet the fear of "Überfremdung" - that is, a fear of foreign infiltration that poses a threat to cultural or national identity - exists. It is this fear that the ÖVP and the FPÖ harnessed to win the election. Strache's "homeland" party did best in the areas of Austria that have the fewest foreigners or migrants. This phenomenon could also be seen in eastern Germany where the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) was particularly successful. 

Read more: Austria's leading election candidates target Muslims to score points

Right-wing populists in Europe celebrate

Even the Austrian Social Democrats (SPÖ) jumped halfway on this bandwagon, though apparently too late in time to win additional votes. Kurz and Strache want more direct democracy in the form of popular referendums, which could lead to votes on the euro and Austria's membership in the EU. Strache's party has advocated leaving the bloc in the past. The participation of the right-wing populists in the Austrian government would unnecessarily strengthen similar parties in Europe, from Finland to Hungary, Italy to Greece. Strache's best friends are the French nationalists of the National Front and the Russian government. Kurz, Austria's likely next chancellor, is not put off by any of this. He believes that his followers will have fewer problems with an FPÖ partnership than with a continuation of the no-longer-so-great Grand Coalition with the SPÖ, which many Austrians see as standing for corruption and stagnation.

Austrian FPÖ politican Heinz-Christian Strache
Strache and his wife appear positive as the first election results begin to be publishedImage: Reuters/H.-P. Bader

Chancellor Kurz will make life hard for Europe

The new chancellor of the Alpine republic will probably be a difficult colleague for all his EU partners, but especially for German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Kurz boasts that his resolute closure of the Balkan migration route forced Merkel to reverse her migration policy. In the future, he could take Austria down a rather national road, for instance, by having the country join Poland, Hungary the Czech Republic and Slovakia in their cultural and political alliance known as the Visegrad Group. These countries feel patronized by Germany, and Austria's joining them would strengthen the unofficial opposition to Brussels. EU proceedings due to democratically questionable practices in Hungary or Poland would be much harder to carry out with a Chancellor Kurz.

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DW's Europe Correspondent Bernd Riegert

In addition, the EU's relationship to Russia would also possibly have to be readjusted due to pressure from Austria. Kurz, and even more so his potential coalition partner Strache, advocate ending EU sanctions against Russia. Austria has a large interest in doing better business with Russia, for instance in the energy sector.

A turquoise-blue government of the conservative ÖVP and the right-wing populist FPÖ would be a dangerous experiment for Austria and the EU. Attempts to minimize fear by arguing that FPÖ has already served in coalitions with the ÖVP and the SPÖ are meaningless. Today's FPÖ is fundamentally different than it was in the past. Strache represents a strict policy of nationalist isolation. But that's what the Austrians wanted. Does the historic phrase "Tu Felix Austria" - "You Happy Austria" - which once graced the royal seal, still apply? Hopefully Sebastian Kurz will make the right decision and partner with the Social Democrats under new party leadership.

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Bernd Riegert Senior European correspondent in Brussels with a focus on people and politics in the European Union
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