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EU unimpressed by Austria's rightward shift

Bernd Riegert
Bernd Riegert
December 18, 2017

Right-wing populists, who hold many senior political positions throughout Europe, have now become socially acceptable. In the EU, Austria's new government has practically become the rule, says DW's Bernd Riegert.

In Austria, Christian Strache and Sebastian Kurz
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/ H.K.Techt

The inauguration of Austria's new conservative-populist government in Vienna sparked some protest, but truth be told, the country's citizens are not really shocked. Austrians have become used to the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) nationalists, who also serve in regional governments and participated in a federal coalition government twice before. In 2000, the FPÖ entered into a coalition with the conservative Austrian People's Party (ÖVP), 20 years after linking arms with the Social Democrats, although their profile was more national-liberal back then. In the 1990s, party chairman Jörg Haider gave the party a more populist bent.

In order to pave the way for a new coalition, the ambitious ÖVP leader Sebastian Kurz turned his party upside down, tailoring it to his own image and shifting it to the right. Early on, Kurz recognized the issue of migration as key — and he made it his central campaign focus. By doing so, he kept the FPÖ at arm's length as the third-strongest party in the Austrian parliament, the National Council, and forced party leader Heinz-Christian Strache to make cautious small steps to the left. One should not forget that the FPÖ headed opinion polls a year ago

Strache on a short leash

It is now Kurz's task ­— and no doubt, the 31-year-old has brought a fresh breath of air to the chancellor's office — to fence in the far-right party and snap off its worst nationalist barbs.

Riegert Bernd photo for App
Bernd Riegert is DW's correspondent in Brussels

In any case, asylum laws and the asylum process in Austria are bound to be tightened. Migration is to be largely put on hold, while authorities will be much more critical of Islam and Muslim immigrants. That is the price the agile politician Kurz gladly paid for power.

After all it was he ­— back when he was foreign minister — who made sure the route west via the Balkans was closed down to migrants in the spring of 2016. He pointed the way while German Chancellor Angela Merkel wavered. In the meantime, Germany and Austria see eye-to-eye again, and the entire EU marches to the tune of shutting down its exterior borders and dealing with the migrant problem, wherever possible, in transit states situated elsewhere. There is really nothing that stands in the way of a thriving cooperation between Kurz and Merkel.

What might be alarming from a West European and EU point of view, however, is that Austria might join the four unruly Visegrad states Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary. Together, they could play the nationalist card and show EU headquarters in Brussels the middle finger. The coalition in Vienna has little interest in the reforms French President Macron and the EU Commission have proposed for states that use the euro. The new government in Vienna seeks less European regulation, but they'd like it to be better.

As chancellor, Kurz will function as a sort of quasi-European minister who wants to tackle everything that pertains to the EU on his own, which is reassuring. In that respect, Austria should work towards settlement with Russia. After all, the FPÖ is close to other nationalists in Europe that in turn are close to Russia, in particular France's National Front and Germany's AfD. As foreign minister, Kurz campaigned for Ukraine and its sovereignty. It remains to be seen whether he will continue in that vein as Austrian chancellor.

Shift to the right in Europe

Austria's shift to the right didn't trigger an outcry or protest in Europe, unlike in 2000, when EU social democratic heads of government tried, to no avail, to impose sanctions on Vienna. Now, 17 years later, it is nothing out of the ordinary for many EU states to be governed by right-wing populists with an absolute majority, like in Poland and Hungary, or in conjunction with a coalition government like in Greece, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Belgium, Bulgaria and Finland.

Right-wing populists have seats in parliament in many other states. In Britain, they pushed for Brexit; in France, they made it to the runoff vote for the presidency. As the last large EU nation to head to the polls, Germans confronted their own right-wing insurgency when in September, the EU-sceptic Alternative for Germany (AfD) was voted into parliament as the country's third-strongest party.

The dominoes are toppling, one after another. And that has already had and will continue to have consequences for EU politics. The next big test is the quarrel about refugee distribution and asylum legislation. Who will end up on the side of the Visegrad states that refuse to show solidarity — Austria perhaps?

Strache, the new deputy chancellor and head of the FPÖ, certainly has made no secret of his own nationalist approach. He thinks Brexit is a good idea and that EU Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker should step down.

He also wants to maintain the partnership with France's National Front in the European Parliament. There is just one thing Sebastian Kurz talked him out of. There will be no referendum on an Austrian exit from the EU — a concession that came at a price. The FPÖ demanded that smoking continue to be allowed in Austrian bars. Smoking instead of Auxit! People in Austria's right-wing camp can be pragmatic.

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