Austria’s new chancellor arrived Brussels on Tuesday on his first foreign trip since being sworn in, determined to dispel concerns that his coalition with the far-right spells trouble for the European Union.
Sebastian Kurz’s Austrian People’s Party struck a deal with the far-right Freedom Party headed by Heinz-Christian Strache. The two allied parties agreed to restrict illegal immigration and speed up deportation of refused asylum seekers, while maintaining a firm commitment to the EU.
The Freedom Party has been given five ministries with opponents expressing concern that the Freedom Party has control of the Interior, Defence and Foreign ministries.
Responding to a letter on Monday from European Council President Donald Tusk that underlined EU concerns, 31-year-old conservative leader Sebastian Kurz tweeted back that his new government would be “clear pro-European and committed to making a positive contribution to the future development of the EU”.
A day after he took office at the head of a coalition with the far-right Freedom Party, Kurz will deliver that message in person on Tuesday evening to Tusk and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, whose EU executive has responded to October’s election with little of the outrage that greeted the FPO’s first taste of government 17 years ago.
The FPO has distanced itself from its Nazi-apologist, anti-Semitic past, while surges in irregular immigration and militant attacks have pushed the European political mainstream rightward, leading to a much more muted reaction than in 2000.
Juncker’s spokesman would not be drawn on Monday on what the Commission, which back then floated a boycott of Austria, would be saying or doing. He did, however, make clear that Kurz making Brussels his first foreign trip in office was a welcome gesture.
Austria’s member of the Commission, a center-right ally of Kurz, called it a “good start for proactive EU policy”.
But his French colleague was wary: “Things are doubtless different from the previous time, in 2000,” tweeted Socialist former finance minister Pierre Moscovici. “But the presence of the far-right in government is never without consequences.”
Confirmation of the FPO’s return to a share of power raises concern that small, wealthy Austria will be an intractable voice on EU asylum reform and efforts to increase the EU budget.
The bluntest criticism so far has been south of the Alps, where a plan to offer Austrian citizenship to people living in Italy’s German-speaking border region has rekindled worries over old territorial arguments. A junior foreign minister in Rome said the offer may be couched in a “velvet glove of Europeanism” but bore “a whiff of the ethno-nationalist iron fist”.
For a Union battered by mounting nationalism that goes well beyond Brexit, there is concern too that criticism of Brussels in Vienna can help fuel the euroskepticism of Austria’s formerly communist neighbors in Central Europe, including Poland, where the Commission is seriously considering imposing sanctions that were designed in response to the FPO’s rise early this century.
In a letter of congratulation to Kurz, Tusk made clear his concerns about the new coalition in Austria:
“I trust that the Austrian government will continue to play a constructive and pro-European role in the European Union,” Tusk wrote, noting that Austria will from July enjoy six months of influence in Brussels as chair of EU ministerial councils.
Germany and France, the EU’s lead powers, also indicated a vigilance about Austria in their comments on Monday which highlighted Kurz’s pledges to foster European cooperation.
Kurz’s visit to Brussels comes on the eve of an important Commission meeting on Wednesday where Juncker’s team will consider recommending sanctions on Poland for its continued to defiance of warnings that new laws on the judiciary are contrary to EU democratic standards.