With populism on the rise in Central Europe, Hungary and Poland are likely to have found a new ally in Austria’s new Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, though he and Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban sought to quash speculation that Vienna might join the Visegrad Group.
Populism is on the rise in the four Visegrad countries of Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Poland, as well in Austria, which is due to take over the rotating EU presidency in the second half of 2018.
Kurz led his conservative party to victory in Austria’s October parliamentary election, then struck a coalition deal with the anti-immigration Freedom Party, making Austria the only western European country with a far-right party in government.
Kurz wants to limit the competences of Brussels to core areas such as security policy and both of Austria’s ruling parties have adopted language similar to Orban’s when it comes to pledging benefit cuts for refugees and warning that Muslim “parallel societies” are emerging in cities like left-leaning Vienna.
Given their similar views, Kurz has said his country could serve as a go-between in the European Union for the West and the Visegrad group. Kurz has talked tough on immigration and has praised Hungary for building fences in 2015 on its southern border with non-EU member Serbia.
“Since the migration crisis began, tensions within the European Union have continued to grow,” Kurz told a joint news conference with Orban. “Our main goal is to be a bridge-builder between the Visegrad states and other Western European states.”
Kurz made immigration the core issue of his campaign after Austria took in one of the biggest contingents of asylum seekers, relative to its population. Most of the refugees came via Hungary until Orban fenced off the border.
Freedom Party leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, who is now vice chancellor and who met Orban later on Tuesday, said Austria should move away from its usual Western European allies, including Germany, by joining Visegrad – but Kurz and Orban said that was not on the agenda.
Kurz has sought to reassure allies that his government will be pro-European, even though he and Strache favour a smaller EU that focuses on fewer tasks, especially securing its external borders.
The youthful Chancellor has sided with Visegrad on several issues, saying the EU should stop pushing countries to take quotas of relocated asylum seekers. He supported the bloc’s steps against Poland for threatening the rule of law and democratic principles, and he has taken steps that could complicate a rapprochement with Orban.
Orban, Kurz, and Strache also acknowledged that they differ on some issues. In particular, Austria plans to sue the European Commission for allowing Hungary to expand its Paks nuclear plant with a €10-billion-Russian loan.