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The Economist: on the Austrian Elections

Will Sebastian Kurz pacify Austria's populists, or fire them up?
October 31, 2017

The Economist, October 21st, 2017 | Europe

SEBASTIAN KURZ has a problem. On October 15th Austria’s 31-year-old foreign minister scored an impressive election victory, somehow presenting himself as a credible messenger of change even though his centre-right Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) has been in office for 30 years. His energy and charisma kept the Freedom Party (FPÖ), a far-right outfit with neo-Nazi roots, from running the country; it had led in the polls for two years before Mr Kurz took over as chairman of the ÖVP in May. But to govern Mr Kurz needs a coalition partner, and the FPÖ, which came third in the election, is his first choice. Now Europe is left wondering whether Austria’s political whizz kid is fending off a populist uprising, or preparing to lead it.

Mr Kurz spoke to your columnist this week. He was fresh from a day spent discussing the vagaries of coalition politics with Austria’s president, and taking a congratulatory call from France’s Emmanuel Macron. Should he become chancellor, Mr Kurz will be the world’s youngest head of government (Kim Jong-Un has three years on him). Older readers who fear a decline in decorum among millennials should be reassured. Charlemagne was greeted with the greatest of courtesy and thanked profusely for finding time to visit Vienna; afterwards he was walked personally to the ministry’s exit and seen off with a formal bow.

Yet Mr Kurz’s charm conceals a rough edge. Coalition talks will begin on October 20th, but Mr Kurz will not speculate on what a deal with the FPÖ might look like. In 2000, when the two right-wing parties first formed a government, EU governments cut bilateral links and Israel recalled its ambassador. Alert to the dangers, this week Mr Kurz told an Israeli daily that he would not accept anti-Semitism in a coalition partner. Besides, these days the FPÖ leadership sees more fertile ground in Islamophobia and Austria-first nationalism. It has formal links to Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party, and portrays the EU as a threat to a “Europe of fatherlands”. If Mr Kurz does link arms with the FPÖ (and other coalitions are possible), his European counterparts will need convincing that the nationalist influence will be muted.

A second fear among Europeans is that Mr Kurz himself is merely a rabble-rousing populist in centrist clothing. He earned his reputation abroad by adopting a tough line during the refugee crisis of 2015-16, when Austria was taking in, per person, more asylum-seekers than any EU country bar Sweden. In early 2016, before Angela Merkel convinced Turkey to keep refugees from Europe’s shores, Mr Kurz plotted with Balkan ministers to close the borders across which they had been pouring. He then turned his attention to Italy, hammering the NGOs he said were smuggling migrants across the Mediterranean, and threatening to deploy troops to the Brenner Pass. All this has some Europeans fearing Mr Kurz could join the leaders of Hungary and Poland in an axis of resistance to migration.

Yet Mr Kurz’s obdurate stance on borders is now conventional wisdom across the EU. Moreover, he cut his political teeth on a subject that is less typical of far-right populism: how to integrate immigrants. Here Mr Kurz has something for both sides. He wants to help newcomers learn German and find jobs. But he also denounces Islamic radicalism and plays up the difficulty of integrating refugees from countries with “different systems”, like Afghanistan and Iraq. And he defends Austria’s ban on face-covering veils, a solution in search of a problem. (Few Austrian Muslims wear veils, but the ban recently ensnared a man clad in a full-body shark costume.)

Confidantes of the minister describe a good listener eager for advice and untroubled by history or ideology. “For me, the EU has always been a given,” says Mr Kurz, who was eight when Austria joined. That might explain his readiness to question its free-movement rules—he frets about so-called benefit tourism—and to jab at a meddlesome Brussels bureaucracy. Some find his openness to ending sanctions on Russia and backing strongmen in the Balkans naive. But supporters welcome his pragmatism.

Mr Kurz is also keen to flaunt his pro-European credentials. His government, he says, would be “as supportive as possible” of Mr Macron’s proposals for EU reform, even if he distrusts some of his ideas on the euro zone. (“We are on the German side,” he says, even before being asked about any specific policies.)

Europeans are right to fear a right-wing coalition in Austria. The FPÖ is a nasty party harbouring unreconstructed neo-Nazis, and its enduring strength is Austria’s shame. But its electoral success means it must now face the dilemma that confronts many radical-right parties: the compromises of coalition versus the purifying rage of opposition. It has already had to drop its advocacy of an Austrian exit from the EU, after realising that few voters were interested. The FPÖ would earn government posts in a coalition, perhaps including the next foreign or interior minister, as well as extracting some policy concessions. But Mr Kurz will not allow himself to be tugged out of the European mainstream.

All Europe contributed to the making of Kurz

Mr Kurz’s critics have been too quick to confuse a focus on border management with xenophobia. He makes the opposite case: properly integrating newcomers, he insists, goes “hand-in-hand” with showing that migration is under control. Integration, he accepts, will be “extremely difficult”, and his critics will hardly be calmed by his flirtation with the FPÖ. But the relative quiet at Europe’s borders offers him space to make good on his claim.

Mr Kurz’s ascent has been fuelled by two factors: tough talk on borders, and the Macronesque appeal of a fresh face to a weary electorate. Both of these will wear off soon enough. He will not lead a populist revolt in central Europe; he will probably spend more time fighting vested interests at home. But he may be the first European leader forged in the heat of the refugee crisis. That experience has shaped his thinking, and Europe’s too.