Austria’s New Government: A Mix of Far-Right, Pro-Europe and Youth
Credit Leonhard Foeger/Reuters
BERLIN — A new coalition government was sworn in on Monday in Austria, and for the first time in more than 10 years it includes the far-right Freedom Party, a watershed for the populist movements that unsettled European politics this year.
The return to power of the Freedom Party, which was founded by neo-Nazis after World War II, was concerning enough that Austria’s president, Alexander Van der Bellen, took the exceptional step of eliciting several promises from the new government before he would administer the oath of office.
Those included acknowledging Austria’s commitment to European Union and its responsibility to a Nazi past that tore apart the Continent last century.
Mr. Van de Bellen also reminded the new government leaders that they represent everyone in Austria, a rejoinder to a campaign characterized in large part by an antipathy toward immigrants.
The new chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, 31, is now Europe’s youngest leader after winning more than 31.5 percent of the vote in a snap election in October for the center-right People’s Party, a Christian Democratic party founded at the end of World War II.
But he also reflects the ways in which the far-right has reshaped the political agenda in Europe, even among centrist and mainstream parties that could not ignore the populist surge, or do so only at their own peril.
Mr. Kurz co-opted much of the far-right’s political agenda, but to the chagrin of its critics, he gave it a fresh and youthful face in an establishment party, which has now also brought the far-right into government with it.
Heinz-Christian Strache, 48 and chairman of the Freedom Party since 2005, will now become vice chancellor. His party was also given the interior and foreign ministries, as well as the defense portfolio, although the new government pledged to uphold and strengthen Austria’s neutral stance.
Concerns over the Freedom Party’s neo-Nazi roots and its pro-Russia stance led Mr. Van der Bellen to include several checks and balances in the new coalition government agreement.
“A pro-European direction of the future government is central,” Mr. Van der Bellen said in a statement announcing his approval of the coalition agreement on Saturday.
“Sebastian Kurz and Heinz-Christian Strache have assured me that Austria is and will remain a strong country in the heart of Europe and that it will play an active role in the future shaping of the E.U.,” he said.
Still, Mr. Van Der Bellen took precautions to try to insulate Austria against some of the turbulence that populist movements have ushered in elsewhere, including in Britain, where they catalyzed the referendum in favor of leaving the European Union.
He insisted that the coalition members agree to language stipulating that the country’s participation in the bloc was excluded from increased forms of direct democracy, effectively forcing the far-right party to drop its long-held call for a referendum on the E.U.
He also insisted that the far-right abandon its desire to set up a “home security” ministry, warning the country must be mindful of its Nazi past.
They seemingly complied, in public statements as well as spelling out their policies in the 180-page coalition agreement that was published on Saturday and will serve as a guideline for government policy for the next five years.
“As a pro-European, a pro-European orientation of the future government is very important to me,” Mr. Kurz said in a statement to supporters posted to his Facebook page hours before he took his oath of office.
Mr. Kurz said although his party had to reach compromises with its far-right partners, the Freedom Party, many of the key issues from his own campaign would define the new government. They include increasing security by clamping down on illegal immigration, cutting taxes and making changes to the social welfare system.
But Mr. Strache’s interpretation of what the coalition intends to achieve sounded more in keeping with the hard, anti-immigration line of his own party’s campaign. The Freedom Party had pledged to defend the country’s generous social welfare system from abuse by migrants.
“Never again will it happen that migrants, who have not worked a single day here and have never paid anything into the system, receive a thousand euros in social welfare!” Mr. Strache wrote on Sunday in a Facebook posting that was approved by more than 10,000 people.
At a time when the differences between western European Union members’ desire to distribute asylum-seekers throughout the bloc and eastern members’ refusal to take in any new migrants is straining Brussels, the Austrians’ tough stance could create further tensions.
“Realistically, migration will continue to be an issue for the next 20 to 30 years,” said Stefan Lehne, who studies E.U. foreign policy for Carnegie Europe. “It is a complete illusion that you can block this totally. You need to deal in a responsible way.”
Hundreds of people demonstrated against the new government in the streets of Vienna in the hours leading up to the swearing-in the city’s Hofburg palace.
But the numbers were small compared to the tens of thousands who blocked downtown Vienna for days after the Freedom Party, then under Jörg Haider, was sworn into government in 2000. That coalition, which lasted until 2003, carried out the privatization of several public entities, including Austria’s postal and telecom companies, which left a legacy of corruption investigations, some of which are still going on today.
The European Union responded to the earlier coalition with the far right by adopting sanctions against Austria that were dropped about six months later, when no violations materialized.
In contrast, this year, though none made it as far as the Freedom Party, far-right parties made inroads in much of the Europe, where their anti-immigrant and anti-European Union stands has sown unease, especially in Brussels.
For now, the measures agreed to by the new coalition appeared to mitigate concerns among Austria’s European partners. Mr. Kurz plans to head to Brussels on Tuesday, where he will meet with Donald Tusk, head of the European Council, and other leaders. And Mr. Kurz has pledged that his government will focus on justice and the concern of the “little guy.”
Chancellor Angela Merkel congratulated Mr. Kurz, who in the past has harshly criticized her welcoming stance on migration, saying she looked forward to continuing Berlin’s cooperation with Vienna.
Pierre Moscovici, a Social Democrat from France who is now the European commissioner for economic and financial affairs, warned that the E.U. must keep an eye on Vienna, while conceding the situation was not the same as 17 years ago.
“The coalition now in power in Austria should elicit vigilance of Democrats committed to European values,” Mr. Moscovici said on Twitter. “The situation is certainly different than that in 2000, but the presence of the far-right in power is never trivial.”