“Fair weather compromise,” wrote Irene Brickner, headlining her leader in the daily Der Standard July 6. Justice Minister Alma Zadić had performed a high-wire act of political agility on the delicate matter of asylum seekers’ rights to legal assistance. Ever since the massive surge of refugees in 2015, this has been the defining issue in Austrian politics – a political stand-off between those supporting a generous immigration policy and those wanting to throttle back the flow. It will outlive Corona as the hot wire topic.
Herbert Kickl’s Legacy
The back-story: The first Kurz government (December 2017-May 2019) was in coalition with the far-right FPÖ, no friends of an easy path for asylum seekers. Interior Minister of the day, FPÖ man Herbert Kickl, unleashed a storm of protest when he re-labeled the Erstaufnahmezentren (Reception Centers) as Departure Centers, unmistakably signaling a refugee’s chance of successful entry at close to zero.
Signs can be unscrewed in a moment, but bureaucratic structures are not so easily demounted: Kickl had also announced a new office, the Federal Support Agency (BBU), to handle legal assistance for asylum seekers. This was an explosive political move. Up till then, legal support had been supplied by well-meaning NGO’s, principally the Diakonie (the active charitable arm of the Protestant church, loosely affiliated with the Christian Socialist ÖVP). Christian mercy – it seemed to many – was about to be replaced by a cold state bureaucracy. The office would be part of the Interior Ministry, whose then Minister Kickl is on record recommending water cannon and rubber bullets to deal with immigrants at the border.
Green and Tough
However slow-moving bureaucracy saved the day. The plan announced in May 2019 was never implemented before the government fell later that month in the chaos of the Ibiza video scandal. In the present administration – Kurz II – the coalition partner is the largely pro-immigrant Green party, which includes current Justice Minister Zadić. A former refugee herself, having fled war-torn Bosnia-Herzegovina with her mother in 1994, she is popularly considered one of the most successful ministers in the present team. She has already earned considerable respect for her tough stance on corruption, particularly in the murky area of (inadequate) transparency in political party financing.
Now Zadić has come up with an ingenious plan to solve the impasse: Rather than attempt the cumbersome business of re-structuring the bureaucracy, she has announced that the BBU will be led by Günther Ecker and Stephan Klammer, respected legal experts from the same NGO’s that have been providing the legal support system up to now. Keep it simple: Leave the structure as it is, just put in the right people.
Most important of all, she ordered that the agency leadership would operate under Weisungsfreiheit – a magical word freeing them of any directives or hierarchical pressure from other parts of government. Independent, to follow their conscience. Media commentary has been generally positive, but less than enthusiastic. The Standard’s Brickner reported, that there was generally a sense of relief, a feeling that the worst had been averted. The liberal weekly Falter declared Zadić to be their Hero der Woche, but with somewhat half-hearted praise: “Successful crash landing.”