Where Will the Far Right Take Austria’s EU Presidency?

Austria is taking the helm of EU politics for the third time. As the Conservatives formed a government with the far-right Freedom Party, Brussels is watching closely

One chilly day last December, only days after he formed a new government with the anti-migrant, anti-MuslimFreedom Party (FPÖ), Chancellor Sebastian Kurz took his first trip abroad. Significantly, he went to Brussels, the heart of the European Union. The conservative chancellor’s meeting with Jean-Claude Juncker, head of the European Commission, seemed to go well, at least in front of the cameras. After ducking away from one of Juncker’s notorious salutatory kisses, Kurz was praised for his pro-European program. The praise was anticipatory: Naturally, the participation of the far-right in a European government was met with skepticism in Brussels, to say the least.

It wasn’t the first time an Austrian conservative leader had gone to Brussels in an attempt to appease his European partners. EU officials still have a vivid memory of the year 2000, when the conservative Wolfgang Schüssel formed a coalition pact with Jörg Haider’s FPÖ. Governments in Europe and overseas reacted with shock, the EU imposed diplomatic sanctions. Now, almost two decades later, Europe has come to accept the idea of populists in positions of power. With the FPÖ’s Heinz-Christian Strache, Austria now has a Vice Chancellor who is known to have strong ties to the extreme right. In his youth, the former dental technician, who has been leading the party for more than ten years, was detained at a protest organized by a group imitating the Hitler Youth.

Not everyone is convinced by his turn around – Strache now claims the incident was “youthful folly.” But the Burschenschaften, far-right fraternities with a German nationalist orientation, are still a vital part of the FPÖ, with some of their members now in the cabinet. The party also has ties to the Identitären, a group of right-wing extremists.

Since he made a pact with the FPÖ, Kurz has gone out of his way to stress that his government is pro-European. But so far, his actions are telling a different story. Kurz has made a deal with a party founded in 1956 by ex-Nazis that has, until recently, spoken in favor of leaving the Union. In the European Parliament, the FPÖ has formed a political group with other far-right parties like Marine Le Pen’s Front National, the Belgian Vlaams Belang, the Dutch PVV and Italy’s Lega. It is one of the Eurosceptic parties in the European Parliament that has close ties with the Kremlin and even a cooperation deal with Vladimir Putin’s United Russia.

Not surprisingly, the FPÖ is campaigning against the EU’s sanctions on Moscow. In early June, Putin was greeted with all honors in Vienna.

© BKA Dragan Tatic

BLAMING BRUSSELS

Like its political allies, the FPÖ has never missed a chance to blame Brussels for any nuisance. In last year’s election campaign, Strache expressed his wish for Austria to join the Visegrád group – an alliance between Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Driven by nationalism and hostility toward migrants, some of these states are slowly turning into illiberal refugees into their countries.

Now Brussels is watching Vienna closely: Will Austria be next?

In the next six months, Vienna is going to get a lot closer to Brussels. On July 1, not long before his 32rd birthday, Kurz will take the helm of EU politics. Since the Treaty of Lisbon in 2009, the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union has been stripped of its power. As it is now separated from the European Council (the heads of states) and the EU’s institution for foreign affairs (the High Representative), it can do little more than organize the EU ministers’ meetings – and choose the topics of discussion (for a simplified explanation of the EU’s decision-making system, see graphic).

In Vienna, the residency does not encounter a pro-European atmosphere. Most recently, Strache called for an overhaul of free movement for EU citizens – one of the main pillars of the European Union. This did not go down well with EU officials, particularly in times of Brexit – Brussels insists on London keeping the four freedoms of the Union in order to benefit from the free market after the United Kingdom leaves the bloc. But Strache questioned whether allowing EU citizens to live and work in other member states was “smart” and demanded a re-appraisal.

And the FPÖ’s coalition partner? Apart from downplaying any inherent differences or not commenting at all, the ÖVP leaves us guessing. It is only the party’s few Christian-social members like MEP Othmar Karas, who still react, critizing Strache for “constantly disturbing the peace” in EU matters. Once again Kurz acted as an appeaser, like the owner of a vicious dog, trying to convince everyone that the animal won’t actually bite. One should not over-interpret his Vice Chancellor, Kurz suggested. “The Austrian government’s position on freedom of movement is clear and our program is clearly pro-European.”

© BKA Dragan Tatic

IT’S ALL ABOUT MIGRATION

But Strache keeps barking. During a recent trip to Brussels, he claimed that the European Border and Coast Guard Agency Frontex was an organization of human traffickers. Instead of securing the EU’s external borders, Strache claimed, Frontex was picking up migrants in North African waters and hauling them to Europe.

But it is not just words. In early May, the new government presented a bill that would index benefits for children of migrant workers. This would mainly affect carers for the elderly from Eastern member states who often leave their children behind while working several-week shifts in Austria. The plan might violate European law: Employees must not be discriminated against on the grounds of their nationality. This approach supports Kurz’ main agenda: anti-immigration. Not surprisingly, he believes the issue also caused Brexit. With the United Kingdom planning to leave the block in March 2019, Austria has another giant problem to deal with during its presidency: the negotiations about the border between the EU and the UK, a 300-mile stretch separating the Republic of Ireland from Northern Ireland.

But the Council’s opportunities to influence Brexit are limited, and Austria, as a small country, will not be able to set a course. Kurz has already made it clear that he thinks the EU should take a step back. Member states, he has said, should onlywork together on “big issues” like the single market and the protection of borders. Consistently, Kurz has made migration one of the key topics of the presidency.Translated into EU politics, this means protecting Europe’s external borders.

His most recent suggestion is to authorize Frontex to intercept migrants at an earlier stage.To “effectively prevent illegal migration into the EU,” the Union’s border patrol should be able to operate in Africa. In practice, them back to their countries.

THE CENTER STRIKES BACK

Austria’s other key topics for the presidency are the fight against terrorism and radicalization in immigration communities.

© BKA Dragan Tatic

Kurz’ criticism of the EU’s powers is nothing new. As Austria’s minister for foreign affairs, he claimed that he “closed the Balkan route” in 2016, which he did without the support of Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel. Now, with Germany shifting itsposition and closing its borders, Kurz feels he was right all along. His criticism of pro-European western member states like Germany and France is also to be seen as a defense of eastern EU states like Hungary.

Officially, he likes to stage himself as a “bridge builder” between Austria’s neighbors and the West. His support for Hungary’s Prime Minister Victor Orbán is not only about Austria’s and Hungary’s united stance on migration. For, at a closer look, Austria’s new government has more in common with its neighbors to the east than with the “old” member states. The erosion of democracy may be a lot more advanced in Hungary or Poland. But with the FPÖ, Kurz has given power to a party that, in past years, has tried to compromise and weaken important independent institutions, among them the constitutional court and Austria’s public broad casting service ORF.

But even more disturbing for Austria’s European partners is the scandal surrounding the Federal Office for the Protection ofthe Constitution and Counterterrorism(BVT). In late February, the FPÖ-led Interior Ministry gave the order to raid the BVT. A police unit headed by an officer who is also a member of the Freedom Party stormed the offices and confiscated some of the republic’s most sensitive documents. These included information about the extreme right as well as documents that had been shared by partner organizations like the German Secret Service BND.

Consequently, some of Austria’s European partners have already stated that they will no longer share confidential information. The FPÖ’s strong ties with Russia are also unsettling – the party has a cooperation deal with Putin’s United Russia, close-knit with the extreme right.

Again, Austrian conservatives have remained silent. Even the EU’s highest official, Juncker seems to have gotten used to the idea of the far-right running Austrian politics. In early June, after his last meeting with the Austrian government, he once again praised its pro-European stance. Some observers believe Brussels refrains from too much criticism in order not to drive Europe even further into the hands of demagogues. By praising Vienna, Juncker also meant the FPÖ’s Strache. He, the Luxembourger was quoted as saying, had made “a very good impression.”

 

 

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