Europe

Austria's Great Millennial Hope Walks a Fine Line

Sebastian Kurz hasn't so much copied as temporarily defanged the far right.

Young man with a plan.

Photographer: Thomas Kronsteiner/Getty Images

Austria's nationalist Freedom Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache said after Sunday's national election that while his political force didn't win, he felt "somewhat vindicated" by the high level of support for his party's platform, which had been "copied" by the winner -- the center-right People's Party, led by Sebastian Kurz. Actually, the cross-pollination went both ways. The emergence of a more coherent center-right version of immigrant integration policy in the EU may be one positive consequence. On the other hand, the alliance could bring a deepening of the bloc's east-west divide.

The conventional wisdom is that 31-year-old Kurz, the first millennial to run a European country, led the conservative People's Party to victory by stealing Strache's thunder on immigration. The Freedom Party confidently led in the polls after the 2015 refugee crisis, and then Kurz came and turned his establishment party into the safe alternative for the many voters who wanted tight immigration controls but not Strache's nasty baggage. The Freedom Party leader, after all, has a history with neo-Nazi groups in Austria and Germany that scares off many moderate voters. Kurz himself, however, is more willing to govern with the Freedom Party as a junior coalition partner than with the center-left Social Democrats who, after the postal ballots are counted, are likely to find themselves slightly ahead of Freedom in the election. And there are solid reasons for that.

Unlike Chancellor Angela Merkel in Germany, who was politically weakened by her decision to let more than a million asylum seekers into Germany in 2015, Kurz was in a strong position to make a case for a new approach to immigration. This is an area in which he has specialized for most of his admittedly brief political career. Kurz's first position in the Austrian federal government, in 2011, was state secretary for integration, and the integration portfolio has been part of the foreign ministry -- run by Kurz -- since 2014. 

From the start, Kurz's line on integration was quite sensibly to put language training first. German is an extremely difficult language for a foreigner to speak well, and those working on refugee integration in Germany now recognize that poor language skills, and not any cultural differences, are the tallest barrier to integration. Kurz has also pushed for the speedier recognition of professional qualifications obtained outside the European Union, seeking to remove another hurdle immigrants face in the labor market. In 2013, Kurz successfully pushed through changes to Austria's citizenship law to fast-track citizenship for well-integrated immigrants -- those with better language skills and a record of contributing positively to society. More recently, Kurz has been instrumental in drafting a new integration law, which requires newcomers to sign an "integration agreement" under which they must take instruction in German and Austrian values and pay fines if an exam shows they have failed to do so. 

Kurz has argued that "illiterates from Afghanistan" who won't learn German create difficulties in the labor market for well-integrated Muslim immigrants -- presumably because employers tend not to make the distinction. And though he's made enemies in the Muslim community, for example by condemning some Muslim kindergartens as obstacles to integration, he's not an anti-Islamic agitator, unlike Strache. His views and policy proposals are close to those voiced by Merkel and her allies since 2015, except he's been faster to move on them. They are a reason he's reluctant to work with the Social Democrats, who are traditionally pro-immigration and pro-multiculturalism. Kurz hasn't so much imitated the Freedom Party as acknowledged the concerns of its voter base and advanced more pragmatic solutions.

At the same time, the prospect of joining a government for the first time since 2005 softened some of the Freedom Party's rough edges. It toned down its anti-European Union rhetoric and stopped advocating Austria's immediate exits from the euro and the EU. While seeming to hew closer to the far-right line, Kurz has, to a degree, defanged Strache. And the possibility of the People's Party forming a coalition with the still-strong Social Democrats despite their mutual antipathy is a strong incentive for the Freedom Party to moderate its demands for a bigger role in the next cabinet if Kurz is to work with Strache.

Strache's barely concealed anti-Semitism and his colorful past are less of an obstacle to the baby-faced Kurz than to many older politicians in German-speaking countries. For Kurz's generation, the historical distance from the Nazi era is greater. In a way, that's a blessing in Austria, where the far right has a strong tradition that's not going away. Instead of rejecting its bearers, Kurz has an opportunity to force a more constructive attitude on them -- something that, in recent years, happened in Norway, where the nationalist Progress Party has been part of a successful governing coalition. That's an important role for the center-right to play in a country where a sizable number of voters will always be openly nationalist. It can also be the beginning of turning an anti-immigrant agenda into a set of policies that might, in time, lessen xenophobia and lead to a better integration of newcomers than multiculturalist policies have.

A Kurz-Strache coalition could, however, pose a short-time danger to EU cohesion. A firmer stance on immigration will push Austria in the direction of the Visegrad Four -- Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic -- where there are natural affinities. A nationalist party runs Poland; in Slovakia, a far-right force is part of the ruling coalition; in the Czech Republic, a relative euroskeptic, Andrej Babis, is about to win an election; and in Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban is one of Strache's favorite politicians. With the help of an older democracy such as Austria, the post-Communist countries could be emboldened to take an even stronger stand against what they perceive as EU dictates -- not just on immigration but also on closer economic integration.

The game Kurz is playing is a young man's risky gambit. If he can offer pragmatic solutions to voter concerns, he will be rewarded by stability-loving Austrians. But if he fails to control the scary forces bubbling under the Freedom Party's surface and threatening to rip Eastern Europe from the West, both Austria and the EU will regret that he got his chance to run a nation as early as he did.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net

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