Europe

Why Austria's Anti-Immigrant Experiment Is Worth Watching

The new ruling coalition has set out draconian immigration controls that every populist party dreams of implementing.

He has ceded immigration policy to the far right.

Photographer: Vladimir Simicek/AFP/Getty Images

The new Austrian government, announced last weekend, will be watched vigilantly by its European neighbors because it includes the far-right Freedom Party -- and because, thanks to its presence, Austria will become the first Western European country to implement an unapologetically right-wing immigration policy. Its 180-page coalition agreement could set the tone for similarly draconian policies (and unusual coalitions) in other European Union member states and the wider Western world. 

The link-up between the center-right People's Party, led by 31-year-old Sebastian Kurz, and the anti-immigrant Freedom Party owes its existence to Kurz's decision that Austrians were tired of milquetoast centrist policies pursued by "grand coalitions" of the People's Party with the Social Democrats. Kurz, whose government career began with the integration portfolio, decided to talk to Freedom Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache rather than his party's traditional center-left partners and rivals. Strache, with a history of neo-Nazi ties and strongly anti-EU leanings, agreed to state unequivocally that Austria would not try to secede from the EU or drop the euro and subscribed to traditional center-right policies like keeping down the national debt. In exchange for going along with Kurz on the economy and on Europe, he received the foreign minister's post and control over the security bloc of the government, including the interior and defense ministries. But perhaps more importantly, the Freedom Party got a mainstream imprimatur on its immigration policy.

"Our migration policy," the governing parties declared as a general principle, "should be such that the population would be able to support it." That, in their opinion, should involve rewriting migration legislation from scratch to draw a clear line between immigration and asylum. The former is supposed to be merit-based, in line with Austria's labor market needs. Asylum rights are inscribed in international law, but the Freedom Party wants to ensure Austria's policy is designed to prevent abuses.

In the U.S., its proposals would be described as extreme vetting. Asylum seekers should be prepared to give up their mobile phones for analysis to determine their travel routes and, where necessary, their identity. If a positive identification can't be made, as was the case with many new arrivals during the 2015-2016 refugee crisis, the new government intends to refuse asylum. It also plans to confiscate any cash asylum-seekers might be carrying and put it toward the cost of their settlement. Any help they receive, the program goes on, should only be in kind. Individual accommodation should be ruled out, and medical confidentiality should be waived for diseases deemed important for the settlement process. Any asylum seekers convicted of crimes are to be deported. Deportation appeals procedures are generally to be curtailed.

It's not clear at this point whether these proposals will stand up in European courts. International rules prescribe treatment that doesn't infringe on migrants' dignity and require full legal recourse. Immigration advocates will surely question the Austrian government's new approach. But even if some of the most odious ideas -- like the cash confiscation -- are struck down, it will be hard to prevent the ruling coalition from creating a tough asylum regime that will outwardly comply with the rules. Austria has no intention to flout the EU's refugee resettlement agreement as Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic do: It just appears to want a bad reputation with potential asylum seekers. The idea is to keep "economic migrants" -- those who seek a better life rather than flee life-endangering persecution or war -- out of the country. Austria, for its part, would push the EU on further investment to keep potential migrants away, including funding refugee facilities in Africa and the Middle East.

Another set of tough rules concerns integration into Austrian society. The government's idea is to shift responsibility to fit in onto newcomers. "Austria continues to offer every opportunity for integration," the government program says. "Those who doesn't take these opportunities and rejects integration must expect sanctions." The motto is "integration through achievement" using government-supported language and values classes. Those who fail exams may be fined or forced to pay the cost. Children won't be allowed to start school until they have sufficient German skills. Citizenship, the government says, should be considered as the ultimate reward for the achievement. 

The government program contains a special subchapter on fighting "political Islam," defined as the rejection of Austrian values and social norms in favor of secular "Islamization" of society. It includes a "loophole-free" ban on foreign funding for religious organizations and strict control over the curriculum of Islamic schools and kindergartens, as well as what's being preached in mosques.

It's hard to imagine what other far-right parties in Europe -- or, indeed, Donald Trump and his followers in the U.S. -- could add to the Austrian agenda. Had the National Front come to power in France, Geert Wilders's Freedom Party in the Netherlands or the AfD in Germany, they'd propose the same solutions. Scandinavian right-wing parties, which have been allowed to take part in government, aren't as vindictively tough on immigration. That makes the Austrian experiment special.

Unlike in 2000, when a more raucous Freedom Party last joined the government, Austria won't be ostracized by EU allies. Foreign minister appointee Karin Kneissl is not a party member but a respected Middle East expert known for her critical attitudes toward both Israel and the Islamic world. Kurz is a poster boy to some of the European center-right: German liberal leader Christian Lindner has been described as an admirer. So the new Austrian government may be perceived as somewhat unusual, but it's by no means fringe.

If it succeeds -- and if its policies lead to demonstrably better outcomes, such as lower undocumented immigration and less unemployment among immigrants -- center-right parties will take notice. They'll advocate similar approaches to immigration to counter the threat from populist parties. The populists, too, will be watching the Austrian experiment: It may help get them out of hopeless opposition and looking for ways to join forces with mainstream parties by adopting a more respectable and responsible image.

Success, however, may prove elusive for the Austrian coalition. Trying to insulate a European country that remains a desirable destination from today's enormous migration flows is akin to trying to plug a bursting dam with a finger. And integration can't be achieved by punitive measures and obligatory classes: It's the receiving society's responsibility as much as the immigrant's. Austria can try to ignore this for an election cycle or two, but voters will stop rewarding these attempts if they breed hostility in immigrant communities and end up making the country less safe.

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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