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3rd Dec 2022

EU silent on Austria's 'pro-Europe' far-right in cabinet

  • The EU commission said it will establish its line on the new Austrian government after its president Jean-Claude Juncker meets the new chancellor Sebastian Kurz on Tuesday (Photo: Council of the EU)

The European Commission was muted on Monday (18 December) after the swearing in of the new Austrian coalition government which includes a far-right party - and whose programme collides with existing EU policies on migration.

The 31-year-old Sebastian Kurz, the youngest chancellor in the country's history, will meet with European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker on Tuesday evening on his first official visit to Brussels as premier.

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Kurz, leader of the centre-right Austrian People's Party (OVP), will also meet European Council chief Donald Tusk.

"The president will establish the commission line tomorrow after the meeting with prime minister Kurz," a spokesman for the commission told reporters on Monday, when quizzed on concerns over the far-right shift in Vienna.

"We have an interlocutor, which is the Austrian government," he added.

Kurz's OVP struck a coalition deal with the far-right Freedom Party (FPO), whose leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, became deputy PM.

The coalition have taken a hard line on asylum seekers, want friendlier relations with Russia, and aim to cut wages and welfare to scare off migrants. Yet the government agreement also states the country's commitment to the European Union.

Kurz, along with his ministers, was sworn in on Monday as thousands of people protested on the streets of Vienna with placards saying 'Nazis Out', and 'Refugees Welcome'.

The pro-EU far-right

The commission's response to concerns over the presence of a far-right party in the ruling coalition – currently the only EU government in which a far-right party secured such a powerful position – is in stark contrast to the EU's reaction 17 years ago, when the FPO first entered a coalition government.

Back in 2000 European governments imposed diplomatic sanctions on Austria for FPO's presence in the government, even though the EU executive's reaction was lukewarm.

A key difference is that Kurz's government emphasises that it is pro-EU, with Austria taking over the rotating presidency of the Union in the second half of next year. Hence the quick visit of the young premier to Brussels on Tuesday.

Unlike the resurgent far-right in the Netherlands, Germany, and France, the Austrian coalition program is not attacking "Brussels", is not calling for rolling back EU integration, or for stopping, let alone dismantling, the eurozone.

However, the FPO's European political family is cheering its ascent into government and interprets it as a win for their populist ideas - despite the pro-EU rhetoric by the FPO.

French far-right leader Marine Le Pen said on Sunday at a conference of far-right forces in Prague that it was "very good news for Europe" for a right-wing populist party like the Freedom Party to enter government in the EU.

While 17 years ago, a far-right party's political win and government role was unprecedented in post-war Europe, now far-right parties enjoy support from a large part of the electorate and even when they are not part of the government they often influence its policies.

Dutch politician Geert Wilders' Freedom Party became the second-largest in the Netherlands, Le Pen was in a runoff for the presidency and the Alternative for Germany entered the Bundestag for the first time. In the UK, the UK Independence Party helped force a referendum on leaving the EU, which was then won, despite at the time having no directly-elected MPs.

And there is continuity from the early 2000s: the FPO general secretary Herbert Kickl, who used to be a speechwriter for Jorg Haider, the former FPO leader in 2000, has become the new interior minister. Haider himself died in a car crash in 2008.

Pierre Moscovici, a Socialist EU commissioner, warned that the developments in Austria called for vigilance of "democrats committed to European values".

"The situation is no doubt different from the precedent of 2000. But the far-right presence in power is never trivial," he said on Twitter.

Russian view

In light of the new Austrian government's stance on Russia, Kurz's meeting with Tusk could be an interesting one, as the former Polish prime minister said explicitly last week: "For sure I am not a fan of Russia".

Kurz's coalition wants to see friendlier relations with Russia, and says that EU sanctions are a source of unwelcome tension.

Tusk wrote a letter to Kurz on Monday, saying he trusts the Austrian government will continue to play a constructive and pro-European role in the European Union.

Austria is the latest country to add to the sceptical chorus within the EU about the effectiveness of Russian sanctions.

Kurz said that Austria would continue supporting EU sanctions on Russia imposed over Ukraine, but FPO, like other far-right groups in Europe, want them lifted.

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