Wednesday

24th Jan 2018

Opinion

New Austrian government is good news for EU project

  • Sebastian Kurz (c), with his deputy Heinz-Christian Strache. Experience shows that luring populists into power tends to deflate them (Photo: Dragan Tatic/BKA)

Austria has a new conservative government led by the young centre-right leader Sebastian Kurz (OVP), with the far-right Heinz-Christian Strache (FPO) as his vice-chancellor.

This is not the first time such a coalition rules the idyllic Alpine republic.

Thank you for reading EUobserver!

Subscribe now for a 30 day free trial.

  1. €150 per year
  2. or €15 per month
  3. Cancel anytime

EUobserver is an independent, not-for-profit news organization that publishes daily news reports, analysis, and investigations from Brussels and the EU member states. We are an indispensable news source for anyone who wants to know what is going on in the EU.

We are mainly funded by advertising and subscription revenues. As advertising revenues are falling fast, we depend on subscription revenues to support our journalism.

For group, corporate or student subscriptions, please contact us. See also our full Terms of Use.

If you already have an account click here to login.

The last time it happened, in 2000-2005, EU leaders raised both their eyebrows and their voices, trying their best to ostracise a government that they considered dangerous and illegitimate.

This time, wisely enough and with few exceptions, such as commissioner Pierre Moscovici, they limited themselves to raising eyebrows.

Of course, warnings by journalists and pundits on the risks of the new Austrian course have abounded.

People particularly worry that the new leadership may steer Austria away from its traditional pro-EU course, closer to the national conservatism of some Visegrad countries, and sabotage EU initiatives on refugees and euro area integration.

In reality, Sebastian Kurz's government may be a blessing in disguise for the European project.

There are at least three reasons for optimism.

First, experience shows that luring populists into power tends to deflate them.

Both left and right-wing populists paid dearly their participation in governments in countries as diverse as Greece and Finland.

The Independent Greeks, the far-right junior partner in the current government led by Alexis Tsipras, are close to extinction, and the responsibilities of power took a heavy electoral toll on Tsipras' own Syriza.

The Finns Party – a Nordic equivalent to the Independent Greeks – has not yet recovered from its participation in a coalition government in 2015-2017.

The Freedom Party of Austria (FPO) itself was heavily damaged by its first experience of federal government, which tore its leadership apart, provoking a split which took over a decade to heal.

Life in government - especially coalition governments, with their inevitable compromises – is tough for anti-establishment parties.

The FPO was already forced to soften its Euroscepticism, as well as its strongly pro-Russia foreign policy views, and even pledged to support continued sanctions at the EU level.

Domestication, not empowerment

What we are witnessing looks more like a domestication than an empowerment of the FPO, and this is good news.

Second and relatedly, the political formula promoted by Kurz is in many countries our best hope of stabilising fragmented political systems and containing populism.

Kurz represents the vision of a dominant conservative centre-right that can accept collaboration with national populists as junior partners, while remaining in control.

Populists lose their aura of purity in government, while the moderate centre-right sets the tone of the coalition.

The alternative is the Macron formula, which weakens and splinters both the centre-right and the centre-left to create a dominant progressive centre.

This risks pushing the centre-right in the arms of populists, and leaving anti-establishment parties on both sides of the political spectrum as the main oppositions.

Who can in conscience argue that this would be desirable and beneficial to the European project? Do we really think that centrist progressivism a la Macron will forever be in government, and its populist opponents forever in opposition?

Well-functioning democracies need a dialectic between a mainstream right and left, and the Kurz scheme seems the best to preserve it in the current context.

Kurz's strategy can be usefully considered in other countries, starting from Italy, where elections are due next spring.

In fact, this seems to be Silvio Berlusconi's bet: a coalition of his centre-right Forza Italia with the radical-right of Matteo Salvini (Lega Nord) and Giorgia Meloni (Fratelli d'Italia), hopefully with the moderate component remaining dominant and setting the tone on Europe and other key strategic issues.

Third, Kurz's vision of the EU future seems more conducive to continental unity than most alternatives on offer.

In an interview with an Italian daily right after his victory last October, the young leader pledged to support a strong Union based on subsidiarity.

He explained that this would mean stronger integration in strategic fields such as foreign policy, defence and a new asylum system, but also higher autonomy in areas where member states and regions are better positioned to decide and act.

He also defended a euro governance based on rigorous fiscal rules, as opposed to Macron's plans for a euro government.

Kurz' sober and moderate Europeanism makes him an ideal advocate of the European project with the most sceptic Visegrad governments.

Everyone fears that he will adopt their views on the EU. We should rather hope that he will make them adopt his.

This could help forge a new consensus on a realistic way ahead for European integration that preserves continental unity and puts an end to the ugly 'East-West' spats of the last years.

The main EU leaders have so far failed in this important task, mostly proposing one-sided schemes that are too centralist and too closely aligned with their national interest to succeed.

But Austria is in many ways special. A small republic heir to a great multinational Empire, a natural bridge between East and West, with a political culture imbued with subsidiarity, there are reasons to hope that it will be able to make a difference.

Federico Ottavio Reho is a research officer at the Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies, a Brussels-based think tank close the European People's Party (EPP).

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

Thousands of anti-fascist demonstrators protested against the new government in Vienna on Monday, as the EU remained muted on the new far-right party in an EU government, which – unlike similar hard-right parties – wants to portray itself as pro-European.

Sebastian Kurz - Austria's young master of reinvention?

Has the long decline of Austria's mainstream parties finally come to an end? The centre-right People's Party seems to have successfully reinvented itself...or has it simply stolen the far-right Freedom Party's clothes?

Lessons for EU from the Greek tragedy

The Greek crisis showed the euro is more robust than people thought and that profligate states can write off public debt without leaving the currency.

Ten Commandments to overcome the EU's many crises

A series of missteps - from the faulty institutional infrastructure of the euro, to the migration crisis - have left the EU battered and in near crisis. Here are ten steps to re-democratise the union.

EU's 'old men' must pressure Poland on abortion rights

Despite fresh crackdowns on Poland's already restrictive abortion laws, EU commission president Juncker did not raise the issue with the new Polish PM Morawiecki - perhaps because it was an all-male event?

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. European Free AlllianceNo Justice From the Spanish Supreme Court Ruling
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Solutions for Sustainable Cities: New Grants Awarded for Branding Projects
  3. Mission of China to the EUTrade Between China, Belt and Road Countries up 15%
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersOresund Inspires Other EU Border Regions to Work Together to Generate Growth
  5. Mission of China to the EUTrade Between China, Belt and Road Countries up 15%
  6. AJC Transatlantic InstituteAJC Calls on EU to Sanction Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, Expel Ambassadors
  7. Dialogue PlatformRoundtable on "Political Islam, Civil Islam and The West" 31 January
  8. ILGA EuropeFreedom of Movement and Same-Sex Couples in Romania – Case Update!
  9. EU2017EEEstonia Completes First EU Presidency, Introduced New Topics to the Agenda
  10. Bio-Based IndustriesLeading the Transition Towards a Post-Petroleum Society
  11. ACCAWelcomes the Start of the New Bulgarian Presidency
  12. Mission of China to the EUPremier Li and President Tusk Stress Importance of Ties at ASEM Summit

Latest News

  1. Lessons for EU from the Greek tragedy
  2. A new dynamic on the Macedonia name issue
  3. Berlusconi in Brussels on pre-election charm offensive
  4. ECJ should rule against Austrian online censorship lawsuit
  5. EU states loosen grip on tax havens
  6. Facebook promises privacy reboot ahead of new EU rules
  7. Europe is lacking tech leadership
  8. Spitzenkandidat system here to stay, MEPs warn capitals

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. EU2017EEVAT on Electronic Commerce: New Rules Adopted
  2. European Jewish CongressChair of EU Parliament Working Group on Antisemitism Condemns Wave of Attacks
  3. Counter BalanceA New Study Challenges the Infrastructure Mega Corridors Agenda
  4. Dialogue PlatformThe Gülen Community: Who to Believe - Politicians or Actions?" by Thomas Michel
  5. Plastics Recyclers Europe65% Plastics Recycling Rate Attainable by 2025 New Study Shows
  6. European Heart NetworkCommissioner Andriukaitis' Address to EHN on the Occasion of Its 25th Anniversary
  7. ACCACFOs Risk Losing Relevance If They Do Not Embrace Technology
  8. UNICEFMake the Digital World Safer for Children & Increase Access for the Most Disadvantaged
  9. European Jewish CongressWelcomes Recognition of Jerusalem as the Capital of Israel and Calls on EU States to Follow Suit
  10. Mission of China to the EUChina and EU Boost Innovation Cooperation Under Horizon 2020
  11. European Gaming & Betting AssociationJuncker’s "Political" Commission Leaves Gambling Reforms to the Court
  12. AJC Transatlantic InstituteAJC Applauds U.S. Recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s Capital City