Tuesday

19th Feb 2019

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.

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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).

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