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22nd Mar 2019

EU gives blessing to Austria's far-right deal

  • Juncker (r, with Kurz, l): "I look at the government program and I have reasonable confidence that this will be a pro-European government." (Photo: European Commission)

The EU has given its blessing to Austria's new government on grounds it is "pro-European", despite its far-right element.

"We will judge the Austrian government on its deeds," Eurpean Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said at a joint press conference with Austrian prime minister Sebastian Kurz in Brussels on Tuesday evening (19 December).

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  • Thirty one year-old Kurz (l) is Austria's youngest leader (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

"I look at the government program and I have reasonable confidence that this will be a pro-European government," Juncker said.

The 31-year old Kurz came to the EU capital one day after being sworn into office to prove Austria's pro-EU credentials after his centre-right Austrian People's Party (OVP) party joined a coalition with the far-right Freedom Party (FPO).

"We are a pro-European country, we are actively involved in the EU, and we would like this to continue," Kurz told reporters, adding: "We wish to make a contribution to a strong EU."

He pledged to do so by making use of the notion of "subsidiarity", taking more decisions at a lower lever to improve efficiency and reduce bureaucracy.

Kurz also met with European Council chief Donald Tusk, who said he had "no doubt" about the trustworthiness of Austria as a partner. He called Kurz an "energetic, determined and pro-European leader".

Concerns arose over FPO deal due to the party's openly anti-Semitic and Nazi-apologetic past.

The FPO is a member of the same political family that harbours anti-EU, anti-immigration and anti-Muslim figures such as France's Marine Le Pen and the Dutch politician Geert Wilders.

FPO fingerprints were all over Kurz's government program, which set out a tough stance on migration, promoted an detente with Russia and offered citizenship to Austrians in Italy's South Tyrol, something Kurz said he wanted to discuss with Italian PM Paolo Gentiloni.

The deal was the latest signal that mainstream politics in Europe had shifted to the right in the wake of the migration and economic crises.

Bridging

Kurz, in Brussels, also wanted to dispel concern that his coalition partners would pull eurozone-member Austria away from the core of Europe and align it with central European countries that have challenged the EU's liberal-democratic values.

"We wish to make a contribution to upholding the rule of law, upholding our rules and values, and make sure all are observed everywhere in Europe, and that there is no exception," Kurz said, speaking on the eve of a commission decision on whether to launch punitive action against the right-wing government in Poland.

Kurz said he wanted to "help to build bridges between east and west" in Europe.

But his migration policy was more in line with the Visegrad countries of central Europe than with the EU core.

Kurz said that while Austria respected the decision on relocating migrants from frontline EU countries such as Greece and Italy, he thought "relocation alone will not be the answer to solve the migration crisis".

"What we need is to secure our external border. We have to decide who is allowed to come to Europe, not the smugglers should decide," he said, echoing the concerns of his eastern neighbours.

Different age

Underlying Austria's pro-European position is important for the EU institutions as Austria will take over the rotating presidency of the EU Council from July next year.

Juncker noted that Austria will have a chance to influence EU policy next year, by saying Austria's presidency program reflected "almost 100 percent" of the commission's priorities.

The warm Brussels welcome was very different from what greeted the FPO's first coalition attempt in 2000 - at a time when Kurz was 14 years old - when EU countries applied sanctions in an effort to keep the FPO at arm's length.

Juncker grew frustrated during the press conference with questions on the far right participating in the Austrian government, and pointed out that even 17 years ago it was not the EU institutions, but member states that imposed sanctions.

"Why are we making a whole thing out of Austria when we are partially blind to other countries? This is a pro-European government and that's it," Juncker said, noting that he also worked with governments in Greece, Slovenia and Bulgaria that had extremist elements.

Kurz, defending his country's democratic credentials, said: "Austria is a strong democracy, we had a free and fair election, and the population has taken a decision, which has to be accepted."

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