Vienna: Feted as a “rock star” by an American ambassador and courted by Angela Merkel’s right-wing critics: it’s a dream start for Austria’s youthful Chancellor Sebastian Kurz as his country takes over the EU’s rotating presidency.
Aged just 31, Kurz is poised to steer the bloc as one of his pet themes — a tougher migration policy — rises rapidly up the European agenda again.
Kurz, whose centre-right People’s Party (OeVP) has governed with the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) since December, rarely misses an opportunity to boast of his role in closing the “Balkan route” for migrants in 2016 when he was foreign minister.
He made a clampdown on immigration a central theme of his campaign in last year’s elections.
While his stance hasn’t been universally welcomed, Kurz “is in tune with the prevailing mood,” said Patrick Moreau, Austria expert at France’s National Centre for Scientific Research.
“More and more people agree with his criticism of [German Chancellor] Angela Merkel’s decision to temporarily open the borders in 2015,” Moreau said.
His stance as a “critical Europhile” is also increasingly popular: Kurz emphasises his support for the EU but on condition it gives more powers to member states.
The FPOe and other far-right parties have moved closer to this position having put aside for now any plans to leave the bloc.
“Whether as the manager of a refugee crisis, the great hope of the right or a cool tactician, Austria’s EU presidency gives the chancellor the chance to make his mark,” the centrist Kurier newspaper said.
It’s a far cry from 2000, the last time the OeVP went into coalition with the FPOe, then led by the controversial but magnetic Joerg Haider.
A wave of international revulsion greeted the FPOe’s entry into government and the EU imposed diplomatic sanctions for several months.
Now, with the “identitarian” right gathering steam across the continent, “Kurz is being recognised on the international stage and Austrians are proud of that,” said Moreau.
The new American ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell called Kurz a “rock star” in an interview while Merkel’s critics in the Bavarian CSU party, her coalition partner, have emphasised their “common position” with Kurz on immigration.
There are, however, signs that it may not all be smooth sailing with Austria’s FPOe Interior Minister Herbert Kickl rejecting plans by his German CSU colleague Horst Seehofer to send some migrants back across the Bavaria-Austria border.
But domestically the government is still doing well in the polls.
“The government’s strength is in presenting an image of harmony, thanks to some very intensive political marketing,” particularly on social media, said political scientist Thomas Hofer.
‘Master of distraction’
Only a few weeks into the new administration, the FPOe had to face embarrassing revelations about neo-Nazi sympathies in organisations close to the party but Kurz refrained from making any harsh comments about his coalition partners.
When asked about the FPOe’s echoing of Hungary’s nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s rhetoric against liberal US billionaire George Soros, Kurz simply said he was of a “different opinion”.
On a recent visit to Budapest, Kurz did not comment on a slew of controversial laws restricting NGO activity, only saying that Austria wanted to be a “bridge builder” to central Europe.
But the slick image and balancing acts haven’t charmed all.
“Kurz is a master of distraction,” the liberal Falter weekly said recently, pointing to a press conference where Kurz and other ministers announced — with much fanfare — plans to close several mosques.
The paper suggested part of the purpose was to deflect attention from unrelated allegations of wrongdoing levelled at Interior Minister Kickl.