The Future of Europe, for Better or Worse, Is Sebastian Kurz
Austria's chancellor thinks he's cracked the code for neutralizing populists — by cooperating with them.
Austrians, the Austrian journalist Alfred Polgar sardonically noted in the early 20th century, are a people who “look with foresight into the past.” He was referring to Austrians’ tendency to seek comfort in Die Welt von Gestern, the world of yesterday, as the writer Stefan Zweig titled his autobiography. When Austrians flocked in 1955 to the cinemas to see the film Sissi, a kitschy love story about the young Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph I and the Empress Elisabeth, they didn’t merely enjoy the couple’s love story: They sought refuge, after the horrors of World War II, in the film’s old world composed of hierarchy, law, and order underpinned by a general respect for traditional values.
Today, another young conservative Austrian leader, Sebastian Kurz — the 31-year-old chancellor of Austria and chairman of a revamped version of Austria’s traditional center-right party — projects a similar profile as Sissi’s young emperor. In part, that’s due to his style of conservative populism, an original synthesis of heavy-handed social conservatism and law enforcement with traditional fidelity to established European institutions and economic policies. Since becoming leader of the Austrian People’s Party, he has steered it toward a coalition with the far-right, anti-immigrant Freedom Party, which had previously been ostracized by the bien-pensant Austrian establishment. Since taking office as chancellor, he has spoken of an urgent need to crack down on illegal immigration and maintain Austria’s traditional culture.
But if Kurz seems a historic figure, it’s also because of the extent of his ambition. He has made it clear that he’s aiming for influence beyond Austria’s narrow borders. He’s already popular in Germany, where the young Austrian has been intervening in the ongoing power struggle between the country’s conservative parties, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union. Kurz favors the latter and its more restrictive immigration policies, and he, along with Italy’s right-wing populist Lega Nord party, wants to form an “axis of the willing” against illegal migration between Austria, Italy, and Germany. As of last week, Kurz has also assumed the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union, which allows him to set the continent’s political agenda for the remainder of this year. It should come as no surprise that he has declared securing and protecting Europe’s external borders to be one of his top priorities under the official motto “A Europe that protects.”
Kurz’s vision is already represented in the agreement recently reached by EU leaders to toughen the continent’s asylum policy by establishing new “controlled” centers for housing and processing asylum seekers on a voluntary basis within Europe, and to set up migration centers outside Europe to discourage migrants from making asylum claims there in the first place. Kurz was instrumental in advancing both proposals and helped forge compromise between the EU’s centrist and populist forces, which seemed to confirm Austria’s alleged tradition, often propagated by Kurz’s government, of serving as a political bridge builder. It also led to Kurz being hailed as a “rock star” by U.S. President Donald Trump’s new ambassador in Berlin, Richard Grenell, and praised by Germany’s far-right Alternative for Germany party as a “real friend.”
Amid Merkel’s lame duck fourth term, Kurz has been called the EU’s new power broker and its most important politician. But the question remains whether Kurz’s conservative populism is truly what Europe’s ailing establishment needs. Austria’s young chancellor seems to believe he has developed a blueprint that other center-right parties and movements across Europe can use to placate populism while maintaining Europe’s establishment inheritance. But should Kurz’s promise to save Europe be taken at face value — or as bluster that’s likely to destroy what he allegedly seeks to protect? If Kurz is the future of Europe, it would help to know whether he’s only in it for himself.
Kurz grew up in Vienna’s Meidling district, where Austria’s Social Democratic Party and the Freedom Party dominate, but which always was home to pockets of People’s Party supporters. His private residence is still located in the district. Following a stint on Vienna’s city council and after assuming the leadership of the youth branch of the Austrian People’s Party, he became state secretary for integration in April 2011 at the tender age of 24, a role in which he pushed for a ban on foreign funding for Austrian mosques but also offered free German lessons for Austrian imams.
His appointment at such a young age was severely criticized by many within the People’s Party, with some party members refusing to have their picture taken with him. He was ridiculed in the media and by the opposition as too young and too inexperienced: At the time, he was primarily known for his city council campaign slogan: “Black [then the color of the conservative party] makes you horny.” This, according to one of his advisors, left a permanent bruise on the chancellor’s ego. Yet, it also taught him the importance of controlling political narratives and messaging.
Appointed the world’s youngest foreign minister in 2013, he quickly become the Austrian People’s Party’s most popular politician. His open challenge to Angela Merkel’s Willkommenskultur during the 2015 European migrant crisis and his clever marketing claim, partially true, that it was he who in 2016 closed the Balkan route, through which Syrian refugees were making their way to Europe, made him famous among conservative and far-right voters across Europe. This was especially true in Central Europe, where many were already deeply skeptical of the liberal migrant policies propagated by Germany and France.
It was here that he fully displayed for the first time his greatest political strength. Kurz recognized before other leaders of center-right establishment parties the prevailing anxiety about migrants and refugees, in Austria and in Europe more broadly. As Paul Ronzheimer writes in his book Sebastian Kurz: Die Biografie, “the closing of the Balkan route finally made Sebastian Kurz a political star in Austria” and beyond.
Kurz, upon assuming the chairmanship of the People’s Party in May 2017, immediately set about transforming it into a political movement designed primarily to promote himself. “Unlike Emmanuel Macron in France, he did not dare to establish a new movement but merely changed the structures,” Ronzheimer writes. While this transformation into a movement has been incomplete at best from a structural perspective — the party continues to be dominated by various decentralized suborganizations and regional parties in Austria’s states — it nevertheless is the key to unpacking Kurz’s particular form of conservatism.
Kurz’s campaign for the chancellery was unusual in the Austrian context in that he didn’t emphasize particular policies so much as his own authenticity and personality. He boiled down his platform to a few often-repeated bullet points — anti-migration, anti-politicized Islam, pro-personal responsibility in the economic sphere — without too much policy detail. Nonetheless, Kurz left no doubt that his politics are conservative, centered around social conservatism and law and order, and that he intended to move his party to the right — in marked contrast to Merkel’s 2017 campaign, which primarily tried to target center-left swing voters. Kurz was willing to bet that Austrians were looking, above all, for a new style of leadership with the imprimatur of the old establishment, even if they were unsure of what sort of policies they would get as a result. The outcome was a clear victory in the October 2017 legislative elections for Kurz, which led to his present coalition with the far-right Freedom Party.
But, even as Kurz practices a light form of populism, his positions are neither anti-establishment nor anti-EU; the People’s Party continues to support European integration. And unlike far-right extremists, he does not question existing political institutions or the value of an independent media, although his coalition partner has been engaged in a decades-long feud with the Austrian Broadcasting Corporation. The majority of his positions are in line with traditional conservative positions in Austria and Germany. In practice, Kurz’s economic policies have turned out to consist of a familiar brand of economic liberalization, deregulation, and reform of the Austrian welfare system, along with reducing the country’s relatively large public sector.
There are deviations from traditional center-right politics, however. Most notably, of course, Kurz has positioned his party closer to Hungary’s Viktor Orban and other far-right politicians by taking uncompromising stances on national security — and subsuming migration under that heading. “However, he [Kurz] is a pragmatist and not a dogmatist on that issue,” the political scientist Peter Filzmaier noted. Most Austrian politicians, including those who know him well, believe the Austrian chancellor has staked out the positions he has simply for the sake of winning elections — and he would presumably be content to shift again if he sensed political advantage. The bottom line, according to Filzmaier, is that Kurz’s conservativism is flexible, “and his fundamental ideological orientation [is] partially influenced by opportunism and his political career aspirations.”
The Austrian political analyst Thomas Hofer thinks that Kurz “indeed embodies a new type of political conservativism in Europe” by managing to establish a new position in between classical European center-right conservativism and right-wing populism. “He argues populistically, but in a much more agreeable manner than right-wing populist representatives,” he said. Hofer cited Kurz’s stance on migration and welfare policies as examples of the chancellor trying to walk the middle ground between hard-liners and moderates. “As such, he can serve as an example for other conservative parties in Europe when it comes to their repositioning,” he said. At the same time, Hofer cautioned that applying Kurz’s strategy to other countries may not be a winning strategy, because it is partially predicated upon the exceptional communication skills of the Austrian chancellor himself and his ability to attract the disaffected while not alienating those content with the basic status quo.
In interviews, people close to Kurz repeatedly emphasized his pro-EU stance to Foreign Policy. They also took pains to highlight his support for parliamentary liberal democracy, despite his close association with such figures as Orban, who has pronounced the era of liberal democracy over. Indeed, Matthias Strolz, the leader of the liberal Austrian NEOS party, in a much-debated speech accused Kurz of eroding parliamentary democracy. “The entire Republic is drunk on this performance. People will wake up with a severe hangover,” he said. Strolz worries that Austrians may find themselves soon living in an illiberal democracy of their own.
This fear is partially the product of the chancellor’s perceived nonchalance toward and disregard for the missteps of his coalition partner, the Freedom Party. Indeed, one of Kurz’s political strengths is to know when he needs to remain silent on a specific issue; his reputation as an effective communicator is predicated upon what he does not say rather than what he says. The chancellor often stays silent on the Freedom Party’s many instances of right-wing extremism. According to a study compiled by the Mauthausen Committee Austria, right-wing extremism, including cases of anti-Semitism, have significantly increased since the Freedom Party entered government in December 2017. Kurz, with a few exceptions (e.g., when the political pressure over an anti-Semitic songbook tied to a Freedom Party leader became too intense), has tried to evade commenting in public on such subjects. He has also largely chosen to publicly ignore an ongoing scandal involving the domestic intelligence agency BVT and alleged attempts to replace its leadership with people loyal to the Freedom Party. When he does comment on politically sensitive issues, Kurz often equivocates and obfuscates. This not only has brought him the reputation as a Schweigekanzler (silent chancellor) but also has led to the creation of a Twitter hashtag #AnswerLikeKurz to ridicule his perceived inability to answer a question without equivocating.
But, if Kurz’s goal is to drain the Freedom Party of its base of support, his coalition does seem to be paying some dividends. The Freedom Party has had to support the People’s Party economic liberalization agenda and can no longer engage in blatant economic populism to rally its core supporters, which traditionally has included a large segment of blue-collar protest voters. Notably, in a complete reversal of its previous position, the Freedom Party has been obliged to support the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, an EU-Canada free trade treaty, which for years it had opposed. This has brought the party a severe rebuke from Austria’s powerful tabloid press, the traditional barometer of blue-collar opinion. This discontent is also reflected in poll numbers. While for almost two years the Freedom Party consistently had a solid lead over the conservatives and the social democrats up to a few months before the October 2017 legislative elections, since entering government it has remained stuck in third place, trailing behind the other two.
Ultimately, Kurz’s ambitions to serve as Europe’s political thought leader will likely founder due to Austria’s relatively small size and its status as a neutral country. As the British historian Gordon Brook-Shepherd noted about Bruno Kreisky, considered to be Austria’s greatest postwar chancellor, he could have been “one of the world’s most influential leaders. … But in the Austrian setting he was, quite simply, a man too big for his country. The national-power base was missing, while Austria’s neutrality also denied him any voice in the military and economic councils of the West.” The new Austrian government and Sebastian Kurz will continue to suffer from the same confines. Austria is simply economically and politically too small and insignificant to become one of the EU’s leading powers in the long run.
This is best illustrated by Kurz’s pet project: closing the Mediterranean migrant route. Given that it is a landlocked country, Austria possesses no naval forces and will not be able to participate in sealing off Fortress Europe beyond a small token contribution. The country’s manpower contribution to the European coast guard — seven out of a staff of more than 370 — is also minor, and Vienna has also shown no willingness to substantially increase its financial contributions toward its grand ambitions of more secure external EU borders. Indeed, despite Kurz’s law-and-order rhetoric and his alleged focus on security, Austria’s depleted military and police forces remain underfunded and, for example, would be too weak to protect Austrian borders from another 2015 refugee wave. As such, there are natural limits to what Austria can do despite seemingly having punched above its weight over the last months. It will need the support of the EU’s larger powers for any of its grand plans. Yet skepticism about Austria prevails. It will take a clear commitment to burden-sharing to convince its partners that it has moved beyond its status as Europe’s sicherheitspolitischer Trittbrettfahrer (security-policy freeloader).
Talk of Kurz being a younger version of Klemens von Metternich consequently miss the mark. Yet as for Metternich, for better or worse, the real test for Sebastian Kurz will only come in a time of economic or political crisis. For now, his chancellorship has been extremely lucky in that regard. Austria is showing stable economic growth rates, and unemployment is declining. The country has also not been the victim of any large-scale terrorist attacks so far, and Austria’s Freedom Party appears politically weaker as a partner in government. But with Brexit looming around the corner and the EU’s migrant policy still unresolved, a crisis moment may be rapidly approaching for the bloc. We may yet discover whether this apparent incarnation of the 1950s cinema version of the young Austrian emperor has no clothes.