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Austrian Politics Rocked by Sudden Resignations

Former Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s abrupt departure could spell trouble for the future of Europe’s center right.

By , an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy.
Then-Austrian politician Sebastian Kurz speaks to the media.
Then-Austrian politician Sebastian Kurz speaks to the media in Vienna on Oct. 17, 2017. Thomas Kronsteiner/Getty Images

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Sudden resignations roil Austria, U.S. President Joe Biden unveils a new pandemic strategy, and the controversial “Remain in Mexico” policy is revived.

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Kurz and Schallenberg Step Down in Austria

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Sudden resignations roil Austria, U.S. President Joe Biden unveils a new pandemic strategy, and the controversial “Remain in Mexico” policy is revived.

If you would like to receive Morning Brief in your inbox every weekday, please sign up here.


Kurz and Schallenberg Step Down in Austria

Austrias political scene was roiled this week when Sebastian Kurz, the country’s scandal-ridden former chancellor, abruptly announced he would step back from politics. His successor, current Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg, swiftly followed suit, announcing his own resignation just hours later.

Once a popular figure of the European center right, Kurz soared to power before a corruption scandal led to his resignation in October. Schallenberg, one of Kurz’s close allies, was widely seen as a placeholder in the position until Kurz was able to return. As a politician, you “constantly have the feeling you’re being hunted,” Kurz said as he announced his decision. “I am neither a saint nor a criminal.” 

Kurz’s departure is consequential for both Austria and the European center right’s future, which has consistently struggled to retain support and build momentum over the past few months. “[Kurz] was considered a star among European conservatives,” Peter Rough, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, told Foreign Policy. “This is kind of a final nail in the coffin.”

Fall from grace. When Kurz first joined the government in 2011, his political future looked bright. Successes came quickly: At just 27 years old, he became Austria’s youngest foreign minister ever. When he was named the Austrian chancellor at 31 years old, he was the world’s youngest head of government. 

His fall was also fast. In October, Kurz resigned as chancellor after becoming the subject of a sweeping corruption probe, and last month, Austrian lawmakers unanimously decided to remove his immunity to clear the way for an investigation. Now, the chances of a full political recovery appear increasingly unlikely. “I think [Kurz] recognized there wasn’t going to be a path back to the chancellery,” Rough said. 

The center right’s future? As European politics become increasingly fragmented, Kurz’s departure is a “significant blow” to the center right, Rough said, particularly since he was “seen as the future of the European right [and] somebody who could responsibly defang populism with a conservative message.”

Austrian politicians are now scrambling to determine potential replacements. Top officials are set to meet Friday morning to select Schallenberg’s successor. The favored choice appears to be Karl Nehammer, the current interior minister.


What We’re Following Today

America’s new pandemic response. As the first cases of the omicron coronavirus variant are reported in the United States, U.S. President Joe Biden unveiled his new pandemic response strategy at the National Institutes of Health. “We’re going to fight this variant with science and speed, not chaos and confusion,” he said. 

Under this new strategy, which encourages more vaccinations and testing, all patients will now be reimbursed for rapid at-home coronavirus tests. International travelers will face greater testing requirements while public transportation users must abide by expanded mask mandates. The plan “pulls no punches in the fight against COVID-19,” Biden said, while noting that his strategy does not include lockdowns. “It’s a plan that I think should unite us.”

But finding unity may be difficult, especially as he already faces considerable backlash for pushing vaccine mandates for big employers. On Thursday, a group of Republican lawmakers threatened a government shutdown over the requirements. 

The return of “Remain in Mexico.” The United States and Mexico have reached an agreement to reinstate a controversial Trump-era policy, Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), more widely known as “Remain in Mexico.” During the Trump administration, the program was used to push an estimated 60,000 asylum applicants back to Mexico, where they waited for months and faced attacks, kidnapping, and murder. 

Although Biden suspended the policy for being “dangerous” and “inhumane” after taking office, the Supreme Court reinstated it in August. Under the revived deal, the United States must now offer migrants COVID-19 vaccinations and greater humanitarian exemptions. 

Washington insists its overall opposition to the policy hasn’t changed. “We want to end this program,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters. “But we also believe in following the law.”


Keep an Eye On

The Pope’s travels spotlight the migrant crisis. Pope Francis is embarking on a five-day trip to Cyprus and Greece in a visit meant to shed light on the dire conditions migrants face. One of his stops is Lesbos, the Greek island that has emerged as one of the key focal points of Europe’s migrant crisis. In 2020, an expansive fire destroyed much of the island’s refugee camp and left more than 12,000 people homeless—and conditions have reportedly barely improved since.

“We need to work together to build a future worthy of humanity, to overcome divisions, to break down walls, to dream and work for unity,” the Pope urged on his trip. “We need to welcome and integrate one another and to walk together as brothers and sisters.”

Boosting oil production. OPEC and a group of allied oil producers have collectively agreed to boost their oil output by 400,000 barrels per day in January 2022, after previously mulling pausing production. The announcement was well received by Washington, which spent months urging such a decision as U.S. gas prices surged. “We appreciate the close coordination over the recent weeks with our partner Saudi Arabia, the UAE., and other OPEC+ producers to help address price pressures,” Psaki said. 

Brazil’s economic slump. Brazil officially slid into a recession on Thursday as the country grapples with high levels of inflation and interest rate hikes. The Brazilian economy—the largest in Latin Americahas been especially strained by severe drought, the worst to hit the country in almost a century. 


Odds and Ends

After a snowstorm dumped a foot of snow in northern Denmark, dozens of people were forced to hunker down and sleep over in a surprisingly perfect hideaway: Ikea. With its expansive furniture displays and a food court, the store was well equipped for its nighttime guests. “We slept in the furniture exhibitions and our showroom on the first floor, where we have beds, mattresses, and sofa beds,” said Peter Elmose, the store manager. After everybody spent the night eating and watching television, he added, they could “pick the exact bed they always have wanted to try.”

Christina Lu is an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @christinafei

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