Austria’s conservative leader cements deal with far-right party

Sebastian Kurz rules out Brexit-style vote as Austrian president approves coalition

Austria’s president Alexander Van der Bellen (left), leader of Austria’s conservative People’s Party Sebastian Kurz and the chairman of the Freedom Party Heinz-Christian Strache arrive to give a press conference after talks at the Hofburg in Vienna, Austria, on December 16th, 2017. Photograph: Alex Halada/Getty Images

Austria’s president Alexander Van der Bellen (left), leader of Austria’s conservative People’s Party Sebastian Kurz and the chairman of the Freedom Party Heinz-Christian Strache arrive to give a press conference after talks at the Hofburg in Vienna, Austria, on December 16th, 2017. Photograph: Alex Halada/Getty Images

 

Austria’s conservative leader Sebastian Kurz has brought the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) into government, striking a coalition deal he cemented with Austria’s president on Saturday.

The deal on Friday propels Heinz-Christian Strache’s FPÖ into power for the first time in more than a decade, after both the FPÖ and Kurz’s People’s Party (ÖVP) capitalised on Europe’s migrant crisis during a general election campaign.

It will see Austria become the only western European country with a far-right party in government.

In an early policy pronouncement on Saturday, Kurz, who at 31 is Europe’s youngest leader, said the new government would not hold a referendum on EU membership.

The coalition deal will give the FPÖ control of the foreign, interior and defence ministries. FPÖ chairman Herbert Kickl will become interior minister, while Mario Kunasek will run the defence ministry and international law expert Karin Kneissl, while not an FPÖ member, will become foreign minister on an FPÖ ticket.

The ÖVP will control the powerful finance ministry, as well as the justice and agriculture portfolios. Kurz will head the government as chancellor and the ÖVP will have eight ministries in total, including his office.

The FPÖ will have six, including Strache’s office as vice-chancellor.

“No one need be afraid,” Austrian news agency APA quoted Kickl as saying following the news.

Kurz has repeatedly said his government will be pro-European despite including the FPÖ, which was founded by former Nazis and campaigned against Austria joining the bloc when it was put to a referendum in 1994.

The coalition plans to make referendums more widely available. The FPÖ has backed away from calling for a referendum on leaving the EU, but Kurz obtained a guarantee that a Brexit-style vote will not be held.

“There will be no votes on our membership of international organisations, including the European Union,” Kurz told a joint news conference with Strache on Saturday.

Kurz’s office will also take over some European departments from the FPÖ-run foreign ministry to give him greater control over EU matters. Kurz and Strache, however, have both spoken out against further political integration in the bloc.

Immigration stance

The ÖVP won the October 15th election with a hard line on immigration that often overlapped with that of the FPÖ, pledging to cut benefits for refugees and never to allow a repeat of 2015’s wave of arrivals.

The FPÖ came third with 26 per cent of the vote, behind the Social Democrats, which led the outgoing centrist coalition.

The 180-page coalition agreement listed plans such as sinking taxes and cutting public spending through streamlined administration, though it often did not say how such goals would be achieved.

Kurz and Strache held Saturday’s news conference outlining the agreement on the Kahlenberg, a hill on the outskirts of the capital famed as the site of the 1683 Battle of Vienna, which ended a siege of the city by Ottoman Turks.

While there was no specific mention of repelling that Muslim invasion, the symbolism is clear for two parties that have warned that Muslim “parallel societies” are emerging in Austria.

Kurz, however, told reporters: “I did not take the decision on where the press conference should be held . . . I would not read too much symbolism into it.”

“If everything goes as we imagine it will, nothing stands in the way of the future government being sworn it at the start of the coming week,” president Alexander Van der Bellen, a former Greens leader who narrowly beat the FPÖ in a presidential vote in 2015, had said after meeting Kurz and Strache on Saturday morning.

After the meeting at Mr Van der Bellen’s office in the imperial palace, the president, who can reject ministers proposed by the parties, said: “In these talks [since the election] we have agreed, among other things, that it is in Austria’s national interest to continue to stay in the centre of a strong European Union.”

When the FPÖ last entered government under the late Joerg Haider, who praised Hitler’s employment policies, other EU countries imposed sanctions on Vienna in protest. There is unlikely to be a similar outcry this time, given the rise of anti-establishment parties across the continent.

–Reuters