Merkel to watch Austrian far-right ‘more closely than usual’

In turn Austrian chancellor has a dig at Germany’s hardening immigration attitudes

Germany’s acting chancellor Angela Merkel has said Berlin will be watching Austria’s new right-far right coalition government “more closely than usual”.

She welcomed new Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz on Wednesday with military honours on his inaugural visit, with the backdrop of sleet and snowfall mirroring the two countries’ recent chilly relations.

Dr Merkel’s unilateral and liberal refugee decisions of 2015 annoyed Austria, which is on the front lines of the massive migration wave. Mr Kurz in return infuriated the German leader a year ago when, as foreign minister, he agreed with Austrian’s southeastern neighbours to close borders along the so-called Balkan route.

On Wednesday Europe’s youngest leader, elected in October with the support of the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), was warned by Europe’s longest-serving leader that she would be “watching” Vienna closely. “I want to make clear: we will measure the new Austrian governments on deeds. I think that’s what counts,” said Dr Merkel.


Mr Kurz echoed those words to side-step a question on how he planned to keep the FPÖ in check . “We have a strong democracy in Austria; we had free and fair elections and they brought a clear result,” he said. “I would ask to judge the government by its deeds.”

Immigration focus

Although numbers have dropped in both countries, immigration continues to dominate domestic politics and has stalled coalition talks for a fourth Merkel term.

Last week, in a preliminary agreement, would-be coalition partners in Berlin agreed a cap on the number of asylum seekers and to extend a ban on some refugee groups bringing over their families.

After hearing from Ms Merkel that she would be watching him, Mr Kurz couldn’t resist a polite dig at the German leader whose migration policy, under political pressure, has evolved from liberal to more hardline.

Mr Kurz noted that “things I was criticised for in previous years in many states and at European level have now become majority positions”. The two leaders agreed that tight EU outer borders were a prerequisite for a return to open internal borders.

The German leader agreed that “little separates” the two capitals, and that both agreed illegal migration into the EU must be stopped by policing borders but also working to implement agreements with third countries such as Tturkey and asylum seekers’ countries of origin.

Euro zone reform

On euro zone reform proposals from France, it was business as usual for Dr Merkel. After a suggestion last week that she was warming to the idea, she said on Wednesday she was “sceptical” of talk of a euro finance minister overseeing an investment budget.

“I don’t start with the finance minister but with tasks required and see how best they could done,” she said, to a nod of agreement from Mr Kurz.

Both countries promised to work closely with other EU net contributors over looming financial talks, and a new EU budget without a financial contribution from Britain.

Finally, the German chancellor sent a conciliatory signal to the Social Democratic Party (SPD), gripped by ambivalence ahead of a vote on Sunday over whether to enter formal coalition talks with her.

The German leader said the main points of agreement were clear but additional points could be added to the exploratory paper, “otherwise we wouldn’t need coalition talks”.

Lightening the mood was her response to a question pointing out that the German leader, at 63, is more than twice the age of her Austrian counterpart. “Eventually you notice ... that with each day,” she said, “you slide over more in the direction of the older ones.”

Derek Scally

Derek Scally

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist based in Berlin