Populist Freedom Party the new partner of Austria’s centre-right

New programme for coalition government promises to prioritise ‘our citizens’

 Austrian chancellor to be Sebastian Kurz of the conservative People’s Party (ÖVP). “We’ll fight for our interests, for our views, but in the EU we will respect decisions.” Photograph: Getty Images

Austrian chancellor to be Sebastian Kurz of the conservative People’s Party (ÖVP). “We’ll fight for our interests, for our views, but in the EU we will respect decisions.” Photograph: Getty Images

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European far-right leaders have cheered the return to power in Austria of one of their own: the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ). On Saturday the populists signed up as junior coalition partner to Austria’s centre-right People’s Party (ÖVP) almost three months after they took a combined 57.5 per cent of the vote in September’s general election.

The new government’s 180-page programme for government promises to prioritise “our citizens”, with reforms and tax cuts to boost Austrian growth, increased direct democracy and tighter asylum and citizenship rules.

Despite the FPÖ’s deep eurosceptic streak, the new government has pledged loyalty to the EU but promises to “shape actively European policy”.

“We’ll fight for our interests, for our views, but in the EU we will respect decisions,” said Sebastian Kurz, the ÖVP leader, with one eye on his coalition partner and the other on Austria’s EU presidency in the second half of next year.

On Monday Mr Kurz will be sworn in as chancellor, succeeding Ireland’s Leo Varadkar as Europe’s youngest leader.

After a meteoric career as Austria’s European and foreign affairs minister, Mr Kurz ran a barnstorming campaign by taking a page out of the Emmanuel Macron playbook. Unlike the French president, however, Mr Kurz stopped short of breaking free to start a new political movement, and instead rebranded his conservative ÖVP – in office for most of the post-war era – as an anti-establishment “movement” under his own name.

At the weekend, restating his election promise to make Austria the “better Germany”, he went over the heads of his own party grandees to hand cabinet positions to political newcomers from the world of business.

Major concession

In a major concession for power, the FPÖ, founded in the 1950s by ex-Nazis, agreed not to push for a referendum on EU membership. “We could have imagined to keep it broader but that’s something one has to accept in a partnership,” said Mr Heinz-Christian Strache, head of the FPÖ and a protege of ex-leader Jörg Haider. “We stand to the European Union. but we see some things critically and will look for partners.”

The programme for government calls on the EU to focus on “common solutions in suitable areas”, and backs a reform option for a “less, more efficient” EU. As part of the looming EU reform debate, Austria plans to establish its own citizens’ convention, and to seek out allies to pull the plug on Turkey’s EU accession.

The populist FPÖ has appointed party hardliners to interior and defence ministries, hoping to claw back its core law and order competence snatched by Mr Kurz and his ÖVP in the election campaign.

As well as the chancellery, the conservative ÖVP will maintain control of finance and economics.

After concerns from President Alexander Van der Bellen of handing too much power on immigration and EU affairs to the FPÖ, the ÖVP has taken control of justice, while the FPÖ’s nominee as foreign minister, Karin Kneissl, will lose EU competences to the chancellery under Mr Kurz.

Both coalition parties promise to strike a tougher line on immigration, a source of huge public unease even before Austria found itself on the front line of the 2015-2016 refugee crisis.

Time-limited protection

“We offer time-limited protection to those who are really fleeing persecution,” the programme for government states, “but there is no room for illegal migration that usually takes place through abuse of the right to asylum.”

Welfare payments to asylum seekers will be cut, deportations of failed asylum seekers expedited, and more stringent criteria introduced for Austrian citizenship.

Though the FPÖ has softened its rhetoric and image ahead of its bid for power, its politicians are regularly under fire for outbursts about “so-called Holocaust survivors” and “asylum fraudsters”.

At a meeting in Prague on Saturday, its far-right European allies welcomed the FPÖ’s return to government in Vienna.

French National Front leader Marine Le Pen called the FPÖ’s elevation to power a “truly historic event”, while Dutch populist Geert Wilders said the FPÖ in power would boost the profile of their joint European Parliament grouping Europe of Nations and Freedom.

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