When the Berlin Wall was dismantled, he was just three years old. Now he is 31 and on his way to be the youngest leader in united Europe. Please welcome Sebastian Kurz from Austria, a politician, who in just few months changed the whole political scene in his country, transforming old, noble, conservative Österreichische Volkspartei into a fresh power, which offers change to the Austrian voters. He even changed the party’s color from elegant black to more dynamic turquoise. Borrowing a more radical agenda on immigration from Austrian Freedom Party (FPŐ), Sebastian Kurz won the election in October 2017. His success rises questions in Europe about how it will impact the political future of the continent. Is Kurz going to join Orban and Kaczynski (maybe Babis too?) in their opposition to European plan of relocation of the refugees? Is Kurz’s Austria a possible ally for the Visegrad Group? This last point was suggested by FPŐ leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, during the campaign, it was also mentioned by Norbert Hoffer, the party’s candidate in a presidential race in 2016. And now FPŐ probably will form a coalition with Kurz’s ŐVP, negotiations started almost immediately after the election. The Freedom Party made it clear, that it has a lot in common with parties now ruling in Warsaw and Budapest. In particular, the concerns regards EU refugee policy and further integration of the UE. But is it the same with Kurz?
Unlike Strache, Kurz has a record as a member of government – for the last four years he was a minister of foreign affairs. At that time his most important goal was to show Austria as a link between conflicted nations, and Vienna as a place of dialogue. For example he hosted negotiations on the Iran nuclear program and also invited 30 ministers of foreign affairs to debate about the end of the Ukrainian crisis. On the other hand, he took a very firm stand on immigration crisis, calling for closure of the Balkan Route and proposing strict laws on Muslim community in Austria to prevent the influence of radical Islam. He also defended Poland and Hungary when it came to the EU refugee relocation plan and criticism of German domination in the Union. Kurz’s attitude is perceived as anti-Islamic and because of that Kurz is often presented as a far-right radical in the western European liberal media (in Germany he was even called “baby-Hitler”). In fact, his proposals seems to be similar to those presented by V4, but there is a difference: refugees and immigrants from the Middle East are already within Austrian borders and in great numbers. The situation of the country is more similar to that of France, Germany or the Netherlands, than to that of Poland or Czechia (formerly Czech Rep.). This brings us to another aspect of the possible new alliance in Eastern Europe: a strong partnership should be found on common interests and goals. So what do Austria and V4 countries have in common?
The euro-zone is the first problem. Austria has implemented the common currency which makes it more dependent on the the main powers within the EU. Crisis in eurozone and troubles in Greece impact Austria much more than her possible partners in V4, where only Slovakia also adapted euro as their currency.
Neutrality is the second contentious issue. Keeping in mind Kurz engagement in international negotiations, we must remember that for Austria it’s neutrality, non-involvement in NATO, being a host of various negotiations, while not being a part of them, is a key asset in international politics. That enables this relatively small country to play a considerable role in the world. So Austria, in general, wouldn’t engage in defense issues which are very important for Poland because of possible Russian aggression (at least possible from the point of view of politicians in Warsaw). Speaking of relations with Russia it is also worth remembering that FPŐ, Kurz’s most probable coalition partner is openly pro-Russian, it even supports the annexation of Crimea. However, this problem refers more to Polish-Austrian relations because among V4 it’s also hard to find countries supporting anti-Russian politics: Hungary cooperates with Putin, Slovakia is well known for their pro-Russian attitude and the election-winner in Czechia, ANO, also promises to strengthen ties with Russia.
The economy is the third problem. Austria is a developed country and a welfare state while V4 countries are still on their way to close the gap between them and the west of Europe in terms of payments, social benefits or infrastructure. Austria is also a net contributor to the EU budget and the V4 countries are major recipients. Similar as in euro case, Kurz will have more in common with leaders of western, developed countries than with Eastern Europe.
Fourth problem is posed by the EU itself. While leaders in Budapest and Warsaw are rather sceptical about further integration of the EU and the future of Czechia is unknown after the last election, Kurz still presents a staunchly pro-european attitude. Even after election he confirmed his will to help further integration and maintain cooperation with France and Germany. He also stated that Austria wouldn’t join Visegrad Group or any similar alliance and keep good relations with East and West without fueling tensions. At this point new V4 + Austria Group seems to be impossible. Austria still wants to be neutral, not engaged, open for dialogue and cooperation with the core EU countries. Adding that in second half of 2018 Austria will hold EU presidency, Kurz’s anti-european course seems highly unlikely.
But while Austrian intentions may seem clear, it’s harder to say the same for the EU. Kurz’s stance on migration opposes the main strategy chosen by Germans chancellor Angela Merkel. And Merkel’s approach to the new Austrian leader might be more hostile than it was during a former chancellor Kern’s term. At this moment it is really hard to predict the quality of bilateral relations, because coalition talks in Germany broke several days ago. The broad alliance between Merkel’s CDU, Bavarian CSU, Liberals and Green Party is no longer an option and it is also unclear is it still possible for Merkel to hold office. There are two scenarios – renewed coalition with SPD, former CDU partner, or another election. Social democrats from SPD were strictly against longer cooperation with Merkel, but the possibility of another election may make them change their minds. If Merkel succeed in forming a coalition, it may create tensions between Germany and new cabinet in Austria and push Kurz closer towards Orban and Kaczynski. Common opposition against German dominance in EU is possible, especially when it comes to migration policy.
Leaving aside Kurz, who definitely getting bad press in western world, there is someone who’s even more controversial – FPŐ, Austrian Freedom Party, Kurz’s possible ally. The agenda of this party seems similar to German AfD or Dutch PVV, but FPŐ has a longer history and well, not a pleasant one. Created in 50’s by former Nazis, it exists in Austrian politics for more than half of a century. The last time it participated in the governing collation was after 1999 elections with ŐVP. Back then FPŐ’s presence in the government was strongly opposed by EU countries and led to sanctions against Austria. Is this scenario possible now? European Union has grown since then and it’s less homogeneous now. Sanctions require acceptance from all the other countries and are therefore very unlikely to happened – the case of Poland shows it without any doubt. Any action against ŐVP-FPŐ government on the EU forum will be blocked by Warsaw, Budapest and probably Prague. It may also force Austria to create close the ties with the V4 countries. This is an undesirable option for EU leadership and it probably won’t let it happen.
In Warsaw and Budapest politicians of the ruling parties will watch closely how relations between new chancellor and united Europe will develop. Kurz’s victory is a gift for them when it comes to internal EU politics. Even if European leaders decide to cooperate with Austria’s new government, Kurz still has to fulfill his campaign promises about migration policy to maintain support for his party among the society. So if EU wants to cooparet with Austria it will have to accep that, it also has to ease its stance on Polish and Hungarian refusal to the common migration policy, especially given that the new leader of Czechia, Andrej Babis embraces an even stronger anti-immigration rhetoric than Kurz. It seems likely that in Brussels will decide to keep more moderate Kurz on their side and use him as a link between East and West of Europe just like Kurz wanted.
In conclusion, a new alliance between Visegrad Group and Austria under new leadership seems impossible due to differences between Austria and Eastern European countries. Moreover, Sebastian Kurz is against the idea and wants to protect Austrian neutrality rather than to involve the state into a conflict within EU. However, it is not clear he could manage that while changing migration policy in his country against the key EU players. In light of his previous disagreements with Angela Merkel it seems to be possible. Also FPŐ as a coalition member rises doubts across Europe. This may result in actions against Austria on EU forum. Such actions may help to create cooperation between Austria and Poland or Hungary. The key question here is what are the possible outcomes of German crisis and the future of German leadership in the European Union. Thus, while the scenario where Austria joins V4 is rather unlikely, we could see a space for cooperation between those countries on the EU Forum, especially regarding migration policy, security of common borders or counterbalancing the German dominance within the EU. However, we should expect short-term case-to-case coalitions rather than a stable, common front.