Is Austria’s new government breaking sharply to the right? Not more than the rest of Europe

Election campaign posters of Christian Kern, top candidate of Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPOe), and Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz, top candidate of Austrian People’s Party (OeVP), in Vienna in October. (Reuters)
Election campaign posters of Christian Kern, top candidate of Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPOe), and Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz, top candidate of Austrian People’s Party (OeVP), in Vienna in October. (Reuters)

On Dec. 18, Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen, a former leader of the Green party, appointed a new right-wing government. The two big winners of the October election — the center-right People’s Party (ÖVP) and the radical right Freedom Party (FPÖ) — have agreed on a common agenda.

Sebastian Kurz, the 31-year-old ÖVP leader, has stepped in as the country’s new head of government – the “chancellor” is the main actor in Austrian politics. His party won 31.5 percent by calling for restricted immigration and limiting support for immigrants, mainly referring to Muslims. This had originally been one of FPÖ’s signature issues. Austria is among the European Union members with the highest numbers of asylum applicants since 2015. Kurz claimed credit for persuading the countries on the “Balkan route,” leading from Greece to Central Europe, to close their borders.

After the election, the New York Times editorial board wrote that the center-right ÖVP was an “anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim party” and that “its leader might form a government with a party [FPÖ] founded by ex-Nazis.” Matthias Strolz, leader of the liberal NEOS and Kurz’s former public speaking coach, recently compared the new chancellor to Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, warning that another former “liberal poster boy” could turn into an illiberal democrat. And the foreign minister of Luxembourg compared Kurz to Donald Trump.

But what to make of such statements? Does the government’s coalition agreement suggest a radical departure from previous Austrian and European policies? In short, no — the government’s plans are more similar than some may think. Here’s what’s on the agenda.

Reducing immigration to Europe

To no one’s surprise, the new government calls for reducing immigration to Europe. In the second half of 2018, Austria will preside over the E.U. Council; the coalition agreement states that in that position, one priority will be “protecting” E.U. borders with the rest of the world.

But such policies are now mainstream in Austria and elsewhere. During the Austrian campaign, the defeated center-left Social Democrats (SPÖ) also demanded that the government “win back control over immigration,” proposing the “protection” of external European Union borders, a “considerable” reduction of immigration by 2020 and an increase in deportations — nothing too different from what the new ÖVP/FPÖ government supports.

Nor is this program a departure from what’s proposed by much of the rest of the E.U. Also Germany, generally seen as liberal on immigration, has aimed at substantially reducing immigration to Europe. The Austria-driven closure of the Balkan route and German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s E.U.-Turkey agreement have worked together for this common end. Thus, the new Austrian government will likely be roughly in sync with other E.U. governments on immigration to Europe. This fact should not be overshadowed by Kurz’s recent rejection of the E.U. quota system for distributing asylum seekers – a policy that has been a political nonstarter anyway.

Restricting support for immigrants

The new government announced it wants to stop the private housing of asylum seekers, providing instead only centralized accommodation facilities. In addition, it wants to take their cash to help pay for basic provisions. The coalition also says it will substantially reduce minimum social welfare support for recognized asylum seekers and those granted subsidiary protection. Further, the government wants to “adapt” naturalization rules, which probably means making it harder for many (but not for all) to become an Austrian citizen.

Many of these measures will severely constrain often-vulnerable immigrants. However, they do not break radically from past policies. For instance, in regional government coalitions with the ÖVP, even the Greens agreed to reduce minimum social welfare benefits for all recipients, often recognized asylum seekers. And Denmark and Switzerland, for example, already take cash from asylum seekers.

Carrying out neoliberal changes

The new government also announced important changes to Austria’s economic, social and educational policies. It plans to cut unemployment benefits and further aid; to increase the maximum working day to 12 hours and to reduce corporate taxes. Austria already has a statutory budget deficit limit; the new government plans to install that in constitutional law.

ÖVP and FPÖ also want to begin charging students for attending universities — right now, Austria’s public universities are mostly free — although that might be offset with tax exemptions after graduation. They want to ratify CETA, a controversial economic agreement between the European Union and Canada, and to gut the Chamber of Labor, a statutory interest group with compulsory membership for Austrian employees.

Had the SPÖ joined the government, it would have nixed some of these policies. Still, none of them represent a radical break. Many European countries — and not just those with right-wing governments — have introduced measures like budget deficit limits and welfare state cutbacks.

The possibility of democratic backsliding

How will the new government affect democratic standards? Should we even expect a turn to “illiberal democracy”?

The FPÖ is now in charge of key ministries, with political control over police, army and intelligence agencies. At the same time, important FPÖ figures are well-embedded in far-right circles. There, they recruit for leading positions in ministries and state-owned enterprises.

Some observers fear that the government will try to influence public television news. That’s in part because Austria’s last right-wing government, in power from 2000 to 2007, did try to stop negative coverage. And representatives of both ÖVP and FPÖ have recently been sharply criticizing journalists from Austrian public TV.

That previous right-wing government was also notorious for corruption affairs. Most prominently, a former finance minister was accused of profiting from the privatization of state-owned real estate and is currently on trial.

Thus, there’s certainly potential for serious political misconduct, even within the boundaries of what is typically defined as liberal democracy.

Weak opposition

In 2000, when the ÖVP already formed a coalition with the FPÖ, many Austrians took to the streets, defying the country’s reputation for limited protest activity. This time is different. While civil society groups again protested against the new coalition, they will probably be less able to mobilize this time.

In parliament, the Social Democrats have stopped opposing future coalitions with the FPÖ — and so have less credibility for calling for outrage. In 2000, Europe’s Social Democratic parties could still push E.U. members to diplomatically “sanction” the first ÖVP/FPÖ coalition. That won’t happen this year either.

That’s also because the new government is pursuing policies that have already become political mainstream in Austria and many other European countries. This development, often overlooked, indeed requires critical reflection — especially by those political players who want, and have failed, to find successful long-term strategies against the radical right.

Manès Weisskircher is a researcher at the TU Dresden (MIDEM – Mercator Forum Migration and Democracy) and at the European University Institute in Florence. His research interests include comparative politics and political sociology. Find him on Twitter @ManesWeissk.

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