With a Sebastian Kurz Victory on Sunday, Expect Austria to Look More Towards Budapest than Brussels

National elections are decided on local issues, but their consequences have a tendency to jump national borders, especially where the European Union is concerned. As voters in Austria head to the polls this Sunday, Sebastian Kurz, the 31-year old leader of the People’s Party (ÖVP) and odds-on-favorite to win, can be expected to resist calls for further integration of the European Union. In fact, Kurz is more likely to align his EU-policy with Budapest than with Brussels.

The likelihood of such a Budapest-Vienna policy axis resurfaced on Austrian television on Monday when Heinz-Christian Strache declared that he wanted Austria to join the Central European Visegrád Group that includes the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia. What Strache wants matters, of course, because his Freedom Party (FPÖ) is figured to be the most probable coalition partner in a new Kurz government.

Meanwhile, Kurz himself has cast Hungary as a potential regional ally, particularly in looming EU policy disputes over free movement, migrant relocation, and immigration. Indeed, Kurz generally declines to join other EU leaders in criticizing Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán, a stance that has shocked some of his colleagues.  To those colleagues, Kurz may have delivered a greater shock in Tuesday’s televised campaign debate, when he offered his recollection of praise from Orbán as a testimonial to his own expertise on immigration. With EU-skeptic billionaire Andrej Babiš (Ano) predicted to take the Czech election in less than two weeks, a Visegrád Group bolstered by Austria would constitute a powerful check on Brussels.

News media in Germany have responded to Kurz with a combination of irony and skepticism, calling him an “ideas merchant” and a “refugee crisis super manager.” This response is partly motivated by the fact that Kurz switched sides on accepting refugees in early 2016, leaving German Chancellor Angela Merkel to defend a refugee policy he then called mistaken.  But with the reputation of Germany now increasingly staked on advancing European Union integration, it is the hostility of the Kurz campaign platform towards EU principles — under the name of “reform” — that is causing the most consternation in Berlin.

That platform seeks to stop social benefit payouts to European Union citizens by reclassifying their status in the Austrian social system so that they would be benefit eligible only after a five-year residence. New curbs on families from Bulgaria and Romania are also envisioned. Kurz describes these cuts to social insurance as a “stop to migration into the social benefits system,” a phrase that indicates how thoroughly his campaign is shaped by the rhetoric of refugees. More simply, for Austrian politics, it means that the broader term “foreigner,” or “EU-foreigner” is gaining currency as the counterpart to the Austrian citizen.

Few legal experts believe that this Kurz proposal, which is central to offsetting planned budget cuts elsewhere, would pass legal muster in Brussels. But the Kurz campaign brand is staked on not backing down, and he increasingly speaks of the need for “will” and “resolve” in debates and interviews. Reminded by ORF television journalist Armin Wolf that his proposed two-tier social benefit system would clash with EU-law on freedom of movement, Kurz suggested that the United Kingdom had negotiated just such a system before the Brexit referendum. Kurz declined to elaborate when Wolf responded that surely he did not wish to join the British in threatening Brussels with an exit from the European Union.

Looking at the issues about which candidate Kurz speaks passionately is one way of forecasting what positions a Kurz administration might take within the European Union. Another way is to listen Kurz when he stays quiet. As the 2017 chair of the OSCE (Organization for Co-operation and Security in Europe), Kurz has earned a reputation for avoiding criticism of the Russian annexation of the Crimea. Such reserve aligns well with his early and sustained support for the easing of EU sanctions on Russia — yet another confrontation brewing between Kurz and Brussels.  And as critics of Kurz’s foreign policy have remarked, where human rights abuse is a concern, Turkey is the offender, not Hungary.

Meanwhile, Hungarian-style foreign policy continues to exercise a powerful fascination on Austrian politicians working to build their far-right credentials. Already angling for ministries in a potential ÖVP-FPÖ coalition government, Heinz-Christian Strache recently suggested that Norbert Hofer, the losing FPÖ candidate in the 2016 Austrian presidential election, would be a “perfect foreign minister.” For his part in foreign affairs, Hofer has recently made a name for himself by endorsing the conspiratorial fantasies that are currently fueling Viktor Orbán’s anti-Soros “national consultation” in Hungary. As Hofer told the Austrian monthly alles roger “Soros is certainly behind a lot of what is happening in the world, also the flow of refugees. Everyone knows that.”

For an old-guard, pro-European ÖVP politician like MEP Othmar Karas, a coalition with the FPÖ is troubling given their attacks on the European Convention on Human Rights. But as Christian Rainer writes in the Austrian newsweekly Profil, for many Western European politicians “a fraternity member in the foreign ministry is… less disturbing than a 31-year old Christian-Social politician in the chancellor’s office.”

Since taking leadership of the party last May, Sebastian Kurz has successfully retooled the stodgy ÖVP brand, replacing the old clerical black of the party with a modern turquoise, and coining a new party motto — “der neue Weg,” or “the new way.” In a video segment for the popular ORF series Willkommen Österreich, Austrian comic Peter Klien visited the official Kurz campaign kickoff and asked a few of the party faithful why the new motto was “der Neue Weg,” also translatable as “the new one — go away!” He got a lot of laughs. But with a Kurz win in the upcoming Austrian election, Brussels may not be laughing when Chancellor Kurz comes to town.


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Michael Burri

Michael Burri teaches on Eastern Europe at Temple University and is a board member of the Austrian Studies Association.