For the second time in post-War Austrian history the right-of-centre Christian Democrats (OeVP) and the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) have formed a coalition government. The first effort, launched in 2000, failed miserably only a few years later due to internal conflicts within the FPOe. Now, the prospect for a solid and united coalition government is much better. We have had a generational change in both parties. All major FPOe leaders are members of the government unlike in 2000. This means we do not have any relevant veto actors outside the government this time.
A peculiar feature of the current coalition government is the fact, that the leader – the Chancellor – of the government is quite young. The 31-year old Sebastian Kurz has not had any professional experience outside the realm of party work, as a member of the Vienna City Council and his ministerial work in the previous governments. In the latter capacity, he had to deal with issues of immigration and migrant’s integration and, for the past years, as foreign minister.
Many had been sceptical when the young politician was invited to join the government in 2011. Kurz, however, has demonstrated his enormous political talent and excellent rethorical and communication skills. He has also been keen to assemble teams of excellent advisers which have made up for his lack of experience and knowledge about foreign policy and immigration. Still, the requirements of a Chancellorship are different form a ministerial post. Leading a coalition government with quite some inexperienced members will be a huge challenge. In this respect, doubts about the virtues of youth are not misplaced.
The Freedom Party now heads the ministries of the Interior, Defence and Foreign Affairs. This is a remarkable concentration of security issues in the hands of the Freedomites, who now control both the police and the army, as well as the intelligence agencies. Directing the Interior Ministry has been a crucial demand of the FPOe during the coalition negotiations. Issues of immigration, refugees, crime, terrorism have been at the core of the ‘law and order’ platform of the Freedom Party for the past decades. We may expect a toughening of respective laws including surveillance measures in order to fight terrorism.
The Foreign Ministry is now headed by Karin Kneissl, an expert on the Middle East, Northern Africa and political Islam. She was chosen by the FPOe as she shares some of the radical views on immigration and refugees. It needs to be pointed out though, that all EU issues have been transferred from the Foreign Ministry to the Office of the Chancellor. In this respect, the prerogatives of the Foreign Ministry have been remarkably curtailed.
Kurz and the other core members of the new Austrian government have uttered strong opposition to uncontrolled immigration. Kurz claims credit for the closure of the refugee route through the Balkans and strongly favors cutting the refugee streams from Northern Africa via the Mediterranean Sea to Italy. In this respect, his views are not different from those of the FPOe. In the EU context the new government supports lifting the 2015 decision which had asked all EU members to accept their fair share of refugees. Kurz sides with countries like Poland, Hungary and Slovakia who refuse to take in any (Muslim) immigrants and refugees.
As far as EU sanctions on Russia are concerned, already the previous government has publicly voiced opposition to the sanctions regime. In the current government it will be the Freedom Party which will voice strong opposition to extending the sanctions. However, like the previous government the new coalition government will not block the extension of sanctions. They share the line of the previous government that EU solidarity on this issue is more important than Austria’s opposition to the sanctions. The FPOe will make more fuzz about it but will eventually give in and lend support for prolonged sanctions against Russia.
As far as bilateral relations with Russia – both on the diplomatic, economic and political level – are concerned we can expect some new overtures to strengthen cooperation, first and foremost business ties. Austria as a small country, however, will not have the capacity, nor will the new coalition government have the intention to launch new initiatives to unfreeze EU-Russia ties on the EU level.
When it comes to Russia then, we will by and large have more of the same. Strong calls for sanctions relief by the FPOe, but no changes to Austria’s vote in the European Union.