Conservative Wunderkind Loses His Shine

Sebastian Kurz Emmanuel Macron
Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz and French president Emmanuel Macron speak on the sidelines of a summit in Brussels, April 10, 2019 (BKA/Arno Melicharek)

Sebastian Kurz was the future once. Conservative Christian democrats in Germany longed for a man like him to succeed the middle-of-the-road Angela Merkel. Time magazine declared him one of the ten most promising young world leaders.

Four years later, Kurz is the subject of a criminal investigation, for lying under oath. His People’s Party is down in the polls. Kurz projected an image of renewal, but he merely swapped one network of cronies for another (his own) without changing the way politics is done in Austria.

In my latest for Wynia’s Week, a Dutch opinion blog, I argue there is a better way. Both Austria’s Christian democrats and Bavaria’s were challenged by the nationalist right during the European migrant crisis. Both lurched to the right in a bid to outflank the competition. But whereas Bavaria’s Christian Social Union soon reversed itself, realizing that voters could smell their desperation and didn’t like it, Austria’s People’s Party is stuck with the high-on-flash, low-on-substance Kurz.

Click here to read the whole thing (in Dutch).

Kurzism Doesn’t Travel Well

Sebastian Kurz Laurent Wauquiez Michel Barnier
Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz meets with French Republican party leaders Laurent Wauquiez and Michel Barnier in Salzburg, September 19, 2018 (EPP)

The Financial Times wonders if Austria’s Sebastian Kurz is the savior of Europe’s center-right or an enabler of the far right.

His supporters, including the liberal-minded former prime minister of Finland, Alexander Stubb, see the Austrian as the antidote to Orbanism:

He talks about an open world, internationalism and is pro-European. But he is pragmatic about solving issues. And one of the big issues is immigration.

Critics argue that by taking a hard line on immigration, Kurz is legitimizing the far right. “You don’t fight fire with kerosene,” according to former chancellor and former Social Democratic Party leader Christian Kern. Read more “Kurzism Doesn’t Travel Well”

Steve King Is Awful, But Austria’s Freedom Party Is Not Neo-Nazi

For the first time in sixteen years, Republican congressman Steve King of Iowa seems vulnerable. The polling gurus at FiveThirtyEight still give him a five-in-six chance of winning reelection, but one recent survey had King tied with his Democratic challenger.

I don’t think it’s unfair to call King a white supremacist. He speaks about the superiority of Western civilization, argues that certain races work harder than others and worries that white women are not having enough babies to preserve the dominant culture of the United States.

Many journalists have become comfortable calling out such bigotry in the age of Trump, but sometimes they go too far. There are stories referring to King meeting with members of a “neo-Nazi party” in Austria. That party is the ruling Freedom Party, and calling it neo-Nazi is inaccurate. Read more “Steve King Is Awful, But Austria’s Freedom Party Is Not Neo-Nazi”

South Tyroleans Bide Their Time

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View of the mountains of South Tyrol from Bolzano, Italy (Unsplash/Gian Luca Pilia)

An Austrian proposal to extend dual citizenship to German-speaking inhabitants of South Tyrol has heightened already tense relations with Italy over the region.

However, secession — in the wake of failed independence bids in Catalonia and Scotland — remains unlikely. Read more “South Tyroleans Bide Their Time”

Other Conservatives Should Be Wary of Imitating Kurz

Sebastian Kurz
Austrian foreign minister Sebastian Kurz takes a phone call at Brussels Airport, Belgium, May 22 (ÖVP)

Sebastian Kurz’ success may not be a template for other conservative party leaders.

The young Christian democrat defeated the far right in Austria this weekend by moving his People’s Party to the right on identity issues and immigration.

But Austria is more right-wing than most countries in Europe and its Freedom Party still achieved an almost historic result on Sunday. Read more “Other Conservatives Should Be Wary of Imitating Kurz”

Russian Gas Pipeline Triggers Transatlantic Spat

Sigmar Gabriel Angela Merkel
German party leaders Sigmar Gabriel and Angela Merkel walk to a news conference in Berlin, June 29, 2015 (Bundesregierung)

An Americans sanctions bill that explicitly mentions the Nord Stream 2 pipeline has set off alarm bells in Berlin and Vienna.

In a panicky joint statement, the foreign ministers of Germany and Austria urge the United States not to impose “illegal extraterritorial sanctions” on the European companies that are building a pipeline under the Baltic Sea.

Sigmar Gabriel, a social democrat, and Sebastian Kurz, a conservative, warn that such penalties could affect transatlantic relations in a “new and very negative way” and “diminish the effectiveness of our stance on the conflict in Ukraine.”

European countries and the United States are currently united in condemning Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and its support for an insurgency in southeastern Ukraine. Both sides have imposed sanctions on Russia. Read more “Russian Gas Pipeline Triggers Transatlantic Spat”

NATO Throws Austria Under the Bus to Appease Turks

Donald Trump Jens Stoltenberg
Presidents Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey and Donald Trump of the United States listen to Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg of NATO making a speech in Brussels, May 25 (NATO)

On the eve of a leaders summit in Brussels, NATO has found a way to salvage its partnership program with 41 nations in Europe and the Middle East which Turkey had threatened to suspend.

A last-minute compromise sees Austria withdrawing from NATO peacekeeping operations in the Balkans and Turkey holding back from severing ties with other non-allied partner states.

The Turks were outraged when Austria called on the EU to end accession talks in the wake of last year’s failed military coup against Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. His government has since purged tens of thousands of soldiers and civil servants on the pretext of disloyalty. Erdoğan has given himself broad powers and imprisoned opposition leaders.

The Austrians only said what everybody in Europe felt: that the crackdown proved Turkey was not ready for membership.

But Erdoğan, as usual, overreacted, demanding Austria’s removal from the NATO partnership program or he would blow up the whole thing. Read more “NATO Throws Austria Under the Bus to Appease Turks”

Other Conservatives Should Be Wary of Imitating Kurz and May

Sebastian Kurz
Austrian foreign minister Sebastian Kurz takes a phone call at Brussels Airport, Belgium, May 22 (ÖVP)

Center-right parties in Western Europe are responding to competition from the nativist right in radically different ways.

Whereas Dutch prime minister and liberal party leader Mark Rutte argued against the “pessimism” of the nationalist Freedom Party in the March election and won, conservative leaders in Austria and the United Kingdom have chosen to appease reactionary voters.

Sebastian Kurz, the Austrian foreign minister, has been elected leader of the Christian democratic People’s Party because he appeals to voters who might switch to the far right.

Kurz made his name writing an Islam Law for Austria that, among other things, prohibits foreign funding of mosques.

He also took a hard line in last year’s refugee crisis, going behind Europe’s back to do a deal with neighboring Balkan countries to control the influx of people.

Other leaders were dismayed, but Austrian voters seem to approve.

A year ago, the Freedom Party was faraway the country’s most popular with around 32 percent support in the polls. Support for the ruling Social Democrats and People’s Party languished in the low twenties. Now the three are neck and neck. There is a good chance Kurz will be the next chancellor. Read more “Other Conservatives Should Be Wary of Imitating Kurz and May”

Blue-Red Culture War in the Alps

Hohenwerfen Castle Austria
Hohenwerfen Castle in the Salzach valley of Austria, August 14, 2015 (Daniel Parks)

Die Presse, Austria’s center-right newspaper, reports that many of the cleavages of what the Atlantic Sentinel calls appeared in the Alpine nation’s presidential election on Sunday.

Norbert Hofer, the nationalist Freedom Party candidate, was more popular with men and workers without a college education. Alexander Van der Bellen, a former Green party leader who rallied the Austrian mainstream behind his candidacy, received more votes from women and college graduates.

Similar divides came to light in the American presidential election last month, although there the outcome was reversed: Donald Trump, Norbert’s Republican counterpart, defeated Hillary Clinton, a center-left pragmatists not unlike Van der Bellen.

How do we heal these divisions? Read more “Blue-Red Culture War in the Alps”