He always flies economy, even to New York to address the UN. With his boyish grin, he looks like any other upwardly mobile millennial. But there’s nothing ordinary about Sebastian Kurz, Austria’s new Chancellor, the youngest national leader in the world.
Kurz is only 31, and could pass for ten years younger. But his baby-faced appearance is the least extraordinary thing about him. What’s far more exceptional is the way he has transformed Austrian, and European, politics by bridging the divide between centrist and populist right.
When Kurz became leader of the Austrian People’s Party ten months ago, Austrian politics was gridlocked. The People’s Party was in government in a so-called ‘grand coalition’ with the Social Democrats — an alliance that left a lot of voters disenchanted. The main beneficiary of their disenchantment was the hard-right Austrian Freedom Party, founded by former Nazis (among others) after the second world war. When Kurz became leader his centre-right People’s Party was third in the polls, on 20 per cent. The Freedom Party was in first place.
Within a few months, Kurz turned those figures upside down, with a slick campaign that owed much to Emmanuel Macron and Tony Blair. Yet while Macron and Blair sought to seize the middle ground, Kurz did the opposite by taking his party off to the right, promising lower taxes and curbs on immigration. The Freedom Party’s leader, Hans-Christian Strache, called him ‘an imposter’. The Social Democrats accused him of stealing the Freedom Party’s clothes. But in October’s election, Kurz came top with 32 per cent of the national vote.
As the leader of the largest party, it was up to him to form a government. The usual solution would have been to form another ‘grand coalition’. Instead, he formed an alliance with the Freedom Party, making Strache vice-chancellor. By meeting the populists halfway, Kurz seems to have tamed them. The People’s Party backed the Freedom Party by taking a tougher line on immigration; the Freedom Party backed the People’s Party by affirming its commitment to the EU.
Kurz’s People’s Party has always been pro-European, but its loyalty has been sorely tested by the current immigration crisis. Austria has taken in 130,000 migrants, a higher proportion per head of population than Germany. Kurz realises that voters are worried. If he hadn’t reached out to those voters, the Freedom Party might well have won outright.
Born in 1986 in Vienna, Kurz joined the party’s youth wing at 17. In 2009, he was elected chairman. In 2011 he was made integration secretary and it was here that he made his mark, requiring migrant children to learn German before they started school. In 2013 he became foreign minister – the youngest foreign minister in the world.
‘Time for something new’ was his bland election slogan in 2017. ‘Tough on Islamism, tough on the causes of Islamism’ would have suited him better. He led the drive to ban the burka and closed the migrant route through the Balkans into Austria. Yet he also set up free German classes for Islamic religious leaders. ‘Integration is a give and take,’ he says. So is he a Christian Democrat, in the German centrist tradition? Or is he more of a populist? The answer is, he’s a bit of both. Neither a Eurosceptic nor a Eurofederalist, he knows the best way to preserve the EU is to preserve the identity of its member states.
Austria has always looked east as much as west, and now it’s looking east again. The four Visegrad countries (Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Poland) are all averse to immigration, putting them on a collision path with Berlin. Kurz can see both points of view. Six weeks ago he welcomed Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban to Vienna, and announced that Austria should work to ease tensions between eastern and western EU members. These tensions have fuelled the rise of Germany’s AfD, a populist party with much in common with Austria’s Freedom Party. Yet while the Austrian centre-right is bringing populists into government, the German centre-right shuns them.
The EU has already reconsidered its attitude towards the Freedom Party, partly because it has bigger worries, but also because there’s a growing awareness that the supporters of populist parties can no longer be ignored.
With one foot in eastern Europe and one foot in the west, no nation is better placed to build bridges than Austria, and no national leader has a better understanding of this task than Kurz. ‘We have to stop illegal immigration in order to ensure security in Europe,’ he says. There’s still a long way to go, but that sea change is beginning, and it’s being led by Europeans like Sebastian Kurz.
IN ASSOCIATION WITH