The Troublemaker Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz Keeps Europe on Its Toes

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Sebastian Kurz’s supporters admire his chutzpah, but critics see the Austrian chancellor’s stubborn maneuvering as a danger to the cohesion of the European Union. DER SPIEGEL paid a visit to his offices in Vienna.

Von Walter Mayr

Before addressing the issue of Europe, Sebastian Kurz serves up quite the feast in the Chancellery: cream of pumpkin soup with pumpkin seed oil, veal escalope and fried chicken. It’s only after his staff has disappeared through the double doors that he calmly declares. “I view claims that Austria has recently been boxing above its weight class in Europe as entirely complimentary,” he says.

Our interview took place shortly before the terrorist attack in Vienna, in which four people were killed on All Souls’ Day in the name of the Islamic State. Since then, Kurz has been the focus of considerable solidarity within the European Union. After a meeting with Kurz, French President Emmanuel Macron said that the EU’s external borders must be “better defended” and that it is unacceptable for refugees to abuse the right of asylum.

Sowing Discord

But the impression that has arisen in the months previous was one of an Austrian leader whose primary contribution has been sowing discord in the European Union. Despite a demonstrative knocking of elbows last Tuesday with Macron, nothing has changed on that front, not even after the attack.

The window of the Kreisky Room in the Chancellery offers a view of Vienna’s Ballhausplatz, once the heart of a dominion that stretched from the Adriatic coast to the border of czarist Russia. Could it be that Kurz, surrounded as he is by Habsburg pomposity, is succumbing to the temptations of hubris? Are his critics, who accuse him of showing an increasing lack of solidarity on the European stage, right when they say he is exacerbating existing rifts within the EU – sometimes joining forces with stingy northern Europeans and at others with Eastern European countries that oppose migration?

“For me, the culprit is Sebastian Kurz – he is first and foremost responsible for this deplorable situation,” Luxembourg’s pugnacious Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn says of Austria’s refusal to take in refugees from the Greek isles. Others are less willing to challenge Kurz directly. A leading figure in European Parliament complains that Vienna’s “EU policies are based on domestic political calculations.” Meanwhile, a high-ranking EU bureaucrat says, “Austria’s head of government likes to flatter himself as the anti-Merkel.”

Dressed as always in a slim-fit suit, the 34-year-old chancellor contentedly shifts from veal escalope to fried chicken a quarter of an hour into his meeting with DER SPIEGEL. He acknowledges the criticism that he has attracted at times with amusement, at others with annoyance. “We see ourselves as being clearly pro-European, but some have been calling us anti-European recently,” he says. “That is absurd.”

Close Scrutiny

But Kurz has been under close scrutiny since the 90-hour marathon EU summit in Brussels in July. Negotiating on behalf of the F4, the “frugal four,” which includes the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden in addition to Austria, Kurz’s never ending demands nearly derailed the EU coronavirus aid package put together by Berlin and Paris. Kurz’s tenacious resistance frayed other leaders’ nerves so badly that Macron lost his temper at one point. “He doesn’t listen to others,” the French president thundered, according to witnesses. “He makes sure he looks good in the press and that’s it.”

When asked about the incident, Kurz smiles like a poker player holding pocket aces. He achieved his first goal, which was that of thwarting Macron’s plan of awarding the billions in corona aid, intended mainly for Italy and Spain, as pure grants. Kurz believes he and the other F4 members were responsible, especially Netherlands Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who Kurz says offered the most stubborn resistance as the “strongest head of government in the group.” “I was positively surprised that the attempts to divide us didn’t work,” Kurz says.

Kurz coolly observes the growing destructive forces within the EU, as if watching a tricky laboratory experiment. As if the EU, which has grown enormously over the years, wasn’t divided or worn down enough without his machinations – through the endless Brexit discussions, through arguments over the sense or lack of sense of sanctions against Russia, Belarus and Turkey. And by member states like Hungary, Poland and Malta that don’t even respect fundamental EU values like the rule of law.

The Austrian chancellor even admits that the situation is getting critical at the EU’s periphery. But it doesn’t occur to him to refrain from unilateralism when he feels it is justified. Kurz continues to do what he thinks is right, just as he did in 2016, when he helped organize a front against the influx of refugees through the Balkan route without consulting other EU leaders. At the time, he was scolded as being right-wing or right-wing radical, he says. In the meantime, he says, his position on migration issues has gained majority support within the EU.

Is he the “heartless chancellor” that even the German tabloid Bild, a newspaper generally supportive of him, once described him as being? It takes a lot to unsettle Kurz, and media criticism isn’t enough. In the eight-seat Cessna Citation XLS jet that is taking him to the EU summit on this October morning, the Austrian leader ignores the newspapers next to him and makes telephone calls until the plane has landed on the runway.

Tightening the Reins

The chancellor is rushed through Brussels with the help of a police escort, the motorcade speeding past roadblocks as helicopters circle in the sky above before entering the core of the EU, a parallel world where, shielded from day-to-day disruptions, a better European future is being conceived. But Kurz has little room left for vision and pathos –  especially when, as in this case, the focus is on “Europe’s place in the world and our capacity to shape our own destiny,” as the invitation states, a goal for which only 24 hours have been allocated. Kurz prefers to concentrate on concrete goals – in this case, reining in Turkey.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been stoking the flames at the external borders of the EU, in Syria, in Libya, in Azerbaijan and in the Aegean Sea. If now isn’t the time for sanctions against Ankara, when will it be, Kurz wonders. Or does Europe ultimately want to allow itself to be “brought to its knees?” The Austrian says he wants to see “red lines,” though he knows that German Chancellor Angela Merkel wouldn’t support sanctions – not least out of fear that Turkey, where more than 3 million Syrian refugees live, could once again open its borders, facilitating an exodus of refugees to Europe.

When Kurz announces at around 1 a.m. that “for the first time,” Turkey has been given “clear threats of sanctions,” it’s an exaggeration of what has actually been agreed to. He then can’t resist a dig at other EU member states, saying that deliberations were so laborious because Germany and others “apply different standards” to NATO partner Turkey.

He’s not wrong. But those who speak truth too often and, especially, too loudly in Brussels are considered, if not fools, then at least troublemakers. He ruffles feathers because he exposes the fault lines within the union with analytical sharpness and sheds light on lazy compromises and hollow words. But also because he tries to carve out as much as he possibly can for his country.

It’s a strategy as clever as it is insidious. At the July summit, where as much as 750 billion euros in coronavirus aid was at stake, Kurz spoke of “broken” systems in which the financial aid threatened to have no impact, though he refrained from mentioning Italy or Spain directly by name. In the end, he succeeded in getting a substantial discount on Austria’s net contribution and also boosted the share of aid that would be issues as a loan rather than as a grant. “Kurz is a resolute pro-European who postures at the expense of Europe,” says one experienced EU diplomat. “He does it because he needs calm on the domestic political front following two near revolutions – first, the coalition with the right-wing populists with the FPÖ (Austrian Freedom Party) and now the partnership with the Green Party. He succeeded, as Macron did temporarily, in undermining the country’s right-wing populists.”

“Kurz is a resolute pro-European who postures at the expense of Europe.”

Senior EU diplomat

But what values is Kurz fighting for? “First and foremost, for basic civil values – for freedom, personal responsibility, achievement and Christian solidarity,” Chancellor Kurz offers with no hesitation. “From a structural perspective, for a Europe of subsidiarity that is stronger on the big issues and more reserved on others.” That sounds much more like the political convictions of former German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble than those of Merkel.

Is there anything to the theory that the German chancellor never forgave him for seeking to upstage her at the height of the refugee crisis? No, says Kurz. “We talk on the phone regularly, text each other and speak at the (European) Council.” He says he shares Merkel’s views on many issues, “but we have different approaches on migration policy, although there is some convergence on the issue.”

Those who saw how Merkel treated the young Austrian during a February 3 meeting in Berlin, though, with her telling facial expressions and noticeable brusqueness, could be forgiven for doubting the longevity of whatever harmony might be there. Merkel likely knows that Kurz is right when he says that “as a pro-European,” you should actually want EU institutions to have the last word in the bloc rather than just one or two member states.

The reality, though, is as Macron nonchalantly described it: “There can be no agreement among the 27 if there is not already a Franco-German agreement.” The deals are handled by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, a Merkel confidante, and by European Council President Charles Michel, who is well connected in Paris. The Berlin-Paris axis, as one member of the Merkel apparatus describes it, is really more of a “shock absorber” – a means of bringing the often diametrically opposed positions of the member states closer together in advance.

At the EU summit in July, Kurz says slyly, Austria and the frugal four had merely “promoted positions the Germans had also always promoted in the past.” The subtext: positions that the Germans used to promote before changing their minds and, to the surprise of even the French, pledging half a trillion euros to the corona relief fund in the form of grants that wouldn’t have to be paid back. According to reliable sources, some in Berlin are grateful to Kurz for playing the role of the hardliner on behalf of the Germans, just as he did during the refugee crisis. Officially, though, that is denied.

“Are countries that want to dip both hands into the coffers the good Europeans – and the others misers? Not everyone who votes against a Commission proposal is a bad European,” says Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg. In the future, perhaps, “more attention will have to be paid to the Austrian position than has recently been the case,” he says. Just because you maintain contacts between the East and the West doesn’t make you a fence-sitter, he adds. “Multilateralism is part of the Austrian DNA.”

Reinforcing an Existing Trend

Others have a different view. “Kurz has the instinct to derive political action from cracks in the EU structures. He constantly asks himself: Where can I gain an advantage?” says a diplomatic representative of the countries setting the tone in Brussels. “I doubt that he feels responsible for the overall result. By joining forces with other EU skeptics, he tries to bundle forces to form gangs; his behavior helps strengthen the destructive forces within the EU.”

The reality is that Austria’s chancellor is merely reinforcing an existing trend in the EU. Britain’s departure has created a vacuum, and the eight economically liberal EU states that joined forces in the New Hanseatic League – including the Baltic states, Ireland, Sweden and Denmark – are among those trying to fill it. The group, of course, also includes the Netherlands, and Dutch Prime Minister Rutte, who has been in office since 2010, plays a leading role. And then there are the four Visegrád states in Central Europe, with which Austria traditionally maintains close relations.

“We should show Erdoğan that we are united and determined.”

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz

Meeting with von der Leyen in Brussels in January and later during a visit to Prague, Chancellor Kurz promised to “help refill the trenches that have been created in the EU.” But that certainly hasn’t happened yet. This week, Visegrád states Hungary and Poland continued to blackmail the EU, vetoing the next EU budget in order to prevent EU subsidies from being linked to good governance and the rule of law.

Does the Austria’s chancellor at least plan to use his good connections to Prague, Bratislava, Warsaw and Budapest to try to convince leaders there to consider the European Commission’s migration plan? Not likely. Kurz doesn’t shy away from saying what many of his counterparts are thinking: He believes the migration package is a sham. Does anyone really believe, he asks, that countries like Lithuania, which are opposed to accepting migrants, will pay for the repatriation of migrants to Morocco, for example, as part of the plan’s sponsorship provision?

Kurz suggests a different approach, saying the EU should approach Morocco with the following joint message: Each year, millions of Moroccans come to Europe, requiring a visa to do so; conversely, millions of tourists from Europe bring good money to Morocco every year. If, on top of that, billions of euros in aid were paid each year, the North African country should obligate itself to accept the repatriation of Moroccans who travel to Europe illegally.

In the future, Austria intends to coordinate its activities within the F4 group on other issues, as well. The successful rebellion in financial matters against the Berlin-Paris axis has whetted the country’s appetite for more. The chancellor describes the stage victory of the smaller- and medium-sized member states as “relevant for the balance of power in the European Union after Brexit.”

As early as Dec. 10, at the upcoming EU summit on Turkey, Kurz wants to push the EU, which has so far dithered, to send an unanimous message to Ankara that it needs to cut it out. He says Europe’s reputation is at risk if action isn’t taken against an NATO partner like Turkey that is violating international law.

As an economic power, he argues, the EU needs to finally flex its muscles. “We should show Erdoğan that we are united and determined,” Kurz says.

Der Spiegel

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