Sebastian Kurz has been one of the more intriguing characters to have emerged on the European political scene over the past decade. In 2013, the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) nominated him as Austria’s foreign minister in the then so-called ‘Grand Coalition’. Aged 27 at the time, he was the youngest person to hold this position in the country’s history.
His appointment was announced to a still largely unsuspecting Austrian media – the migrant crisis was still two years away and the ÖVP were the junior partner to the Social Democrats (SPÖ).
When Michael Spindelegger, the then ÖVP leader and Austrian vice-chancellor, nominated Kurz to an expanded ministerial position covering Europe, integration and international affairs, not many thought of it as anything more than the insertion of a pliant youth to tow the party line.
Just over six years on and that subtle expansion in role has proven critical. It was Kurz’s oversight of integration issues which positioned him with responsibility such as making Austrian culture and language lessons compulsory for immigrants, and implementing a ban on the veil. It was from this position that Kurz commented on a wish to see firmer controls around immigration, as well as a broader, more patriotic response to the migrant crisis.
Using this platform in the ensuing instability, he quickly propelled himself to party leader, disabled the grand coalition in 2017, and formed a new coalition with the staunchly right-wing Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ). He seemed to be the only leader in Europe awake to the realisation that the natural coalition partner of a centre-right party in the post-migrant crisis world was to its right.
Now Europe looks again with curiosity at Kurz’s latest coalition wrangling. From the outcome of the 2019 election he has formed a tentative union with the Green Party (Gre), ostensibly a party with a hard-left voter base. Amid the talk of youth and energy around Kurz’s politics, his message contains the unmistakable stamp of sovereignty. In 2017 he said: “A country in the European Union can only function if it controls its immigration.”
This is the message which has brought Kurz his success, and as the only centre-right figure on the European stage to broadcast such a position, it has put the name of the Austrian Chancellor on the map continentally. So is that message now at risk under a Schwarz-Grün coalition?
There have been voices from both the left and the right voicing apprehension over the Schwarz-Grün pact since its likelihood became apparent. From the right the fear is that Kurz is a largely empty political vessel in terms of genuine conviction, and is simply a newer, more refined, centre-right candidate. A candidate who guessed which way the wind was blowing post 2015, and that behind the youthful visage lies the machinations of a Shakespearean Richard III:
“I can add colours to the chameleon,
Change shapes with Proteus for advantages,
And set the murderous Machiavel to school”
—Richard of York, Henry VI pt. 3
This is undoubtedly true in part, but it should not undermine the fact that 2015 illustrated that uncontrolled immigration is an immense problem, a fact which the public in Austria are unlikely to have forgotten. Whether he has conviction in his stance or not, to abandon it would show a political ineptitude Kurz only seems to afford to his opponents. He is no Emmanuel Macron, and comparisons between them should be limited to age alone.
Coming from an established political party, Kurz can and should keep to the tone he has set. It is the backbone of his party’s greatest election result since 2002. The irony here is that Kurz’s emergence from within an established party gives him electoral security to hold a stauncher line than is the case for Macron.
The worry on the left should be more genuine. The Green party vote was eviscerated in 2017, but the 2019 figures reveal they have only marginally gained in voter share since pre-migrant crisis.
Looking only at swing in voter share between 2017 and 2019 masks the fact that a combined left wing voter share (SPÖ and Greens) is down from 39.2% in 2013 to 35.4%. Meanwhile the combined right (ÖVP and FPÖ) is up to 55.7% from 44.5% over the same period.
Add to this the new sense of aimlessness felt by the youthful left who had pinned their hopes on the Greens, having become disenchanted by the SPÖ. In the eyes of these voters, a part of Kurz’s aim in the coalition will be to tame the Green Party in Austria of its radical social agenda.
In other words, keep from the Greens what is green and ditch the red. So Green policies such as making products with a large carbon footprint more expensive, increasing tax on flights out of Austria, and reducing public transport costs are likely to be enforced. But what here clashes with Kurz’s message of sovereignty?
Now we come to the real fear amongst the left. By removing red from green, it becomes apparent how artificial the juxtaposition was to begin with. It may yet dawn, not just on Austrians but on all of Europe watching, that immigrants are largely attracted to European states by the promise of a quality of life which a Green position believes to be unsustainable.
Here is an avenue of debate the Green Left do not want opening. They still sniff power across the continent, particularly in Germany where Greens won as much as 20.5% of the vote in the 2019 European election, up from 8.9% in the 2017 federal elections.
This coalition deal has come about due to party leaders. The Green leader, Werner Kogler has stated that he wants “to make Austria the number one environmental and climate protection nation”. Having been around since the party’s foundation in the 1980s, he realises that although not perfect, this deal may be his best chance at achieving those goals.
Kurz meanwhile, having seen in his young career the demise of both SPÖ and FPÖ in recent elections, thinks he can handle coalition politics and emerge stronger from them. For all his talk of youth, Kurz had seen more time in office than the disgraced former-FPÖ leader Heinz-Christian Strache and it shows (the latter was caught soliciting illicit funding from Russia).
The ÖVP will look to press home that electoral experience once more. But will they? Winning the same game three times in a row is far from a guarantee in politics, as David Cameron will attest.
So is this a Kurz volte-face, or another masterstroke in his mastery of Austria? Either way, there is an overriding sense that one of these parties has entered a Faustian pact and sold its own soul to the devil. But which one is Faust, and which is Mephistopheles?