Future Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz of the conservative People's Party (OeVP) listens during a joint press conference with incoming vice-chancellor of the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) to unveil their joint programme on December 16, 2017 in Vienna, Austria. Austria's far-right has secured the interior, defence and foreign ministries in the new coalition government with the conservatives, Freedom Party (FPOe) head Heinz-Christian Strache said. Kurz's OeVPy will have the finance, economy and justice ministries, Kurz said. / AFP PHOTO / ALEX HALADAALEX HALADA/AFP/Getty Images
Sebastian Kurz of the conservative People's party listens during a joint press conference with the far-right Freedom party’s Heinz-Christian Strache © AFP

Austria’s far-right nationalist Freedom party will control several powerful ministries when the country’s new government is sworn in on Monday, after it struck a coalition deal that will significantly toughen Vienna’s stance on immigration and asylum seekers.

In a breakthrough for the Eurosceptic Freedom party, it will govern together with the centre-right People’s party of 31-year-old chancellor-elect Sebastian Kurz. The Freedom party will take control of the defence, interior and foreign ministries while its leader Heinz-Christian Strache, who has warned of Austria’s “Islamification”, will become vice-chancellor.

The progress and policies of Mr Kurz’s government will be closely watched around the EU, where mainstream politicians have grown increasingly concerned about the rise of nationalist and populist political forces.

Pierre Moscovici, the EU’s centre-left commissioner for economics, warned that the Freedom party’s presence should “arouse the vigilance” of democrats who supported European values. “The presence of the extreme right in power is never trivial,” he said.

Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s National Front who failed in her presidential bid in May, said Freedom’s government role in Austria was “excellent news for Europe”.

Mr Kurz won Austria’s national election in October after a campaign promising to halt illegal immigration, as well as tax cuts and institutional reforms. The incoming chancellor, who is due to meet EU leaders in Brussels on Tuesday, acknowledged partners’ concerns but insisted his government programme was pro-European and pointed out that Austria was a strong democracy.

Mr Kurz has put EU policy under the control of his chancellery. Mr Strache said he supported the “European peace project”.

With both the interior and defence ministries, the Freedom party will oversee Austria’s security apparatus, including the police and army. In previous coalitions the responsibilities have been split.

The party’s Russia links — it has close ties with United Russia, the party of Vladimir Putin — could further raise concerns among western allies, for instance over intelligence sharing.

Freedom’s nominations as ministers appeared designed to assuage misgivings. As foreign minister, the party nominated Karin Kneissl, an independent, non-party Middle East expert, whom Mr Strache described as a “bridge builder”. Mario Kunasek, defence minister, is a former soldier.

The Freedom party is notorious beyond Austria for its historical links with pan-German nationalists, anti-Semitic voices and airbrushing the country’s Nazi past. When the party joined a government in 2000, Austria was ostracised by its EU neighbours.

In office the Freedom party could create problems on issues such as Russian sanctions but would avoid “extreme provocations,” said Thomas Hofer, a political analyst in Vienna. “They want to prove they are fit for government …Of course, it is a stressful time for Austria, but it is nowhere near 2000.”

Freedom took 26 per cent of the vote in October’s poll. It was beaten into third place by the centre-left Social Democrats, which previously led a “grand coalition” with the People’s party. But the unpopularity of that coalition persuaded Mr Kurz to form one with Freedom.

The new chancellor rose in popularity in Austria after bluntly criticising EU policies during the continent’s 2015 immigration crisis, and he continues to demand action to strengthen the EU’s external borders. Austria has been on the route for refugees fleeing wars in countries such as Syria. With a population of 9m, it received 130,000 asylum applications in 2015 and 2016.

To push ahead with economic reforms Mr Kurz has chosen Hartwig Löger, chairman of the Uniqa insurance company in Austria, to be finance minister.

The 182-page coalition agreement includes plans to cut taxes as a share of gross domestic product from 42.9 per cent to about 40 per cent, bringing the country in line with the EU average.

The new government also plans to give Austria’s voters more opportunities to vote in referendums — although it specifically ruled out a poll on the country’s EU membership.

Austria’s economy, while small, is one of the strongest in Europe, and Mr Kurz plans to build on the country’s traditional role as a bridge between western and eastern Europe. Mr Kurz hopes to act as an intermediary in clashes on immigration policies between Berlin and the “Visegrad” group of countries — Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia — which have opposed EU efforts to resettle migrants via quotas for each country in the bloc.

The coalition agreement promises tougher rules on benefits for asylum seekers, who would have to hand over cash they are carrying to authorities, and on allowing access to refugees’ mobile phones to determine their identities and travel routes, as well as the faster processing of applicants.

There would also be a crackdown on “political Islam”, it says. Austria will also make migration a top theme when it holds the EU presidency in the second half of next year.

The programme also promises an extra 2,100 police and security measures to combat terrorism.

The ease with which the two Austrian parties agreed a coalition deal stands in contrast to stalled coalition negotiations in Germany following elections in September. 

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