19 December 2017

After two months of negotiations, the new Austrian government on Saturday presented its coalition treaty and today was officially sworn in. The coalition of the centre-right People’s Party (OVP) and the far-right Freedom Party (FPO) has already caused outcry in foreign capitals. Fears are running high that under its new government Austria may block further integration and, in the worst case, gradually align itself with the governments in Poland and Hungary who are increasingly at loggerheads with Brussels. To help distinguish campaigning rhetoric from concrete aims and proposals, I take a quick look at what the coalition treaty signed by both parties says on Europe. This will become even more important considering that Austria will take up the European Council presidency in the second half of 2018.

Europe yes, but not too much

Fears of an anti-European government taking hold in Vienna were always overblown, as I have stated earlier. The coalition treaty is clear about the new government’s general commitment to the EU. The first chapter of the treaty – “State and Europe” – sets out that “The future of Austria is linked to the European project of peace and unity. Our home country is an integral part of the European Union and the Euro common currency . We will, as an active and reliable partner, contribute to the further development of the EU.” The OVP even managed to convince the Freedom Party to formally end its flirt with a referendum on Austria’s EU membership. Instead, both parties now stress that the EU “is not just an economic community, but also a community of values.” So far, so good?

Well, things become a bit trickier when we turn to what the coalition actually identifies as the “further development” it seeks to support. Proving they have done their homework, the two parties refer to the recent European Commission white paper on EU reform, singling out scenario four (‘Do less, but more efficiently’) as their desired path. “The principle of subsidiarity has to be central,” they stress, “We want an EU that tackles the big issues, to protect the citizens of its member states.” As first concrete steps in this direction, they propose the “introduction of a subsidiarity test in the parliamentary process” and the use of a “one-in-one-out rule” for legislative acts. The Austrian presidency of the European Council, which will take place during the second half of 2018, will be used to “contribute to a change of course in the EU to bring the union closer to its citizens.”

Strengthen Europe’s borders

Chancellor Sebastian Kurz had built his reputation as foreign minister on closing the Balkan route for refugees coming into Europe. That he would continue to pursue a policy of strong borders thus comes as little surprise – particularly now that he is in a coalition with the far right. In concrete terms, the government aims at “bringing those rescued at sea into ‘Rescue Centres’ outside the EU, instead of actively bringing them inside the EU.” As complementary measures to this hard border approach, Austria wants to agree on the resettlement of “particularly vulnerable groups” directly from countries of origin. Additional “repatriation agreements” shall be struck to deport quicker those asylum seekers who have been rejected.

In a separate part of the agreement, they elaborate, “As long as there are no practical and satisfying solutions to prevent illegal immigration at the European level, the issues of asylum and migration as pertaining to Europe will remain an Austrian competency and be regulated by Austria.” In practical terms, this will likely mean continued support for temporary border controls inside the Schengen zone.

Little concrete on Russia and Ukraine

Much has been made of Austria’s particular geographical location in Mitteleuropa, a “historic hub between East and West” as the two parties put it. They aim at leveraging this role to be “an active place of dialogue and bring forward a policy of détente between the West and Russia.” On the thorny question of EU sanctions against Moscow, the coalition agreement only states it wants to “gradually remove the sanctions […] in a European unison.” This is also supposed to include a more active role on the Ukraine conflict, where Vienna wants to “reduce tensions” and “defuse the conflict.” There is a lack of concrete steps to reach each of these goals. Still, considering the Freedom Party’s close relationship with Moscow (on which I have written previously) and its questionable stance on the annexation of the Crimea, the agreement’s part on Russia and the Ukraine may simply represent a silent compromise from both sides.

How cosy with the Visegrad bloc?

Austria’s relationship with the Visegrad states (Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, Czech Republic) has been repeatedly discussed through the last year. On the one hand, there is the fear in certain European capitals of Austria further aligning itself with or outright joining the bloc – a proposal made by Freedom Party chairman Heinz-Christian Strache in the past. This would further tilt the balance in Europe to the detriment of Brussels, Paris and Berlin, and render constructive policy making even more difficult. On the other hand, there is the hope that Austria can serve as a mediator between the two blocs and help bridge ideological divides in favour of pragmatic solutions. While the coalition treaty remains largely silent on the question, committing itself merely to “further strengthen cooperation with the neighbouring Central European states,” it will be one of the key issues to watch in 2018.

Let the Balkans in, keep Turkey out

As one of the few EU member states directly bordering on the Western Balkans, Austria wants accession candidates from the region to be supported in their applications “on basis of their individual progress” rather than by treating them as a bloc. Regarding Turkey the tone is harsher, as the two parties demand a “clear policy towards Turkey” and oppose the country’s accession to the EU. They “seek allies to achieve a final cancellation of the EU accession negotiations, in favour of a Turkish-European neighbourhood concept.”

The Freedom Party’s ugly company

While Sebastian Kurz has managed to convincingly keep himself and his People’s Party on a politically rather mainstream course, less can be said of his new junior partner, the Freedom Party. The FPO’s four members of European Parliament currently sit with the Movement for a Europe of Nations and Freedom (MENL) party, a far-right alliance led by the French Front National. Last weekend, the MENL organised a meeting of far-right organisations and activists in Prague, where Dutch far-right leader Geert Wilders called the EU an “existential threat” and the Front National’s Marine Le Pen called the bloc a “catastrophically disastrous organisation.” In between, they cheered that their Austrian allies had made it into power.

Kurz managed to keep the Freedom Party out of EU affairs to a large extent. They received a number of key ministries, but had to compromise on many of their more radical positions. The foreign ministry was given to the Freedom Party on the condition that it nominated a formally neutral candidate, Karin Kneissl. To play it extra safe, most competencies relating to EU policies were reallocated from the foreign ministry to the OVP-controlled chancellery. Still, having part of the government sit in an alliance whose members to a large extent outright oppose the EU will pose difficulties for Kurz’ government. Some are claiming that the Freedom Party is set to leave the MENL to join a more moderate party, yet this is unlikely to happen before the upcoming European elections in 2019.

‘Promising less, more efficiently’?

Beyond the pro-EU platitudes and commitments to subsidiarity, the coalition agreement is rather thin on European questions. Of course, a government aiming at a slimmed-down EU does not need elaborate plans a la Emmanuel Macron (who demands a Eurozone finance minister, European universities, and a European innovation agency) or tough timetables a la Martin Schulz (who demands a United States of Europe by 2025). Still, considering the current spirit for reform in Europe – not to forget Austria’s Council presidency in six months’ time – one might be forgiven to have expected a bit more detail. While the proposals on securing the EU’s external borders deliver some first direction, the Eurozone does not feature a single time in the 182-page document. Much remains to be seen. That Austria will lend its support to Macron’s plans for far-reaching Eurozone reform can already be doubted.