The European Union is turning into something of a political science laboratory these days, with each country offering varying experiments and test cases in how to handle a resurgence of populism. The average citizen might be worried, but it’s a gold mine for the analyst.
Consider Austria. After winning the parliamentary elections on Sunday, Sebastian Kurz has become, at 31, the youngest head of government in the world. His rise is astonishing. A young conservative activist elected to parliament at 27, he was then appointed Foreign Affairs and Social Integration Minister before taking over the ÖVP and leading it to electoral victory. He did so in part through a personal rebranding effort: renaming the People’s Party as the “Sebastian Kurz List” for the election, changing the party’s colors, and claiming the mantle of a “New People’s Party.” At a time of global backlash against incumbent elites, his fresh face and promise of renewal were a large part of his appeal.
There’s more to Kurz, however, than his youth and novelty alone. The key to his success has been his ability to capture some of the themes of the far Right without, so far, stooping to toxic nativism or anti-European rhetoric.
At first glance, this claim may surprise, given the prevailing narrative about Austria’s new leader. Kurz is well known for his tough rhetoric on immigration, his authorship of Austria’s 2015 Islam law and his support for banning the niqab. Moreover, he is poised to put an end to a tradition of Grand Coalitions between the ÖVP and the center-left SPÖ, instead forming a coalition with the far-right FPÖ, which finished a close third on Sunday with 26% of the vote. FPÖ was founded by a former SS officer and has a history of toxic nationalism. As Alina Polyakova has noted, it is openly pro-Putin and even signed a cooperation agreement with his party, United Russia.
But labeling Kurz himself as far-right or a populist is not only wrong; it misses the point. As minister and as a candidate, Kurz has successfully stolen votes from FPÖ by offering tough language but pragmatic solutions to some of the far Right’s key issues, especially immigration. And he seems to have better instincts for navigating this political terrain than more seasoned politicos.
Much like Emmanuel Macron in France, Kurz came of age politically as the rise of populism became the defining challenge for mainstream parties. Both leaders have seen their share of populist scares: in 2014, a few months before Macron was appointed France’s economics minister, the National Front won the European Parliament election, its first electoral triumph at a national level. And in Austria’s re-run election last December, FPÖ’s Norbert Hofer garnered 46% in the second round of the presidential election. In both cases, the European Union’s myriad crises and failures (especially on migration) allowed the far Right’s rhetoric on Islam, immigration and the EU to take hold among a much larger audience than usual.
How should other parties react? The trade-offs are well-known: if mainstream parties ignore or deny voter concerns over identity and immigration, they risk leaving a monopoly to populists. Chasing after populists, on the other hand, can let extremists shape the agenda, tainting mainstream parties with nativism. Both strategies are self-defeating. As Jean-Marie Le Pen often said to mock center-right efforts to co-opt his message, voters will always end up preferring the original to the copy.
Macron, who unlike Kurz is not a conservative, chose to explicitly shape his political narrative as a direct liberal and pro-EU alternative to the National Front. As he indicated in a recent Der Spiegel interview, Macron’s approach was “to say, these people are my true enemies and to engage them in battle.” But such an approach is not without risk. By bringing the center-left and center-right together, it leaves the extremes as the only true opposition.
Kurz has chosen a different tack, seeking to address the far Right’s concerns while steering clear of overt Euroskepticism or racism. So far, it seems to be a winning formula: surveys have shown the FPÖ would have had a stronger showing with another ÖVP candidate. Kurz’s approach may yet prove another model for other European center-right politicians who want to defeat extremists.
This is not to say that his path forward will be an easy one. Unlike Macron, whose political persona rests on the advocacy of an “open” France over a “closed” one, Kurz is a conservative, operating within a traditional right-left divide. In that context, he will have to fight both the Left’s multicultural discourse (which has cost it dearly with voters) and the far Right’s simplistic rhetoric. The incumbent chancellor, Christian Kern, has been unable, and unwilling, to tackle the migration issue, leaving a wide space to the right.
So far, Kurz has been able to thread the needle, emerging as a strong voice against the EU’s refugee policy while offering proposals that are a far cry from hardline demands to revert back to national borders and abandon the Schengen Area. Despite being accused (often rightly) of copying the FPÖ’s rhetoric, Kurz advocates European solutions, and has called for the creation of EU “battle groups” to secure the EU’s external borders. He has also been a strong advocate of closing down the Balkan route. In both of these policies, Kurz seems to grasp an important political reality: if mainstream conservatives want to rally voters behind the European Union’s internal open borders, they need to prove the EU can at least secure its external borders. Kurz likewise recognizes that national governments must do their part in creating a viable assimilation strategy; hence, his 50-point plan to ensure the integration of asylum seekers, with a special emphasis on language and education.
Kurz was also the inspiration behind the 2015 reform to Austria’s 1912 “Islam law” regulating Muslim worship. The reform is often dubbed “controversial”, yet it was also praised as a potential example to emulate by Institut Montaigne, a French centrist free-market think tank that is close to Macron, in its 2016 report “A French Islam is Possible.” The report argues that the 2015 law—the product of years of debates and working groups—effectively balances strong legal protections for Muslims with the promotion of a strictly endogenous practice. Hence, the law forbids foreign funding to mosques, creates a theological training center at the University of Vienna to ensure imams speak German, and provides a strict framework to ensure the primacy of Austrian law over religious requirements. At the same time, the law officially recognizes Muslims’ right to worship, protects religious holidays, provides legal status to religious cemeteries, and calls for the respect of halal dietary prescriptions in public institutions. The objective was to promote and secure the status of Austrian Muslims while rolling back extremism and foreign influence.
The same can be said of Kurz’s support for a ban on the niqab and burka. Kurz justified the proposed ban by saying “a full body veil is hindering integration”, adding the burka was “not a religious symbol but a symbol for a counter-society.” Such a ban would not fit with American mores, but Austria is hardly the first country to pass such a measure, which is broadly supported by European public opinion. France, Bulgaria, and Belgium already forbid the niqab; other countries such as the Netherlands and Switzerland have passed restrictive measures in certain contexts. Angela Merkel has supported a partial burka ban in Germany. To be sure, such measures are supported by extremists uncomfortable with any expression of Islam in European societies. But the bans also receive support from progressives and feminists who are understandably troubled by the requirement that women should hide in public spaces. Only a small minority of women are affected by such measures, which aim to discourage fringe practices while allowing the majority to practice peacefully. Contrary to the far Right, Kurz doesn’t seem to deny the evolution of his society, but wants to find a balance with the concerns of the population at large.
Populists are forcing mainstream parties to grapple with themes of borders, identity, and security that they have too conveniently ignored for decades. Technical disputes over the management of the welfare state can no longer be the prime concern of European debate; politics are back with a vengeance on a continent that thought it could transcend them. And though strategies to address this challenge will vary, moral grandstanding or denial won’t cut it.
Austria’s young chancellor walks a fine line. European conservatives like David Cameron know the risks of trying to seize some of the populist agenda. The former British Prime Minister was right to think that the promise of a referendum on EU membership would help rein in UKIP and his own party’s Euroskeptics at the 2015 general election. He won re-election handily. A year later, he was out of office after losing said referendum. By co-opting some populist ideas in an attempt to tame the beast, he instead let it take over.
Ruling with FPÖ will likewise be a challenge. It is unclear if Kurz will have the ideological spine or the political agility to avoid letting extremists shape his agenda on issues like the EU or relations with Russia. Does he represent a new generation of European conservatives, bridging the gap between political leaders and their publics? Or will he end up just another electoral opportunist running after the far Right? Time will tell—and the rest of Europe will be watching.