Austria’s EU Presidency: Threat or opportunity?

    Austria’s strong extreme-right ideology of the past will apparently not chime in with EU values and might make things even more difficult for immigrants and Muslims.

    Austria has undoubtedly become the most debated country of the European Union since 2017. After the elections in the fall of 2017, the Conservative Party (OVP), led by Sebastian Kurz, the youngest leader in Europe, and the Extreme Right Party (FPO) formed a coalition government.

    The same coalition, when established for the first time in 1998, had received strong reactions from concerned EU-member countries. Then, the social democrat Prime Minister Viktor Klima could not form a government, and as a result, the OVP established a coalition with the FPO. The 14 members of the EU of that time froze political relations with Austria since it now had a coalition government, one of whose two partners was an extreme right-wing party.

    After 18 years, the OVP-FPO coalition is back in power again in Austria. This coalition takes on greater importance nowadays as Austria will be taking over the EU presidency for six months on July 1, 2018.

    Austria held the EU presidency for the first time in 1998 and will be taking it over for the third time in 2018. However, there is a big difference between the first time Austria held the EU presidency and this time: Social Democratic Viktor Klima was the head of the EU in 1998 but this time it will be Sebastian Kurz leading the union; Kurz, who is known for his extreme-right and anti-immigrant policies.

    In 1998, Austria included the issue of immigration in the agenda for the presidency. Since then, the number of EU members has doubled, but the agenda of the Austria has remained the same. In the 1990s people were migrating to EU countries because of the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo. Today, people from countries like Syria, Afghanistan, and Africa immigrate to European countries fleeing violent conflicts. As commonly known, the priorities of Austria regarding the EU presidency have included the issues of refugees, migration policies, and the protection of the EU borders.

    As president of the EU, Kurz will have to spend the majority of his time dealing with EU affairs. He will have to lead ministerial meetings and hundreds of sessions on European issues. Foreseeing this, Deputy Prime Minister Heinz-Christian Strache from the FPO stated that after July 1, in the absence of Kurz, he will become more intensely involved in Austria’s domestic policies, which raises serious concerns due to his xenophobic and anti-Muslim views.

    Here is a brief reminder of the FPO’s election posters: “Islamization should be stopped”, “Vienna will not be Istanbul”, “Heimatliebe (Love for Homeland) instead of Moroccan thieves”, “Austria thinks too much EU is stupid”, “We understand your anger, too much EU does not make anybody any good.”

    Strache may change his anti-EU views during this short period with Austria as the chair of the EU Presidency, and this may be a positive development showing that Strache, who has been in the forefront of anti-EU policies for some time, will no longer have any problems with the EU, but such a drastic change of policy would mean an adventure in domestic politics. In Austria, where the pressure on immigrants and Muslims has been on the rise, Strache’s adventurous moves in using Muslims and immigrants as a political tool could spark off a heated debate in Austria.

    While Kurz’s EU presidency has such risks for Austria’s interior politics, surprises can be expected within the EU as well. Sebastian Kurz is known for harboring anti-Turkey, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim attitudes, and these can damage the EU’s spirit and traditional values. Over time we will see the consequences of having a radical right-wing leader as president of the EU; a president who closed the Balkan route to immigrants.

    From a political point of view, Austria’s being at the helm of the EU may also produce some “good” results. Some governments that were unable to focus on domestic politics during their EU presidency later lost their popular base and could not come to power again. The best examples of this are Finland, Italy, France, and Greece. In these countries, the ruling parties had to leave the government soon after their EU presidency.

    The so-called “Schwarz-Blau” (Black and Blue) coalition of the OVP and the FPO is also troubled by Jews, Muslims, and refugees. The government has become embroiled in quite a few scandals in its first 180 days. Muslims and immigrants are hot topics of discussion, taking precedence over such issues as unemployment, economy, inflation, and stability.

    Anti-Jewish rhetoric, especially employed within FPO ranks, is a cause of anxiety among the Jews living in Israel and Austria. Furthermore, Oskar Deutsch, the president of the Israeli Community, criticised the coalition, saying that 14 anti-Jewish events took place during the first eight weeks of the coalition. When the OVP-FPO coalition was first formed in 2000, Israel withdrew its ambassador from Vienna to show its protest against the far-right government. It seems that the FPO cannot get rid of the anti-Jewish opposition coming from its past and these discriminatory sentiments will continue smoldering inside.

    The current Austrian government has also targeted Muslim communities. It banned Islamic lessons in kindergartens across Austria, where Islam has been recognized as an official religion since 1912. A law to ban headscarves in schools, universities and public institutions is being debated. Seven mosques have been closed and they want to deport their imams as well. Karl Nehammer, the OVP secretary general, also argues that fasting should be banned in schools. There were 156 attacks in 2015, 256 attacks in 2016 and 309 attacks in 2017 perpetrated against Muslims in the country.

    In different parts of the world, democratic governments are under the threat of populist movements. Populist movements in EU countries, such as Italy, Hungary, Greece and the Netherlands are dominating the political scene. Austria was one of the first countries in the EU to breed extreme-right movements. With Austria heading the EU presidency next month, its strong extreme-right ideology of the past will apparently not chime in with EU values such as respect for human dignity and human rights, freedom, democracy, equality, and the rule of law, and might make things even more difficult for immigrants and Muslims.

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