European Western Balkans

Bieber: More inward-looking Austria expected, WB might lose a reform partner

Florian Bieber; Photo: Belgrade Security Forum / Aleksandar Anđić

In the Austrian parliamentary elections, which were held on 15 October, Sebastian Kurz’s Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) won a relative majority of votes and looks set to form a new government. Many believe that the coalition with the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) is more likely than the continuation of the current coalition, where the People’s Party governs together with the Socialists.

According to Florian Bieber, professor at the University of Graz and member of the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG), “the election results are not much of a surprise”.

Bieber expects Kurz’s People’s Party to form a coalition with the far-right Freedom Party of Austria.

“His party became the strongest party and very clearly shifts towards a coalition with the far-right Freedom Party, which was very much expected. Both his voters and voters of the Freedom Party expect to cooperate. So all signal towards a new coalition which also has a majority in the new parliament, and that is very clear no matter what the final results will be.”

According to Bieber, this is a second time that a conservatives are forming a coalition with the far-right Freedom Party, the first time being in 1999. However, as Bieber points out, “back then the Freedom Party and Conservatives were roughly equal in support, so this is the first time that the conservatives are clearly stronger than the Freedom Party, which gives them a stronger bargaining position.”

As Bieber points out, the Freedom Party is more interested in internal policies.

“The chancellor will be Sebastian Kurz, the Freedom Party will be well represented, and their focus is more toward domestic politics, so you can expect that Freedom Party will focus more on issues such as the interior. Their policies are anti-immigration, so the Ministry of the Interior will be the key ministry.”

One of the biggest issues will be the choice of the new foreign minister, which is a position that traditionally belongs to the junior partner in a coalition. However, Bieber believes this is unlikely.

“It seems unlikely for two reasons. First of all, the Conservatives have always been in control of the foreign ministry, so it is unlikely that they would let it go. Secondly, the Freedom Party makes for a bad international partner, so it is likely that Kurz will insist not to have a Freedom Party Foreign Minister, which would bring difficulties for Austria, especially considering that Austria will hold presidency over the European Council next year.”

According to Bieber, there are some individuals in the Freedom Party, such as former presidential candidate Norbert Hofer, who could be appointed as Foreign Minister, but it could as well be that the new Foreign Minister will be a “neutral” figure.

When it comes to the policy on EU enlargement in the Western Balkans, it is important to understand that both Kurz and the Freedom Party are more interested in domestic politics and the issue of immigration.

“Sebastian Kurz, who was a Foreign Minister, who has been quite interested in the Western Balkans, but after initial general interest he was pursuing a very Austrian domestic policy agenda which is pretty much focused on closing the immigrant routes and using the influence in the Western Balkans for that particular purpose.”

According to Bieber, similar could be expected from the Freedom Party.

“Overall expectation would be that the Freedom Party will pursue a very similar policy, and that they would also subordinate any reforms toward stability and towards preventing migrants from coming to Austria. This would be a shared foreign policy concern.”

Bieber believes that the Freedom Party’s endorsment of the independence of Republika Srpska and opposition to Kosovo’s independence could be destructive for the Western Balkans if they would hold the position of Foreign Minister.

“It would have a more destructive policy, because first, it is more anti-immigrant than Kurz, and they have also openly endorsed secession of Republika Srpska and opposed the independence of Kosovo. It is unlikely that they would pursue this as a foreign policy of Austria, but it is certainly something which would be bringing trouble to the Western Balkans.”

However, Bieber believes that a more inward-looking Austria is the more likely scenario, which could also affect enlargement.

“A more inward-looking Austria, Austria which is more focused on foreign policy as an extension of its domestic anti-immigrant policies, where both the Conservatives and the far right agree, which means that Austria might continue to support enlargement, but for selfish reasons, and not as a push for reform. In that sense, maybe we could say that the Western Balkans might likely be losing a reform-oriented partner in the European Union.”

The publication of this article has been supported by the European Fund for the Balkans

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