European Western Balkans

Migration issues to shape the politics of Austria

Sebastian Kurz; Photo: OSCE/Micky Kroell

After last week’s parliamentary elections in Austria, it is clear that conservative People’s Party (ÖVP) leader, Sebastian Kurz, is poised to be the new Chancellor of Austria. Accepting the President’s offer to form a new government, ÖVP leader has started first consultations with other party leaders.

It is more likely to see a coalition between ÖVP and far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), founded by a former Nazi functionary and SS member after the II world war, than the continuation of the current coalition with the Socialists. This would be a second time to see conservatives (ÖVP) forming a coalition with the Freedom Party, with the first time being back in 1999. This time their focus will be more toward domestic politics, migration issues and anti-immigration policies. Political environment in Austria is similar as in some other European countries with a strong right-wing presence in politics caused by the refugee crisis. In the previous period, the People’s Party has moved away from the Socialists and moved closer towards the far-right. Since Sebastian Kurz has become a leader of the ÖVP, he has moved the party further to the right.

Historically, Austria has a good reputation for taking in refugees, as during the Hungarian uprising of 1956 when it opened its borders to thousands of Hungarians or during the Prague spring of 1968, when thousands of Czechoslovakians came in. The last in the row was during the war in Yugoslavia. In the beginning it was the same approach with the ongoing refugee crisis, when Austria made a warm welcome to refugees, but soon after that skepticism about the refugees entering the country became apparent. One of the turning points came when migrants sexually abused women in Cologne, in neighboring Germany. The wave of refugees coming to Austria raised support for the far-right Freedom Party. Before the parliamentary elections that were held this October, immigration was the major issue that had brought closer the People’s Party and FPÖ. Those two parties are together in favor of border security.

Only two years ago it seemed different, when Austrian official were criticizing Hungarian Prime Minister Orban’s policy of deterrence, but now Austria is doing the same. The new policy means closing the borders, building up the fence at the Slovenian border and deploying armored vehicles along its Italian border with 750 troops to prevent a future flow of migrants from crossing the border. Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz said that Austria “has to end the invitation policy” and that this must be said to Europe, especially Germany.

Last year, Austrian government announced that only 37,500 asylum-seekers would be accepted and they will no longer be able to cross its territory on their way to Germany.

It is expected to see ÖVP and far-right FPÖ to form a coalition if their stance towards migrants in Austria and cutting benefits for them is taken into account. During the refugee crisis, Kurz has called for stricter border controls in order to discourage refugees from coming to Europe, and also introduced laws preventing foreign organizations from financially supporting Austrian mosques. In the campaign he sent a message to stop illegal immigration into Austria, which is a continuation of his policy on closing down the Balkan route for refugees.

Freedom’s Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache said that Austrian should be stopped from becoming a minority in their own homeland, referring to asylum-seekers. In the same tone Sebastian Kurz said “I can promise today that we will end illegal migration to ensure more order and security in Austria”. According to him, refugees would not be allowed to receive benefits from the state unless they have lived in Austria for five years. Kurz was also openly endorsing in 2016 the then-ruling Macedonian VMRO DPMNE party, which was accused of authoritarian tendencies, by speaking at Nikola Gruevski’s pre-election rally in Skopje.

Given that Austria with its new Chancellor will focus more on domestic politics, it is questionable how Austria will continue dealing with the EU enlargement process of Western Balkans, as it used to be one of the promoters and great supporters of Western Balkans European integration. Top priority of new Austrian government will be closing the immigrant routes in the Balkans. Probably the future actions of Austrian government towards Western Balkans countries will be in accordance with new Austrian migration policies instead of Austria being strong partner on their European path.

After Brexit and the rise of nationalists in Hungary, Poland and Germany, this rightward shift of Austria could be a new headache for Brussels. The new program of Austria will also be keeping the EU more out of national politics and affairs. Under these conditions it will be interesting to see Austria’s presidency over Council of the EU in the second half of 2018.

Publication of this article has been supported by the Balkan Trust for Democracy of the German Marshall Fund of the United States

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