Hundreds of police sealed off part of central Vienna yesterday (18 December) as Austria became the only western European country with a far-right party in power, but protests against the swearing-in proved small and largely peaceful.
Conservative Sebastian Kurz, who is just 31, became chancellor in a coalition with the far right two months after winning a parliamentary election with a hard line on immigration after Austria was swept up in Europe’s refugee crisis in 2015.
The last time the anti-immigration Freedom Party (FPÖ) entered government in Austria, demonstrations were so big that the cabinet took a tunnel from the chancellery to the swearing-in ceremony at the president’s office across the street.
There was no need for that this time as, almost 18 years on and to a significantly more muted reaction, the country once again became an exception among its peers, but in a very different European political landscape.
Protests nearby drew only a fraction of the tens of thousands who gathered in 2000 – and criticism from across the continent has also been more restrained. Police wore riot gear and stationed two water cannon at the main protest site.
— inna shevchenko (@femeninna) December 18, 2017
“We will certainly not be going underground to the Hofburg, but rather with our heads held high in the street,” FPÖ leader Heinz-Christian Strache said earlier in an interview with regional newspapers. He was referring to the former imperial palace that houses the president’s office.
This time, police cleared a large area around the head of state’s office, keeping several thousand protesters about 100 metres away in a nearby square. Chants could be heard as the new ministers from the FPÖ and the conservative People’s Party (ÖVP) crossed the street quietly to the ceremony.
Protests in Vienna against new right-wing coalition government pic.twitter.com/nj0zx809pS
— AFP news agency (@AFP) December 18, 2017
The coalition deal hands control of much of Austria’s security apparatus to the FPÖ, which came third in the election with 26 percent.
“Any crime committed in Austria is one too many,” FPÖ Chairman Herbert Kickl said as he assumed his new position of interior minister. The FPÖ was also given the foreign and defence ministries.
The agreement, under which Strache became vice chancellor, includes plans to cut public spending and taxes and curb benefits for refugees.
“I fear a total shift to the right, a hardening of the domestic political climate and incitement against outsiders,” said 69-year-old protester Wolfgang Pechlaner.
Police said 1,500 officers were deployed. People marched peacefully, carrying placards saying “Nazis out” and chanting “Strache is a fascist”.
Police put the number of protesters at 5,000-6,000 and said three arrests were made. Organisers put the turnout as high as 10,000. By late afternoon, the crowds had dispersed.
The FPÖ’s success made it an outlier in Europe in the 1990s when it was led by the late Jörg Haider.
Now it is one of many anti-establishment parties making electoral gains in Europe. Its allies and sister parties this year entered the German parliament and made the French presidential run-off.
Swearing in the new government, President Alexander Van der Bellen highlighted safeguards built into the coalition agreement.
“We have achieved a clear consensus that (involvement in) Europe or the European Union and continuity in our foreign policy as well as respecting our fundamental rights and freedoms are important fundamental principles,” he said.
That was a reference to the coalition having ruled out a referendum on EU membership, and to Austria’s support for EU sanctions against Russia despite the FPÖ’s pro-Moscow stance.
The FPÖ, founded in the 1950s by former Nazis, has backed away from calling for a vote on EU membership. It and Kurz’s conservatives want the EU to focus on fewer tasks, like securing external borders, and hand more powers back to member states.
“We will follow how the EU policy of Austria develops,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said. “Chancellor (Sebastian) Kurz has the intention of being an active partner in Europe, and I am glad of that. We have lots of problems to solve in Europe.”
France was also cautious.
“The new chancellor has, on many occasions, affirmed his attachment to European values and the European project … It is in this spirit that we want to engage in a dialogue with his government,” French Foreign Ministry deputy spokesman Alexandre Giorgini said.
Kurz travels to Brussels today to meet European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and Council President Donald Tusk.
Other EU countries imposed sanctions on Austria in 2000 in protest at the FPÖ coming to power. There is no such action being taken this time.
Congratulations to @sebastiankurz, the new Federal Chancellor of Austria. I trust that the new government will continue to play a constructive and pro-European role in the EU. Looking forward to meeting you in Brussels tomorrow https://t.co/te8VozJbiP pic.twitter.com/R8R9hD1x62
— Donald Tusk (@eucopresident) December 18, 2017
Tusk yesterday warned Kurz he expected the country to “continue to play a constructive and pro-European role”.
Austria will hold the EU’s rotating presidency in the second half of next year, and in a letter congratulating Kurz on his election, Tusk warned that Brussels expected Vienna to stick by its commitments to the bloc.
“I trust that the Austrian government will continue to play a constructive and pro-European role in the European Union,” Tusk wrote.
“This is especially important at a time when the European Council is engaging more directly on politically sensitive issues in the context of the Leaders’ Agenda.”
The new government unveiled a policy platform on Saturday that “commits to Europe” but also pledges to use the Austrian EU presidency to “take a leading role in correcting some of the erroneous developments” of the bloc.
It also plans a summit on the contentious issue of immigration as part of its presidency.
The issue of how to deal with migrants arriving in the EU has proven enormously divisive, with eastern European countries highly resistant to compulsory quotas for how many they should host.