Austria plans to ban the Muslim face veil in public places, the centrist coalition government said today (30 January) as it announced a package of policies aimed at countering the growing appeal of the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ).
The FPÖ has topped opinion polls for months, boosted by Europe’s migrant crisis and the influx of large numbers of often Muslim asylum seekers, and last month its candidate came close to winning Austria’s presidential election.
With a parliamentary election due next year, Chancellor Christian Kern of the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) is trying to regain the political initiative by forging a swift agreement with his conservative coalition partner on a package of measures ranging from immigration to education.
“We believe in an open society that is also based on open communication. Full-body veils in public spaces stand against that and will therefore be prohibited,” said the text of the coalition agreement published today.
The term used would apply to the Muslim burka and niqab, which cover all or most of the face. It was not immediately clear whether the ban would include other non-Muslim garments.
The FPÖ has called for a ban on “fascistic Islam” and Muslim symbols comparable to an existing law that forbids Nazi symbols. Mainly-Catholic Austria is home to around 600,000 Muslims in a total population of about 8.7 million.
Members of the conservative People’s Party, the junior coalition member, have pushed for tougher security and immigration measures, including the electronic tagging of former jihadists and greater use of video surveillance, which were also included in the new agreement.
The SPÖ has focused more on measures to cut unemployment, obtaining a programme to help over-50s find work.
The deal also included a reduction in social charges for employers that take on more staff and a plan to make foreign multinationals, particularly online companies, pay the same tax on advertising revenue as newspapers.
Unemployment in Austria currently stands at 5.9%, according to EU-harmonised data.
Earlier this month Kern proposed returning to a system that gave local workers priority for jobs in sectors that employ a high number of workers from poorer Eastern European member states. A similar proposal was included in the agreement.
That system was in place provisionally from 2004 to 2011 after many former Communist countries joined the bloc, and Kern has said he wants to push for Brussels to allow its reintroduction.
Brussels is unlikely to accept such a demand because free movement of people is a key element of the EU’s single market. Fear of unrestricted immigration from poorer member states was a key factor behind Britain’s vote last June to leave the EU.