Austrians, the Austrian journalist Alfred Polgar sardonically noted in the early 20th century, are a people who “look with foresight into the past.” He was referring to Austrians’ tendency to seek comfort in Die Welt von Gestern, the world of yesterday, as the writer Stefan Zweig titled his autobiography. When Austrians flocked in 1955 to the cinemas to see the film Sissi, a kitschy love story about the young Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph I and the Empress Elisabeth, they didn’t merely enjoy the couple’s love story: They sought refuge, after the horrors of World War II, in the film’s old world composed of hierarchy, law, and order underpinned by a general respect for traditional values.
Today, another young conservative Austrian leader, Sebastian Kurz — the 31-year-old chancellor of Austria and chairman of a revamped version of Austria’s traditional center-right party — projects a similar profile as Sissi’s young emperor. In part, that’s due to his style of conservative populism, which combines an emphasis on social conservatism and law enforcement with traditional fidelity to established European institutions and economic policies. Since becoming leader of the Austrian People’s Party, he has steered it toward a coalition with the far-right, anti-immigrant Freedom Party, which had previously been ostracized by the bien-pensant Austrian establishment. Since taking office as prime minister, he has spoken of an urgent need to crack down on illegal immigration and maintain Austria’s traditional culture.
But if Kurz seems a historic figure, it’s also because of the extent of his ambition. He has made it clear that he’s aiming for influence beyond Austria’s narrow borders. He’s already popular in Germany, where the young Austrian has been intervening in the ongoing power struggle between the country’s conservative parties, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union. Kurz favors the latter and its more restrictive immigration policies, and he, along with Italy’s right-wing populist Lega Nord party, wants to form an “axis of the willing” against illegal migration between Austria, Italy, and Germany. As of this week, Kurz has also assumed the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union, which allows him to set the continent’s political agenda for the remainder of this year. It should come as no surprise that he has declared securing and protecting Europe’s external borders to be one of his top priorities under the official motto “A Europe that protects.”
Kurz’s vision is already represented in the agreement recently reached by EU leaders to toughen the continent’s asylum policy by establishing new “controlled” centers for housing and processing asylum seekers on a voluntary basis within Europe, and to set up migration centers outside Europe to discourage migrants from making asylum claims there in the first place. Kurz was instrumental in advancing both proposals and helped forge compromise between the EU’s centrist and populist forces, which seemed to confirm Austria’s alleged tradition, often propagated by Kurz’s government, of serving a political bridge builder. It also led to Kurz being hailed as a “rock star” by U.S. President Donald Trump’s new ambassador in Berlin, Richard Grenell, and praised by Germany’s far-right Alternative for Germany party as a “real friend.”
Amid Merkel’s lame duck fourth term, Kurz has been called the EU’s new power broker and its most important politician. But the question remains whether Kurz’s conservative populism is truly what Europe’s ailing establishment needs. Austria’s young chancellor seems to believe he has developed a blueprint that other center-right parties and movements across Europe can use to placate populism while maintaining Europe’s establishment inheritance.
The Austrian political analyst Thomas Hofer thinks that Kurz “indeed embodies a new type of political conservativism in Europe” by managing to establish a new position in between classical European center-right conservativism and right-wing populism. “He argues populistically, but in a much more agreeable manner than right-wing populist representatives,” he said. Hofer cited Kurz’s stance on migration and welfare policies as examples of the chancellor trying to walk the middle ground between hard-liners and moderates. “As such, he can serve as an example for other conservative parties in Europe when it comes to their repositioning,” he said. At the same time, Hofer cautioned that applying Kurz’s strategy to other countries may not be a winning strategy, because it is partially predicated upon the exceptional communication skills of the Austrian chancellor himself and his ability to attract the disaffected while not alienating those content with the basic status quo.