[Leonid Bershidsky] Look to Austria for Europe’s next leader

By Bloomberg
  • Published : Jul 10, 2018 - 17:29
  • Updated : Jul 10, 2018 - 17:29

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has often been called the European Union’s real leader, though she’s never wanted that role and her moves in Europe have always been dictated by German domestic politics. A different chancellor seems positioned for leadership now: Austria’s Sebastian Kurz.

Few people care much about the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union, which Austria assumed on July 1. It’s usually just a public relations opportunity for member states that otherwise get little time in the limelight. It’s different with Kurz, though. In the six months since he became chancellor at the head of a coalition between his center-right People’s Party and the far-right Freedom Party, he has positioned himself as a go-to figure for European politicians as well as for powerful outside forces.

In Europe, a country’s size doesn’t confer special privileges on its leader, as French President Emmanuel Macron has discovered since taking office. The bigger a nation, the more its voters care about domestic issues and the further the EU seems removed from daily life. That has long imposed significant constraints on German, French, Italian, Spanish, UK and even Polish leaders.

Representing Germany, France or any big nation also makes one automatically suspect of trying to push that nation’s selfish interests. Running a small nation, though, can lend a politician credibility as an honest broker; that, in part, is how Luxembourger Jean-Claude Juncker ended up as president of the European Commission.

Kurz has that going for him, along with four years of experience as his country’s foreign minister. He’s also a skillful, cautious negotiator in the Merkel vein, though he’s more than 30 years her junior; he’s only 31. Despite having had some public arguments with the German leader about refugee policy, he’s gotten along well with her on a personal level and he’s willing to perform good-cop, bad-cop routines with her, seemingly without any prior coordination. There are two going on right now.

One is on Brexit. As UK Prime Minister Theresa May met with Merkel in Berlin on Thursday, the German chancellor didn’t offer any visible support to May’s latest plan for a trade deal and warned her that the clock was ticking. Kurz, for his part, suggested that the EU keep talking with the UK even past the Brexit deadline -- anything to avoid a chaotic departure from the bloc without trade terms resolved. Despite the apparent contradiction between the two leaders’ stances, both push the UK in the same direction, toward making a viable proposal.

Kurz’s other dance with Merkel involves German domestic politics. Merkel’s jittery coalition partners from Bavaria’s Christian Social Union have chosen Kurz as their icon: He’s tough on immigration and able to tame the far-right, traits they’d like to emulate. Kurz, however, has helped the German chancellor drive home to CSU leader and German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer that he was deluded if he thought he could push back migrants at the German border. When Seehofer traveled to Vienna on Thursday, Kurz was friendly but firm: If Germany didn’t want asylum seekers registered in other EU countries such as Italy and Greece, it needed to send them to those countries, not across the border to Austria.

Kurz is also on good terms with Macron. The French leader doesn’t hide his distaste for Kurz’s coalition partners, but the two young politicians share an enthusiasm for the European project that runs deeper than the customary declarations of unity.

On the other hand, because he’s willing to entertain far-right ideas on immigration, such as accepting no asylum applications on EU soil, Kurz is perceived as an ally by the eastern European nationalist governments, as well as by the new Italian government, in which nationalist leader Matteo Salvini plays an important role. But he’s not entirely on their side, and he’s avoided bonding with them, choosing instead to preserve Austria’s vaunted neutrality. Instead, Kurz has said that he’d like to be a “bridge-builder” between the Visegrad Four (Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia) and the rest of the EU.

In fact, Kurz mentions bridge-building in most foreign policy speeches he makes. He sees himself playing that role with Russia.

“It is necessary to reinforce our communication channels, as peace on our continent is only possible together with Russia and not against Russia,” he told the European Parliament in a speech outlining the Austrian presidency’s priorities. And indeed, Russian President Vladimir Putin, who rarely travels to Europe, has visited Kurz in Vienna and asked for his help in arranging a meeting with US President Donald Trump.

He wasn’t wrong to turn to Kurz for that. The Austrian chancellor is one of the Trump administration’s favorite European politicians. “Look, I think Sebastian Kurz is a rock star,” Richard Grenell, Trump’s unloved ambassador to Germany, told Breitbart News in a recent interview. “I’m a big fan.”

Being a comfortable conversation partner for all these diverse forces inside and outside the EU is a rare asset. If Kurz doesn’t quite bridge the gaps between them, at least he sets himself up as a mediator. That’s as close as one can come to leadership in today’s Europe, an entity in constant search of consensus but torn by differences of principle on almost every important issue. Kurz is at the center of events, hated by no one, blamed for nothing. His party has made slight gains in the polls since winning 31.5 percent of the vote in last year’s election. Moreover, a poll in May showed that if he led a party in Germany, it would have won more votes than Merkel’s center-right bloc, the country’s most popular political force.

The Austrian presidency will be interesting to watch primarily because it’s an opportunity for Kurz to strengthen his position and to prove he can forge workable compromises, not just be everybody’s friend. If that works out, tiny Austria is destined to punch far above its weight in Europe while he remains chancellor, which could be a long time.

Leonid Bershidsky

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics and business. -- Ed.