Austria’s New Government Takes Power


By Herbert Vytiska

(EurActiv) — After two months of coalition talks with the far-right Austrian Freedom Party, Prime Minister Sebastian Kurz finally formed a government on Monday (18 December). Of the 16 members of his cabinet, only one has previously had government responsibility – Kurz himself.

In contrast to the “surprise package” of the government team, the government’s programme is quite conventional.

Government programme no surprise package

As much as the EPP-affiliated Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) set the political pace during the election campaign, during the intergovernmental negotiation, political observers had the impression that the Freedon Party (FPÖ) was leading the way.

For Kurz’s team, it was said, caution played a certain role. There was a latent rumour in political circles that under some circumstances the FPÖ may back off and accept an offer from the socialists (SPÖ) for coalition talks.

SPÖ chairman Christian Kern had already dismissed the party’s decision from a year ago not to enter a coalition with the far-right party and started “open-ended” talks with FPÖ leader Heinz-Christian Strache.

The new government programme bears the signature of ÖVP as well as of the FPÖ. This concerns, for example, the education reform, which particularly addresses the learning disabilities of children and adolescents and ranges from “German before school entry” to “compulsory education up to 18”.

The same applies to economic issues. The new government plans to strengthen Austria as a business location to make industry, trades, tourism and agriculture more competitive and fit for the future with new, better conditions. Families with children can also count on more support.

Reform, raised over and over again by the ÖVP but repeatedly blocked by the party’s own ranks, can be expected in the administrative sector. In addition to a reduction in bureaucracy, a simplification of the current jungle of subsidies and above all a “lean state” is the target.

Among other things, this is to be achieved by cutting the number of social insurance schemes (currently 22) and unbundling the distribution of responsibilities between the federal government, the federal states and the municipalities.

EU chapter bears ÖVP handwriting

Kurz and his colleagues have come out on top when it comes to European politics. Here, they intend to pursue a clear EU course, with the demand for more subsidiarity being on a similar line to that followed by French President Emmanuel Macron.

As the political commentators state, the new government’s social security chapter bears its “blue handwriting” rather too strongly, with the demand to reduce basic benefits to €365 cash, the rest to be payed in non-cash benefits.

In the future, asylum seekers will need to provide their mobile phone data or other communication information (social media) in order to track their itinerary and identity. Asylum procedures are to be accelerated; appeal periods shortened and rejected asylum seekers must expect a rapid deportation.

Reforms are based on two legislative periods

The new Education Minister Heinz Fassmann, the vice-rector of the University of Vienna, has previously already completed integration studies for the foreign ministry run by Kurz.

Although it has no ministry of its own, there is a clear mandate for digitisation, which affects almost all departments. The responsibility lies with the new Minister of Economic Affairs Margarete Schramböck, who was the head of Telekom Austria A1 until two months ago.

In general, the government programme is not created for one but at least two terms, as none of the measures can be implemented in the short-term but require gradual reform. This can be seen, among other things, when it comes to the retirement age. The government intends to bring the average retirement age up to meet the actual pensionable age (women 60, men 65) and reduce the significant gender gap.

Another long-term concern is the tax reform. The reduction of the tax burden by €14 billion is only possible when made step by step, while complying with the strict EU budget regulations.

Green light from the president

Eight demonstrations have already been announced for President Alexander van der Bellen’s inauguration of the government, mainly directed against the FPÖ’s participation in the government. However, even if the SPÖ had come out on top in the parliamentary elections, the far-right party would have still been kingmakers.

The left camp is disappointed with the president, a Green. At the start of the presidential election campaign in the previous year, Van der Bellen had expressed concerns over possible FPÖ participation in government. But the same day that the negotiations had been concluded and the party committees were informed of the outcome, he gave his consent to the programme and to the personalities involved.

In fact, from the very beginning, the president had been briefed by Kurz and Strache on the government forming process. At first, he voiced concerns about two FPÖ politicians, who initially stood for election. He also expressed disapproval of Strache’s intention to set up a Homeland Security Department, based on the US model.

Finally, Van der Bellen also emphasised that one of the three security departments (Justice, Home Affairs and Defense) must be led by the ÖVP and that an ÖVP state secretary would work in the future FPÖ-run interior department, with Karoline Edtstadler, a recognised lawyer and judge, now performing this role.

Apocalyptic mood of the Austrian opposition

The reaction of the opposition is less calm than that of the president. Former chancellor and now SPÖ opposition leader Kern speaks of “flops” and together with civil society will try to “prevent the greatest nonsense”.

The Greens and the Pilz List hit out at the “tight right” [“fraternity” members] in the FPÖ ministerial line-up. They see “hard times” coming up for the country.

The NEOS party uses more careful words and refers only to the fact that one must first look at the programme in detail. The party headed by Matthias Strolz will from time to time be a partner of the new government, if it comes to decisions on constitutional laws.

There have also been reactions from Turkey. Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government threatens to take unspecified countermeasures if Austria pushes ahead with plans to stop Turkey’s EU accession negotiations, which was briefly mentioned in the government programme.

In fact, Kurz wants to conclude a neighbourhood policies concept with Ankara instead.


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