But what to make of such statements? Does the government’s coalition agreement suggest a radical departure from previous Austrian and European policies? In short, no — the government’s plans are more similar than some may think. Here’s what’s on the agenda.
Reducing immigration to Europe
To no one’s surprise, the new government calls for reducing immigration to Europe. In the second half of 2018, Austria will preside over the E.U. Council; the coalition agreement states that in that position, one priority will be “protecting” E.U. borders with the rest of the world.
But such policies are now mainstream in Austria and elsewhere. During the Austrian campaign, the defeated center-left Social Democrats (SPÖ) also demanded that the government “win back control over immigration,” proposing the “protection” of external European Union borders, a “considerable” reduction of immigration by 2020 and an increase in deportations — nothing too different from what the new ÖVP/FPÖ government supports.
Nor is this program a departure from what’s proposed by much of the rest of the E.U. Also Germany, generally seen as liberal on immigration, has aimed at substantially reducing immigration to Europe. The Austria-driven closure of the Balkan route and German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s E.U.-Turkey agreement have worked together for this common end. Thus, the new Austrian government will likely be roughly in sync with other E.U. governments on immigration to Europe. This fact should not be overshadowed by Kurz’s recent rejection of the E.U. quota system for distributing asylum seekers — a policy that has been a political nonstarter anyway.
Restricting support for immigrants
The new government announced it wants to stop the private housing of asylum seekers, providing instead only centralized accommodation facilities. In addition, it wants to take their cash to help pay for basic provisions. The coalition also says it will substantially reduce minimum social welfare support for recognized asylum seekers and those granted subsidiary protection. Further, the government wants to “adapt” naturalization rules, which probably means making it harder for many (but not for all) to become an Austrian citizen.
Many of these measures will severely constrain often-vulnerable immigrants. However, they do not break radically from past policies. For instance, in regional government coalitions with the ÖVP, even the Greens agreed to reduce minimum social welfare benefits for all recipients, often recognized asylum seekers. And Denmark and Switzerland, for example, already take cash from asylum seekers.
Carrying out neoliberal changes
The new government also announced important changes to Austria’s economic, social and educational policies. It plans to cut unemployment benefits and further aid; to increase the maximum working day to 12 hours and to reduce corporate taxes. Austria already has a statutory budget deficit limit; the new government plans to install that in constitutional law.
ÖVP and FPÖ also want to begin charging students for attending universities — right now, Austria’s public universities are mostly free — although that might be offset with tax exemptions after graduation. They want to ratify CETA, a controversial economic agreement between the European Union and Canada, and to gut the Chamber of Labor, a statutory interest group with compulsory membership for Austrian employees.
Had the SPÖ joined the government, it would have nixed some of these policies. Still, none of them represent a radical break. Many European countries — and not just those with right-wing governments — have introduced measures like budget deficit limits and welfare state cutbacks.
The possibility of democratic backsliding
How will the new government affect democratic standards? Should we even expect a turn to “illiberal democracy”?
The FPÖ is now in charge of key ministries, with political control over police, army and intelligence agencies. At the same time, important FPÖ figures are well-embedded in far-right circles. There, they recruit for leading positions in ministries and state-owned enterprises.
Thus, there’s certainly potential for serious political misconduct, even within the boundaries of what is typically defined as liberal democracy.
In parliament, the Social Democrats have stopped opposing future coalitions with the FPÖ — and so have less credibility for calling for outrage. In 2000, Europe’s Social Democratic parties could still push E.U. members to diplomatically “sanction” the first ÖVP/FPÖ coalition. That won’t happen this year either.
Manès Weisskircher is a researcher at the TU Dresden (MIDEM — Mercator Forum Migration and Democracy) and at the European University Institute in Florence. His research interests include comparative politics and political sociology. Find him on Twitter @ManesWeissk.