Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz visited President Trump in the White House on Wednesday. Some European commentators call Kurz, 32, “the friendly face of populism,” while the U.S. ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, has labeled him “a rock star” among the continent’s conservatives. But others worry about his alliance with the pro-Russian Freedom Party. Kurz also shares something with Trump: He came to office warning of the dangers he says are posed by immigration. After his White House meeting, Kurz sat down with The Washington Post’s Lally Weymouth. Edited excerpts follow:
Q: You met President Trump earlier today. How did it go?
A: We have different approaches on many issues, but the main topic for us today was the trade relationship between the U.S. and the European Union. Austria is a very export-oriented country. Our second-biggest trading partner is the U.S. I hope that it will be possible to reach a deal between the E.U. and the United States to guarantee economic growth for the U.S. and also for Europe. Uncertainty or a negative development like a trade war would be bad for both sides.
Q: Doesn’t President Trump see the E.U. as a competitor?
A: In some areas, he definitely does. But I think that fair, free trade is in the interest of both sides. Many European and Austrian companies invest in the U.S. and create jobs.
Q: Where do you see things differently from President Trump?
A: There are issues like climate change. We think that we have to do something about climate change because we have to protect our environment.
Q: Are there other issues on which you disagree with President Trump?
A: On Nord Stream 2 [an underwater gas pipeline that runs between Russia and Germany, bypassing Ukraine], we have different positions. But there are also areas where we think that the U.S. is doing a good job. We are thankful for what the U.S. is doing in Korea — nuclear disarmament of the Korean Peninsula is in the interest of all of us.
Q: When you became chancellor, many wondered why you went into a coalition with the right-wing Freedom Party, known to be pro-Russian and anti-Semitic.
A: There was no other opportunity. We have a system where you need to build coalitions to have a majority in parliament. The Social Democrats decided not to build a coalition with my party in which they were not in the lead. But we won the elections, so it was our right to lead the government. There was only one opportunity left, and that was the Freedom Party. Secondly, the Freedom Party supported our goals to make the necessary reforms to make the country economically more competitive.
Q: Why did you give the Freedom Party so many ministries — Defense, Interior, the Foreign Ministry and control over the intelligence services?
A: I think you have a very American view on this issue. In Austria, the minister for defense is also responsible for sports. We are not a superpower like the U.S. We are a small and neutral country. I would say that other ministries, like the Ministry for Finance — which you did not mention — are much more important.
Q: Which your party kept?
A: We took that. We have 14 ministries, and in eight, we [the Austrian People’s Party], as the bigger party, are in the lead. In six, our coalition partner [the Freedom Party] is in the lead.
Q: The Freedom Party’s background is troubling, and the Israeli government does not speak to its members because of their background and their responsibility for many anti-Semitic incidents. Yet you’re very pro-Israel. How does this work?
A: On Israel, our position is very clear, and our coalition partner supports us on that: We are very pro-Israel. We are also trying to fight successfully in the European Union against anti-Semitism. Because of Austria’s history, it is, from my point of view, our obligation to do that.
Q: You rose to office supporting a tougher immigration policy. Do you regard German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to open Germany’s borders to refugees in 2015 as a mistake?
A: My position was always clear on these issues. We are not against immigration, but we want to have control on immigration. We want to decide who is allowed to come into Austria. We should not let human traffickers decide.
That’s the reason why in 2015, when many heads of state — not only Merkel, but others — were in favor of opening the borders, I criticized this policy and said the problem will get bigger and more people will start to come. Worse than that, many people will lose their lives in the Mediterranean Sea on their way to Europe. It took a lot of time, but the position in Europe has changed. Now my position is supported by most European leaders, and Europe has started to protect its external borders. We managed to reduce the flow of people arriving in Europe.
Q: Do you think you owe part of the reduction to Merkel’s deal with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2016, in which Turkey agreed to curb the flow of refugees to Europe in exchange for payments from the E.U.?
A: Of course, this was helpful, but the whole approach in the E.U. changed. In 2015, many leaders talked about how we could organize so that those who want to come could come as quickly as possible. Now the approach is that we have to do more in the countries of origin — help people who are really suffering there but not take everybody who wants to have a better life in Europe. The goal is that people do not start to come to Europe.
Q: Isn’t climate change going to make parts of Africa uninhabitable? Isn’t there going to be ongoing income inequality? Won’t more refugees continue to come to Europe?
A: We have to fight climate change. The answer cannot be to accept climate change and take everybody who wants or has to leave their country of origin. That is not possible. At the moment, there are more than 1 billion people in Africa. At the end of the century, there will be 4 billion people. I don’t think the idea can be that most of them travel to Europe and start their lives here. We have to create better living conditions for people there.
Q: If you start to return refugees, aren’t you going to undermine migrants’ right to seek asylum guaranteed by the E.U.?
A: If someone gets a positive asylum decision in Austria, they are allowed to stay. What we try to do is to send back those who have a negative asylum decision.
Q: You’ve stated that one of your aims is to stimulate economic growth. Austria’s growth rate was 2.7 percent in 2018. In all of Europe, growth is now slowing. How do you see the future of your economy?
A: I’m happy that the last year our growth rate was 2.7 percent — much better than most European countries. We did some labor law reforms, reduced bureaucracy and are now more attractive for investments. The unemployment rate is going down after many years. We are coming back to the top of the European Union, where we should be. What is not helpful is international uncertainty like the debate about the trade war in the U.S., the threat of imposing tariffs and Brexit.
Q: Did President Trump satisfy you about the trade war and tariffs?
A: What was satisfying to me was that we had the opportunity to explain our position. I think especially when you do not have the same approach, it’s good to have an exchange of views.
Q: Do you think that President Trump will come to a deal with China?
A: I had the impression that he wants to make a deal, and I hope he will be able to do so.
Q: Where do you stand on the European Union’s parliamentary elections coming up in May? Experts are saying that the European right led by [Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo] Salvini will do well. Do you think this is true? Do you think the E.U. must change?
A: I think that there is a lot of change necessary in the European Union. But I’m pro-European, so I support those who want to organize positive change, not those who want to destroy the European Union. I think that my party, the European People’s Party — a conservative party — will again become the strongest party in the European Parliament. I don’t think that the far-right party that Salvini belongs to is going to win the European elections, but they will, of course, win seats.
Q: You said that the E.U. should change. How?
A: The European Union has to get stronger again. We have to solve the immigration crisis and to organize Brexit so we can focus on other issues. I hope that we can get economically more competitive again because the economic power of Europe is not a given. We have to work hard for that.
Q: How old were you when you held your first government position, state secretary of the interior for integration?
A: Twenty-four. The position is one level below minister. I was then the head of the youth organization of my party, and our party leader asked me to take this position. I tried to convince him that I was too young and that the media and people would not like the fact that a 24-year-old had become state secretary. The first year was extremely difficult. There was a lot of criticism because of my age.
Q: But three years later, you became foreign minister?
A: We had elections when I was 27, and I got the most votes in my party. After that, I became foreign minister. In those years, I had the impression that many decisions taken by the government were bad for our country — not only on migration but also on the economy. Things were going in the wrong direction: All the international rankings said that we were losing competitiveness, unemployment was going up and economic growth was low.
As the situation in our country became worse, I thought we had to ask for early elections to change the political system. Now, one year after the elections, we have shown that we can start the necessary change.
Q: What’s going to happen with Brexit?
A: Nobody knows. We hope we can avoid a no-deal scenario, a so-called “hard Brexit,” because this would mean chaos for the United Kingdom and hurt the economy of both the U.K. and the E.U. But I’m not sure it will be possible to get a majority in the British Parliament for the deal Prime Minister [Theresa] May made with the E.U.
Q: So there might be a hard Brexit?
A: I hope not. I think it’s terrible that the U.K. is leaving the E.U., and we have to do everything possible to avoid the no-deal scenario. If they have to leave, we must make sure that they leave in an organized way.
Q: You’re part of a new generation of young European leaders, and you seem to be popular. Have you seen something that other leaders haven’t?
A: We try to serve the people of Austria, to make reforms — even if they are unpopular — to put our country in a better position. I think people see our way is successful. We managed to reduce the unemployment rate, to increase the economic growth rate and to reduce taxes for hard-working people. We tried to integrate those who came as refugees to Austria during the last years, but on the other hand, we tried to reduce the flow of those who want to come but have no right to come to our country. I’m happy that we have the support of the people.
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