VIENNA, Austria — Austria’s Freedom Party has secured the interior, defense, and foreign ministries in the new coalition government with the conservatives, the far-right party’s leader and Austria’s incoming vice-chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache said Saturday.
Future chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s People’s Party party will have the finance, economy, and justice ministries, Kurz said. “The president was clear that he wanted the justice and interior ministries to be held by different parties,” Kurz said.
The government, finally assembled after elections two months ago, is due to be sworn in next week, and Kurz, at 31, will be the world’s youngest prime minister.
The Freedom Party’s control of the three key ministries is likely to cause concern in Europe and beyond, given its extremist and neo-Nazi past, although the incoming interior minister Herbert Kickl insisted that “nobody has anything to fear.”
The last time the Freedom Party entered government, in 2000 under controversial then-leader Joerg Haider, now dead, Austria was briefly ostracized within the European Union and by Israel.
This time, though, the reaction is likely to be much more muted, with the Freedom Party, which was created by ex-Nazis, seen as having mellowed and with Europe more inured to right-wing parties.
The Israeli Foreign Ministry had no immediate comment on the make up of the government.
Strache flirted with neo-Nazism in his youth but now, aged 48, besuited and with severe new glasses, portrays himself as a mature statesman rejecting extremism.
Strache visited Israel in 2010, as a guest of the Likud Party, Hadashot news reported, on a trip during which he toured the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and laid a wreath. He visited again in 2016.
When he took over the FPOe in 2005, the party was a mess. But gradually, with deft use of the internet, it has gained strength.
Remaining fiercely nationalist, however, Strache in 2016 dubbed German Chancellor Angela Merkel “the most dangerous woman in Europe” and he says Islam “has no place in Austria.”
Nicknamed “HC,” he forged a partnership with Russia’s ruling party, wants EU sanctions on Moscow lifted, and seeks closer ties with the eastern European Visegrad group. He said last week that, in principle, he backs moving the Austrian embassy to Jerusalem but would respect the EU consensus against such a move.
Karin Kneissl, 52, a respected and multi-talented career diplomat who speaks Arabic, Hebrew and Hungarian, was tapped to head the Foreign Ministry.
While not a member of the Freedom Party, Kneissl, who studied at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, shares many of its views, talking tough on immigration and the European Union.
Both Kurz and Strache won over voters by stoking concerns about immigration following a record influx in 2015. Their success mirrored elections elsewhere in Europe this year: Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party became the second-largest in the Netherlands, Marine Le Pen of France’s National Front was in a runoff for the presidency in May, and the AfD entered the Bundestag.
But the FPOe, which was last in government in the early 2000s, is rare in western Europe in having translated its ballot box success into real power. Last year it also came close to winning the largely ceremonial presidency.
Speaking at a far-right congress in Prague on Saturday, Wilders said the Freedom Party’s entry into government was “an excellent result.” Le Pen called it “very good news for Europe”.
Strache’s “electoral success shows that the future is of a Europe of peoples,” Le Pen said. “Every election shows a form of rejection of the EU.”
The People’s Party-Freedom Party partnership is expected to move Austria to the right. Both campaigned on the need for tougher immigration controls, quick deportations of asylum-seekers whose requests are denied and a crackdown on radical Islam.
The coalition agreement calls for bolstering the country’s police forces with another 2,100 officers, as well as immigration policies that “can be sustained by the population.” It says asylum should only be offered to people “for the duration of their persecution, who really need Austria’s help.”
Other points include ending illegal migration, cutting government bureaucracy, reducing taxes and creating a new national climate and energy strategy.
Kurz’s party finished first in the country’s Oct. 15 election and then embarked on coalition talks with the Freedom Party, which came in third after the center-left Social Democrats.
In the new government, the Freedom Party will have another five ministers in addition to Strache and a deputy minister, including leadership of the Interior, Defense and Foreign Ministries, the Austria Press Agency reported.
Along with Kurz as chancellor, the People’s Party will have seven ministers and one deputy, with responsibilities including the Finance, Economy and Justice Ministries.
Kurz is the foreign minister in the outgoing government under Chancellor Christian Kern, a Social Democrat. He has stressed the importance of a pro-European direction and is expected to continue to take the lead on European issues even though the Freedom Party, which has traditionally been strongly euroskeptic, will have the Foreign Ministry.
Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen said after he was presented with the coalition agreement and minister choices earlier Saturday that he saw no issues preventing the new government from being sworn in.
Following meetings with Kurz and Strache, Van der Bellen said he’d been assured a “pro-European” focus was central to that of the new government.
“In these talks, among other things, we agreed it is in the national interest of Austria to remain at the center of a strong European Union and to actively participate in the future development of the European Union,” he said.
The new government will not hold a referendum on membership of the European Union, Strache said, announcing their joint program. Austria joined the union in 1995. The coalition wants more Swiss-style “direct democracy,” making it easier for referendums to take place, but Austria’s membership of the EU is “excluded” from such a process, Strache said.
“We stand by the European Union, we stand by the peace project of Europe. But we see various developments critically, and we will of course articulate this and seek partners,” Strache told reporters.
Strache has in the past been ambivalent about EU membership, calling Brussels a “bureaucratic monster,” and saying that Britain will “probably be better off” after it leaves the bloc.
New chancellor Kurz said that the new government is, “of course,” pro-European.
However, Kurz said that during Austria’s presidency of the EU in the second half of 2018, Vienna will press for more “subsidiarity,” meaning that member states and not Brussels have control in certain areas.
“We have agreed to a clear pro-EU stance with the aim of boosting subsidiarity in the EU,” Kurz said, favoring an EU that is “stronger in big questions and which should step back on smaller issues.”
According to the joint program released on Saturday, the government wants more cooperation with Austria’s central and eastern European neighbors, whose relations with Brussels have at times been fraught.
It also wants to contribute to an improvement of relations between the West and Russia.
The Freedom Party, which has a partnership with Russia’s ruling party, has called for EU sanctions on Moscow over Ukraine to be lifted.
The program also says the government will not agree to Turkey joining the bloc. It will “seek allies in achieving a definitive break in [Turkey’s] membership talks, in favor of an EU-Turkey neighborhood concept,” the program says.
Founded in 1956, the Freedom Party’s first leader was Anton Reinthaller, a former SS officer.