Austrian Chancellor Kurz sees image dented as he faces investigations

Once hailed as a "wunderkind", Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has seen his carefully built image dented amid coronavirus fatigue and an investigation into whether he lied to a parliamentary committee on corruption.

Austria's Chancellor Sebastian Kurz wears a face mask as he arrives for a meeting with Bavaria's State Premier at the Bavarian State Chancellery in Munich, southern Germany, on May 11, 2021. Peter Kneffel / POOL / AFP

It should have been a good month for the 34-year-old conservative — who became the world’s youngest democratically elected leader when he first took
office in 2017 — with the lengthy virus lockdown easing.

But prosecutors announced on Wednesday that they are investigating Kurz for giving false testimony to a committee of lawmakers probing the “Ibiza-gate” scandal and other graft allegations.

READ ALSO: What you need to know about Austria’s ‘Ibiza-gate’ video

If charged, Kurz would be the first chancellor to have to face court while in office in the small Alpine EU member state of some nine million people.

Kurz himself has dismissed the allegations, saying he expects to be charged but not to be found guilty and that he is refusing to step down, slamming what he says are efforts to unseat him.

“I have said nothing that is not truthful,” Kurz told a selected group of Austrian media outlets on Thursday.

‘Kiss’ emoticons
Kurz’s party’s approval ratings already dropped to around 30 percent last month compared to a high of close to 50 percent a year ago.

Austria largely managed to keep the virus at bay during the first wave last year, but has struggled in the third wave with a lockdown since last November.

The investigation compounds Kurz’s troubles as his party’s financing and other practices have also come under the spotlight in recent months.

“It’s the most severe crisis in his chancellorship,” political analyst Thomas Hofer told AFP, adding it has “distracted” from this month’s planned re-opening of restaurants and other leisure venues.

“For Sebastian Kurz, who has been spoiled with success for a long time, it is the most delicate phase of his career,” Die Presse daily wrote in an editorial on Friday.

The investigation announced on Wednesday pertains to statements Kurz gave to a committee of lawmakers last year, in which he denied having had any influence over the appointment of the head of the OeBAG state holding company, Thomas Schmid.

However, in recent months text messages between Kurz and Schmid have come to light, including one exchange where Kurz wrote: “You get everything you
want”, adding several “kiss” emoticons, to which Schmid replied: “I’m so happy :-))) I love my chancellor”.

If found guilty of lying under oath, Kurz could face up to three years in jail.

Kurz already had to step down as chancellor once, in 2019, when his one-and-a-half-year-old coalition with the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) fell apart because of the so-called “Ibiza-gate” scandal.

FPOe then leader and vice chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache resigned after a secretly filmed video showed him in a luxury villa in Ibiza offering public contracts to a woman he thought was a Russian oligarch’s niece.

In the aftermath, Kurz lost a no-confidence vote in parliament and fresh elections were called, where he managed to secure a strengthened mandate as disillusioned far-right voters flocked to his People’s Party (OeVP).

‘No competitor’
But Kurz’s current junior coalition partner, the Greens, who campaigned on a transparency platform, have been at pains to defend him and his allies hit by allegations of wrongdoing.

In February, the home of OeVP finance minister and Kurz ally Gernot Blümel was raided as part of a probe into possible party financing offences.

READ ALSO: Austrian minister’s home raided in casino corruption probe

“You can see a very heated atmosphere in Austria right now,” Hofer said, adding the current investigation “increases pressure on the Greens a lot”.

On an international level, too, Kurz has frequently had run-ins with other EU leaders.

In the latest row in March, Kurz raised concerns about vaccine distribution within the bloc, saying there had been a lack of transparency surrounding deals between some EU states and vaccine manufacturers.

But analysts point out Kurz’s OeVP is still firmly ahead in the polls.

“Despite the investigations, he overall remains fairly popular as a chancellor,” said Julia Partheymüller of Vienna University’s Centre for Electoral Research.

Another analyst, Peter Hajek, said “on a national level, there is not really any outstanding competitor”.

He added that Kurz could rely on his communication and crisis management skills — at least for now.

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‘A stupid prank’?: Why has Austria vetoed enlargement of Schengen area?

Austria voted against Bulgaria and Romania joining Europe's control-free travel zone, the Schengen area - although it did accept Croatia's entry. What are Vienna's arguments for rejecting the major expansion of the zone?

'A stupid prank'?: Why has Austria vetoed enlargement of Schengen area?

On Thursday, EU members were set to vote on enlarging Schengen, the borderless area within the continent, by adding three new members: Croatia, Bulgaria and Romania.

All three are already European Union members, meaning their citizens enjoy the freedom of movement rights within the bloc. So, Croatian, Bulgarian or Romanian citizens can already live and work in Austria if they want.

The Schengen zone is a separate agreement, one that also includes non-EU members. Within the area, there are no border controls (with certain emergency exceptions, such as what happens when there is a terror threat or during the pandemic).

So if you travel from Austria to Italy, for example, you won’t need to show any documents on the Italy-Austria border because both countries are a part of the Schengen zone.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: What happens if you overstay your 90-day limit in Austria?

However, if you travel from Austria to Croatia, a very popular summer destination, you can drive right through the Austrian-Slovenian border but will have to show proper travel documents when crossing to and from Croatia.

This is set to change in 2023, though, as Croatia did get the unanimous approval it needed to join Schengen. Austria vetoed the joint application of Bulgaria and Romania, though.

Schengen ‘does not work’

A few hours before the decisive meeting of EU interior ministers, Federal Chancellor Karl Nehammer (ÖVP) had reiterated Austria’s ‘no’ to Bulgaria and Romania joining the Schengen area, as reported.

At a joint press appearance with the European People’s Party (EPP) leader, Manfred Weber, Nehammer pleaded on Wednesday evening in Vienna for the decision to be postponed until next autumn. Weber understood Austria’s worries and concerns but not the veto.

READ ALSO: Tents for asylum seekers stir debate in Austria

During a brief press appearance, Nehammer underlined Austria’s arguments that the Schengen area “does not work”. If Austria, as an internal Schengen country, had already picked up 75,000 unregistered migrants this year, this was a “security issue that we cannot wipe away”, he said.

Austria’s Interior Minister Gerhard Karner echoed the statements ahead of the meeting. 

“I think it is wrong that a system that does not work in many places should be enlarged”, he said.

Austria, which is experiencing a strong increase in asylum requests, fears that admitting Bulgaria and Romania would increase irregular immigration.

READ ALSO: IN NUMBERS: Who are the asylum seekers trying to settle in Austria?

A protester hold the Austria flag as police block a rally against Covid-19 restrictions – many of these protests had a nationalistic root. (Photo by Yann Schreiber / AFP)

A critical issue at home

Immigration is a hot topic in Austria, especially since the migrant crisis of 2015-16. Many credit the strong stance against migration taken by the centre-right ÖVP and, in particular, by its young and popular leader Sebastian Kurz for the good results the party had in national elections – eventually putting Kurz in the top Chancellor position. 

The wunderkind would later fall from grace amid allegations of corruption, but his party still leads Austria and many of its provinces.

Even as the migrant wave of 2015-16 passed (and much of the promises made by far-right leaders of what would happen to an Austria that accepted migrants did not come to pass), the issue continues to feed domestic politics. 

READ ALSO: Why is support for Austria’s far-right FPÖ rising?

Austria’s ÖVP, in the federal coalition with the left-leaning Greens, has maintained a tough stance on migration, but not as hard as some might want. The far-right FPÖ, however, continues to make extremist statements and build on islamophobia and xenophobia speeches.

“The issue is fuelled by riots like the one in Linz, tent debates, rising asylum numbers, and border protection debates. This creates fear”, said Christoph Haselmayer from the poling institute IFDD.

“And plays into the hands of the FPÖ”, he added.

READ ALSO: ‘Inhuman speech’: Austria’s far-right blasted for wanting to tie social benefits to German skills

Domestic criticism

Prior to the meeting of EU interior ministers, criticism of Interior Minister Karner’s stance came from the SPÖ and NEOS, but also party colleague and Vice-President of the EU Parliament Othmar Karas (ÖVP). A Schengen blockade would not contribute to solving the asylum problem and had nothing directly to do with it, they said. 

Mixing the two was “irresponsible and unspeakable”, Karas said.

The former Czech Foreign Minister Karel Scharzenberg was equally harsh in his criticism of Vienna’s veto. 

“It’s blank domestic policy. I appreciate Austria’s role in the Balkans. But this veto is a stupid prank. Hopelessly self-centred. Austria is disregarding its historical duty to take on these countries.” Schwarzenberg said in an interview with the Kleine Zeitung.

READ ALSO: ANALYSIS: Could Austria ever change the rules to allow dual citizenship?

Why did Austria vote in favour of Croatia?

With Croatia, there is a different story. Austrian authorities have supported the country’s accession, saying that Croatia has proven it has strong border controls and would protect the Schengen borders. 

Recently, Croatian Interior Minister Davor Božinović told Croatian media that he expected Croatia to become a zone member on January 1st, 2023. “Since the beginning of our accession to Schengen, Austria has supported our entry. Nothing has changed there”, he said.

He said he evaluated Austria’s tough stance on Schengen enlargement as more of a “domestic political calculation to keep the migration issue simmering”.

READ ALSO: Five European cities you can reach from Austria in less than five hours by train

Currently, Croatia is not part of the route taken by many Middle-Eastern asylum seekers, who mostly enter Austria after passing through Turkey, and Southern Balkan states and finally crossing Hungary into Austria. 

At the same time, Croatia is, as mentioned, a popular destination for Austrian tourists in summer – and the frequent traffic jams they face might not be enough of a reason for the authorities to approve Croatia’s bid, but will undoubtedly make it a more popular decision among many Austrians.