SPIEGEL Interview with Sebastian Kurz 'I Definitely Have a Red Line'
Sebastian Kurz, 31, is set to take over the reins in Austria. In an interview with DER SPIEGEL, he speaks of a possible coalition with the right-wing FPÖ, about his hard-line stance on immigration and how age influences politics.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Kurz, you're 31 years old and poised to become the new Austrian chancellor. Do you sometimes spook yourself?
Kurz: Not in the least. I am aware of the responsibility I am taking on. Things have developed very quickly for me in recent years, but they didn't happen from one day to the next. I have more than six years of experience in government. I took the decision to run as a candidate very seriously. In May, I decided to change the Austrian People's Party and to start a broad-based movement aimed at changing this country for the better.
SPIEGEL: Can you understand that some people are a little spooked to see such a young man in charge of a country?
Kurz: If that's how the Austrian public thought, they wouldn't have voted for me. Austrians have had a while to get a sense of who I am. Other candidates have been on the political stage for a much briefer period than I. Voters probably were much less familiar with some of the candidates in the German elections, who were previously in Brussels.
SPIEGEL: Do you sometimes wish you had more life experience to bring to your new office?
Kurz: We are who we are. You can't become 30 years older just like that. People who are older have the advantage of more experience. But you don't have to despair just because you're young. If young age is the problem, you can take comfort in the fact that it gets better with each passing day.
SPIEGEL: Your appearance has constantly been written about and commented on. Does that annoy you?
Kurz: I can't say I've noticed it. During the election campaign the focus was on lots of other things, on issues, on campaigning style, on "dirty campaigning" and methods we don't want here in Austria. The way the candidates looked really wasn't a focus.
SPIEGEL: Your youthful appearance was brought up time and time again.
Kurz: The issues are what matter. Of course now I then I'll get text messages from people telling me to wear a tie when I'm on TV. But I don't pay any attention.
SPIEGEL: A newspaper in Vienna last week obliquely compared you to Jörg Haider, the controversial far-right Austrian politician who was killed in a car crash in 2008.
Kurz: I've been compared to Haider and also to Viktor Orbán, I've also been described as Merkel's lapdog. None of it applies. But I am aware that people get pigeonholed in politics and in the media. I try to counter it with the ideas I put forward.
SPIEGEL: In the election on October 15, your center-right Austrian People's Party (ÖVP) and the right-wing populist Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) together attracted 60 percent of the vote - marking the biggest share for parties to the right of center since World War II. How do you explain this slide to the right?
Kurz: The ÖVP and the Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) also had combined support of 60 percent. But clearly, the FPÖ increased its support. That would seem to indicate that more voters were drawn to the party's platform. As a big-tent party, we take our momentum from mainstream society. When I assumed leadership of the party in May, we made a decision to launch a broad-based movement. In recent months we've gained 200,000 new supporters - and that in a small country with a population of 9 million.
SPIEGEL: Are you trying to say that the view that there's been a slide to the right is nonsense?
Kurz: I'm not going to cast aspersions on DER SPIEGEL's ideas. But the result of the vote is unambiguous. The People's Party won. Parties other than the Social Democratic Party have only won twice in the last 50 years. We know we picked up a lot of votes from people who previously voted for the Green Alternative.
SPIEGEL: Isn't your agenda further to the right?
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Kurz: It's increasingly difficult for hard-working Austrians to build up assets. We pay very high taxes. The difference between gross pay and net income is higher here than in just about any country in the world. The tax and contribution ratio is considerably greater here than in Germany, even though you also have good hospitals and schools. We want to do away with ossified structures and create a lean, service-oriented state. Health sector spending has tripled since 1990 but the quality of service, especially in Vienna, has worsened. We're close to having a two-tier health-care system.
SPIEGEL: Can one person alone seriously remodel a party - a whole country, even?
Kurz: No one can do it by themselves. But throughout my political career, I have never done anything by myself. On the contrary, we have built the most broad-based movement that exists in Austria. And we have the highest number of parliamentarians, all of whom bring with them experience in their various fields, whether that's economics or science.
SPIEGEL: What would you prefer? A coalition with the right-wing populist FPÖ, which wouldn't go down well on the international stage, or a coalition with the center-left SPÖ, which wouldn't go down well in Austria?
Kurz: My goal is to form a stable government that is strong enough to usher in change. A minority government is also an option if we fail to find a coalition partner, but it's not the goal. Many decisions in Austria require a two-thirds majority. That would be possible by getting the Neos (Eds. Note: a liberal citizens' movement) on board, for example.
SPIEGEL: But who would you like to govern with?
Kurz: I will be talking to all the parties. I have to wait and see what they say.
SPIEGEL: Would one alternative to the FPÖ be a coalition with the SPÖ, led by Hans Peter Doskozil, who is currently the defence minister and on the conservative side of his party?
Kurz: Doskozil and I have always worked well together. I respect him.
SPIEGEL: Immigration was one of your main campaign issues. Does your victory show that it's possible to take the wind out of the sails of far-right parties by adopting their platforms?
Kurz: Politicians should do what they believe is right, rather than pursuing strategies they think will win them votes. Since the start of the refugee crisis, I have taken a clear, consistent and, if you'd like, hard line on illegal immigration. If we fail to control immigration in countries like Austria, we risk jeopardizing public order and security. It's not just about people from Syria and Iraq but also the millions of people from Africa who are prepared to come to Europe if they think the door is open.
SPIEGEL: FPÖ leader Heinz-Christian Strache says that nearly 60 percent of Austrians voted for the FPÖ platform in these elections, essentially an accusation that your policy proposals are the same as his.
Kurz: Strache is right when he says that there was some overlap and similarities in some aspects of our platforms. But on other issues we overlap with other parties. That's a good thing. How else would we be able to work together in politics? I'd like to see more overlap on the European level.
SPIEGEL: You have sometimes been compared with French President Emmanuel Macron on account of your age. Yet he was strongly opposed to the Front National, the French equivalent of the FPÖ. You, meanwhile, are considering a coalition with a far-right party. Which strategy is the right one?
Kurz: Macron has the will to change Europe for the better, which, as a citizen of Europe and an Austrian politician, I am very glad about. I will do everything I can to support him and indeed others who are resolved to change and strengthen the EU. As for his attitude to Marine Le Pen, our political systems can't be compared. In Austria, the strongest party has a mandate and has to find coalition partners. For me, there are two possible partners. It's also possible that the SPÖ will seek to stay in power by entering into a coalition with the FPÖ against the winner of the election.
SPIEGEL: Do you see the FPÖ as a completely normal party, even with a leader like Heinz-Christian Strache, a man who even Jörg Haider saw as too aggressive?
Kurz: Parties are different. I've been active in politics since I was 17. My positions and my ideals are clear. But in a democracy, your own opinions aren't the only ones that count. There are five parties represented in the Austrian parliament. They have all been democratically elected and they all have legitimacy.
SPIEGEL: You must have seen the photos of Strache in full battle gear playing war games in the woods. His involvement with the far-right scene goes back a long way. Aren't you worried about appointing someone like that vice-chancellor?
Kurz: I've seen the photos. I think they were taken before I was born.
SPIEGEL: That doesn't change anything.
Kurz: Voters have a right to decide. There is no wrong decision. As a pro-European mainstream party, we clearly won this election. And the parties in second and third place are equally strong.
SPIEGEL: Of course voters can choose who they like. But you don't need to form a coalition with a party that is overtly xenophobic.
Kurz: It's my decision who I form a coalition with. I am aware of the responsibility. I will hold talks and do what I can to form a stable government that's in the best interests of the country.
SPIEGEL: Is there a red line that you wouldn't cross? What would be a deal-breaker, in your view?
Kurz: I definitely have a red line. Not just on the right, but on the left too. But it would be inappropriate to start coalition negotiations via the German newsmagazine DER SPIEGEL. I would ask for your understanding. If you want to form a government and work on behalf of your country then you need to build up a relationship of trust with your partners and find agreement. If you list numerous conditions via the media, you won't be able to do so.
SPIEGEL: In Germany, Jens Spahn, a conservative member of the executive committee of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU), is one of your biggest supporters. He was even at your election party. Why are you such allies?
Kurz: I was very happy that he attended the election party as a representative of our sister party in Germany. I appreciate that he has a clear position on issues and he states his position unequivocally. Politicians are often not as clear as they'd like to be, for fear of negative repercussions. Foreign ministers, in particular, have to be especially diplomatic. I see him as a visionary. But I am also on good terms with others in the CDU and CSU (Eds. Note: Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party to the CDU), including Wolfgang Schäuble and Ursula von der Leyen. And I was very happy that Angela Merkel was the first to call and congratulate me on election night. I am looking forward to working with her.
SPIEGEL: Would you like to see Jens Spahn become German chancellor once Merkel decides to retire?
Kurz: As German chancellor, Angela Merkel is one of the most experienced politicians in Europe and has managed to win four elections in a row. She has an excellent team that includes politicians such as Jens Spahn and others who can still achieve great heights in their lives.
SPIEGEL: Were you in touch with CDU politicians in 2016 when you were preparing to shut down the western Balkan refugee route, to some extent behind Merkel's back?
Kurz: There has always been an exchange between Austria and Germany, even when we have been of different opinions, such as with regard to the immigration question.
SPIEGEL: You are a divisive figure within the CDU. The party's right wing is keen to ally itself with you, with many thinking the party should follow your lead.
Kurz: I have a clear position on the immigration question. But immigration isn't the only issue, and on other issues I agree with others in the CDU. That's the way it is in politics.
SPIEGEL: Angela Merkel and the CDU won the election but lost more than eight percentage points relative to the last election in 2013. How do you explain that?
Kurz: The CDU got 33 percent in this year's election. I got 31.5 percent in ours. For us that's a really good result. If German conservatives need advice, then certainly not from parties that got fewer votes than they did.
SPIEGEL: In your opinion, what was most effective in ending the refugee crisis in 2016 - the closing down of the Balkan route, a move that was driven by you, or the EU's agreement with Turkey, which Merkel backed?
Kurz: Both were effective, both made sense. Whichever measure we employ to put a stop to illegal immigration and provide help in the countries of origin is a good measure. In recent months things have been moving in a good direction on the European level, thank God. Italy has completely changed its policy. But it would be a fatal mistake to think that the immigration question has been resolved and we can put our feet up. The numbers are lower than they have been in recent years, but they're still too high and the pressure driving immigration isn't about to lessen.
SPIEGEL: What would you like to see happen?
Kurz: On a European level we need to fight hard to put a stop to immigration. Frontex needs a completely new mandate, we need to build up a common protection policy for our outer borders which doesn't leave Italy and Greece having to deal with the problem by themselves. We in Austria are prepared to do our bit with police and the military.
SPIEGEL: During the election campaign, you talked about shutting down the Mediterranean route. How would that work?
Kurz: We have to make it clear than anyone who attempts to enter Europe illegally will not be granted asylum here. We should be rescuing people on the EU's outer borders, taking care of them but then sending them back to transit countries or their countries of origin. We should only be taking people in through resettlement programs and boosting assistance in the countries of origin.
SPIEGEL: And how would that work? Would you have the boats stopped and their passengers sent back to Libya?
Kurz: To start with we need to cooperate more with the Libyan coast guard so that people don't even start the journey and the boats can't even launch. Once someone has been picked up, they shouldn't be brought to the Italian mainland. And if it's not possible to take people back where they came from, they should be taken to safe centers where they can be taken care of. But they should not be promised a better life in Europe. If we make that promise, then more and more people will try to come here.
SPIEGEL: At the height of the refugee crisis in 2015, what was the German chancellor's biggest mistake?
Kurz: Her mistakes are not the issue here. Many in Europe were pushing for a policy that was wrong - an open borders policy. They thought that anyone who made it to Europe should have the right to apply for asylum here. So increasing numbers of people seized the opportunity. The result was that we were unable to cope, and many people lost their lives in the Mediterranean. I have always rejected this policy and thank God not many politicians have continued to pursue it.
SPIEGEL: Will you join forces with Eastern European countries regarding the immigration question?
Kurz: I am glad of every country in the EU that has the same position on the immigration question as I do. At this point there are many, and we're joined by others every month. We're not going to solve the immigration problem by distributing them throughout Europe.
SPIEGEL: How do you see your role in relations with Hungary and the Czech Republic, countries with which Austria has close ties?
Kurz: Austria could be a sort of bridgehead between Eastern and Western Europe. Economically this has always been very useful and I believe it's our role politically, too.
SPIEGEL: You describe yourself as a staunch pro-European but you're considering a coalition with a euro-skeptic party. What do you hope to achieve when Austria assumes the rotating presidency of the European Council next year?
Kurz: I represent a mainstream party and the voters have given me a mandate as a pro-European agent of change. We would like to make the EU more subsidiary and more collaborative, and to take more of a backseat on issues where nation states can make better decisions.
SPIEGEL: What exactly does that mean?
Kurz: We need closer collaboration on foreign and defense policy. Bigger member states, in particular, aren't always as interested, but we are. We don't need to have a social union, I don't believe in that. How is it supposed to work? Should Austria's social standards fall to Romanian levels? Should Austria's minimum wage of 850 euros a month be introduced in Romania - where it would be well above the average income? We don't always need more rules in Europe. But we should see to it that existing rules are respected, from Maastricht to Dublin.
SPIEGEL: In Brussels, will you oppose Emmanuel Macron's proposed reforms?
Kurz: I like a lot of his ideas. Especially what he says about immigration and security. As far as budget policy is concerned, we're closer to Germany. I agree with Wolfgang Schäuble. There are some issues where I don't agree with France or Germany, and there's nothing wrong with that.
SPIEGEL: What will you do if the SPÖ and the FPÖ form a coalition to keep you out?
Kurz: The Austrian president holds the reins after an election. It is a question that we aren't currently facing.
SPIEGEL: You became foreign minister at the age of 27 and you look set to become chancellor at the age of 31. What will you be doing when you're 45? Do you have other ambitions?
Kurz: I can get enthusiastic about a lot of things and I have enjoyed everything I've done in my life so far. I have always known that I won't spend my whole career in politics. I will be a politician for as long as I feel I have something to contribute. But to be honest, I am not in the least bit worried that there also nice things in life outside of politics.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Kurz, we thank you for this interview.