Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz 'Why Does Everything I Do Get So Overblown?'

In a DER SPIEGEL interview, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, 32, talks about his goals as holder of the rotating European Council presidency, the fight against illegal immigration and his relationship with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz

Foto: Jork Weismann / DER SPIEGEL

DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Chancellor, Austria is the current holder of the rotating European Council presidency. The motto you have chosen for your six-month tenure is "A Europe that Protects." Who is supposed to be protected from whom?

Kurz: In the coming months, we want to strengthen all those things that embody our Europe. The focus will be on security, order and the collective protection of our external borders. But we also have to work on our competitiveness amid the global competition in order to defend the prosperity we have attained. My generation often takes Europe and its successes for granted.

DER SPIEGEL: Please answer our question. Who is supposed to be protected from whom?

Kurz: Our prosperity, our economy, our social security and values, and, if you want to narrow the focus to the question of migration, one of my priorities is the protection from human traffickers, who earn their money with refugees and their suffering.

DER SPIEGEL: What do you hope to achieve on the refugee issue by the end of the year?

Kurz: That the trend reversal  we have put in motion will continue. At the last EU summit in June, the heads of state and government agreed for the first time that unlimited admission (of refugees) in Central Europe was not the correct path, and that we need effective protection of our external borders and must expand the amount of assistance provided there. Now, this trend reversal, which has already taken place in our minds, must be implemented in practice.

DER SPIEGEL: You are proud of the fact that the EU has adopted your restrictive, closed borders approach to migration, aren't you?

Kurz: All 28 heads of state and government agreed on the resolutions together. But I was certainly among those who were in favor of a policy change early on.

DER SPIEGEL: You see yourself as having been largely responsible for the closure of the Balkan route used by hundreds of thousands of refugees in 2015 as they made their way to Austria and Germany. As European Council president, shouldn't you be more of an honest broker and less of your own PR manager?

Kurz: When I make note of the fact that Europe has made progress on the migration question, that has nothing to do with PR, but with the facts. Fewer and fewer people are striking out across the Mediterranean and fewer and fewer people are dying.

DER SPIEGEL: More than 1,500 people have died since the beginning of the year.

Kurz: Now, we must continue step by step. We must prevent migrant ships in North Africa from putting out to sea in the first place and change the fact that they are automatically brought to the EU after they are rescued. To do that, we have to expand cooperation with countries like Libya, Tunisia and Morocco and provide the border protection agency Frontex with a more robust mandate. The EU's inability to cope; the deaths in the Mediterranean: Both must finally be brought to an end.

DER SPIEGEL: You are demanding that refugee ships be prevented from docking in Europe and that the external border protection regime be strengthened. The question as to how refugees should be distributed in Europe is no longer on the agenda?

Kurz: That isn't entirely accurate. I am saying that it should not be the case that every ship full of migrants is able to dock in Europe. Our goal should be that of destroying the human traffickers' business model. And it will be destroyed if someone who paid a trafficker to come to Europe isn't automatically brought to Europe once they are saved at sea.

DER SPIEGEL: Currently, the Mediterranean countries are arguing among themselves about which EU country should accept each migrant ship carrying a couple of hundred people. The distribution question remains unresolved.

Kurz: I have a different priority. Egypt is already prepared to accept the return of people who launch from Egyptian shores. That is exactly what we must now implement with Libya, Morocco and Tunisia -- by way of stronger cooperation with each country's coast guard, for example. I want to get to the point where the refugee ships don't even embark on the voyage to Europe.

DER SPIEGEL: The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has warned about dire humanitarian conditions in Libya. Should Libya be seen as a safe country of origin?

Kurz: When people set out from Libya on the way to Europe and already begin running into trouble in Libyan coastal waters, then it is a good thing when that country's coast guard saves them and brings them back to Libya.

DER SPIEGEL: What about situations in which they are picked up by the EU's Sophia mission or by privately run humanitarian ships?

Kurz: Then, the situation is much more complicated. That is why we have to start with the countries of origin and transit countries. After all, it's not Egyptians and Libyans who are coming to us.

DER SPIEGEL: For as long as most North African countries are unwilling to take people back, the decisive question remains: According to what rules will asylum-seekers be distributed across Europe?

Kurz: If it were up to me, those who clearly have no right to asylum should not be allowed into the EU at all but should be sent back to their countries of origin or to transit countries as quickly as possible.

DER SPIEGEL: The European Commission and the UN Refugee Agency argue in favor of assembling refugees deserving of protection in camps in North Africa before distributing them throughout the EU.

Kurz: I have a different position. I think it would be much better for us to bring people to us directly from their countries of origin once we decide to accept them. And that they don't end up in a North African refugee camp where they have to spend months waiting for a decision to be made about their application.

DER SPIEGEL: Do you believe that privately operated ships for the purpose of saving refugees at sea should be allowed?

Kurz: It is a legal and moral imperative to do so as long as the prevailing rules are obeyed. No matter what, though, there must not be any agreements with traffickers or cooperation with criminals.

DER SPIEGEL: How do you intend to get to the point that migrants no longer embark on the journey north?

Kurz: It is a mistake to believe that the migration question can only be solved through development cooperation. During our council presidency, we want to embark on new, more innovative paths. By the middle of the century, 2 billion people will be living in Africa. As such, we want to strengthen economic cooperation, create channels for private investment and establish vocational training programs for young people. We hope to take a decisive step forward in December at an EU summit with African countries.

DER SPIEGEL: How is your current relationship with Italy? When it comes to migration, you hold similar views to Matteo Salvini , head of the far-right party Lega and Italy's interior minister. But Rome is now threatening to stop paying its EU contributions. What are your thoughts on that?

Kurz: I don't like such threats. But it is also clear that we cannot abandon those EU member states that are under pressure due to migration. In the last several years, countries like Germany, Austria and Sweden were more strongly affected by the refugee crisis. In the meantime, however, the pressure has become greater elsewhere.

DER SPIEGEL: In discussing the migration issue a couple of months ago, you spoke of the "Rome-Berlin-Vienna axis," a choice of words that for many evoked the relationship between Hitler's Germany and Mussolini's Italy. Do you regret your choice of words?

Kurz: Historically, it was only the Berlin-Rome axis, but it is true that my observation upset some people. On the other hand, hardly anybody took note recently when there was discussion of a Germany-Spain axis. The word axis is part of my normal vocabulary. Honestly, I don't want it taken from me by the National Socialists. I am happy to engage in a discussion on the issues, but I will not allow myself or Austria to be accused of being far right.

DER SPIEGEL: You have repeatedly become involved in German domestic politics. Recently, you spoke to an audience of over 3,000 people at an event held by Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in Thuringia. Are you going to help out the Christian Social Union (CSU), the CDU's Bavarian sister party, ahead of upcoming elections in the state?

Kurz: I have a lot of friends in Germany. The CDU and CSU are our sister parties. Of course, I am happy to help if I have time and my presence is welcome. I do the same for the South Tyrolean People's Party in Italy. I don't see a problem with it. Why does everything I do get so overblown?

DER SPIEGEL: It's just that it has been 70 years since we in Germany have had a speaker from Austria who has attracted so much attention. And for some conservatives in Germany, you are a hero because in spring 2016, you helped close the Balkan route over Merkel's objections.

Kurz: The German politician with whom I have the most contact is Angela Merkel. We have extremely similar views on most issues. Even on the migration issue, there is now much more agreement than conflict.

DER SPIEGEL: In the dispute between Merkel and German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer of the CSU over whether to turn asylum-seekers back at the border, you sided with Seehofer, who ultimately lost the argument. Did that bother you?


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 37/2018 (September 8th, 2018) of DER SPIEGEL.

Kurz: You have a completely different view than I do. I don't stand on one side or the other. Rather, I try to do what I feel is right. The debate between the CDU and CSU was not one that Austria could ignore. The government in Berlin came extremely close to an agreement that would have placed the burden on other countries, including Austria. That is something we could not and cannot accept and I made that clear to both Mrs. Merkel and Mr. Seehofer.

DER SPIEGEL: You maintain good relationships with countries like Hungary and the Czech Republic, neither of which want to accept any migrants at all. Do you think you can change their stance as European Council president?

Kurz: The question bothers me. I don't have better or worse relations with the Visegrád States than I do with other EU member states. I am in favor of not drawing a distinction between the good North and the bad South, the reputable West and the disreputable East. When Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán visited me -- after I had already met with Dutch Prime Minister Rutte, Chancellor Merkel and President Macron -- there was a huge outcry. How volatile must the mood in Europe be if it is considered abnormal to stay in contact with one's neighbors? Austria is a country at the heart of Europe. My most important goal as council president is that of filling in the chasms that have opened up.

DER SPIEGEL: How exactly do you intend to do that? When you meet with Orbán, do you address his polemics targeting the foundation belonging to Jewish financier Georg Soros?

Kurz: Of course. There can be no compromises when it comes to the rule of law and democracy, that is the foundation of our European idea. But it is important that we avoid distinguishing between first- and second-class member states. The discussion should remain focused and respectful at all times.

DER SPIEGEL: Regarding the issue of the future lead candidates for the office of European Commission president, do you think Germany's Manfred Weber, the CSU politician who recently threw his hat into the ring, is the right person for the job?

Kurz: I know him and have high regard for him. He is a dedicated European who has made a significant contribution to the European Union as a whole.

DER SPIEGEL: At the informal EU summit on Sept. 20 in Salzburg, Brexit will be the main topic of conversation, not migration. Does that fit with your agenda?

Kurz: I hope that we are able to make some progress on Brexit. The most important challenge during the Austrian council presidency is the orderly preparation of Brexit. Should Britain's exit be messy, it would result in massive harm to both sides, including us in the EU-27. It would be good if in Salzburg we already had a European Commission proposal for finding an agreement with Britain this fall.

DER SPIEGEL: Your coalition partner, the right-wing populist Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), has repeatedly drawn negative attention to itself. There were accusations of alcoholism directed at European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and messages of solidarity with Italian Deputy Prime Minister Salvini. Why don't you call them to order?

Kurz: I am the chancellor and not the chief commentator. I try to avoid belittling others. Unfortunately in Austria, there have been repeated verbal indiscretions from different parties. Swastikas were daubed on the walls of homes belonging to parliamentarians and grave candles set up outside.

DER SPIEGEL: Are you alarmed?

Kurz: No, things are still in check. Incidents such as the one in Chemnitz are unimaginable in Austria. Our history, when compared to the different developments that took place in East and West Germany, is completely different.

DER SPIEGEL: Is it true that you have a 10-year plan aimed at leading Austria back to the top of the EU?

Kurz: We have a clear goal of returning to the top.

DER SPIEGEL: That implies that Austria used to be at the top?

Kurz: Ten years ago, it was said in the media that Austria was the better Germany. We were the country with the lowest unemployment and healthy economic growth. We have fallen back since then, but now, we are once again experiencing a positive dynamic. Our economy is growing at a rate of 3.2 percent, unemployment is constantly dropping, and foreign direct investment has reached unprecedented heights in some areas. Just think of the billion-euro investment by Infineon. Furthermore, we are working hard to reduce the tax burden on working people. We recently implemented a much larger pension increase than has been seen in the recent past. At the same time, we have been able to get by without taking on new debt for the first time in 60 years.

DER SPIEGEL: But that has come at a cost. Cuts have been made to social welfare and to employment programs and there is less money available for the integration of the long-term unemployed. Even within your conservative camp, there has been some criticism of your social policies.

Kurz: I believe that good social policy leads to people having more money for their lives and not when the state has as much as possible to distribute. Of course we are implementing reforms that have been met with criticism, but without them, returning to the top would not be possible.

DER SPIEGEL: For the last six months, all of your country's intelligence agencies have been under the control of the FPÖ, a party that maintains close ties with Russia. What is your reaction to reports that Western intelligence agencies no longer see Vienna as a trustworthy partner?

Kurz: I haven't yet received any indication to that effect from the Germans or from the other governments.

DER SPIEGEL: The curtsy performed by Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl to Russian President Vladimir, who was a guest at her wedding, will not likely have increased the confidence of your European partners. Did that bother you?

Kurz: The decision to invite Putin to the wedding was one made by the bridal couple. Our political stance on Russia has not changed. The sanctions were only just extended in June, a decision that we naturally supported. Nevertheless, after the wedding I had a working meeting with the Russian president.

DER SPIEGEL: What was the result?

Kurz: That I am able to keep two things separate. The first is the necessary response to a violation of international law and to Russian aggression. The second is the necessity of keeping dialogue channels open. And that is what we are doing. Because there will only be peace on our continent with Russia, not against it.

DER SPIEGEL: At Ukraine's expense?

Kurz: Positive relations with Ukraine are just as important to us. I just reaffirmed that to President Petro Poroshenko in Kiev.

DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Chancellor, we thank you very much for this interview.

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