Austrian Foreign Minister Kurz 'Europe's Values Cannot Be Negotiable'
At 29, Austria's Sebastian Kurz is the world's youngest foreign minister. He speaks with SPIEGEL about the rise of the far right in his country and Europe, the immigrant crisis and the dangers of dependence on Turkey.
SPIEGEL: Foreign Minister Kurz, in recent weeks, the entire world has been watching Austria, which is rather rare. How does it feel?
Kurz: It depends on the occasion. We are not always totally happy about how we are portrayed.
SPIEGEL: In recent presidential elections, almost 50 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots for Norbert Hofer, the candidate of the right-wing populist Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ). This came as a shock for many people in Europe. Do you have an explanation?
Kurz: Yes, and it is not as simple as the one that is sometimes given. There is, first of all, a serious dissatisfaction with the government and with the political system, in part because important reforms are not taking place. The second main reason is the refugee crisis. In Austria last year, we had 90,000 asylum applicants -- the second-largest per capita figure in all European countries. There was a phase of uncontrolled influx into Europe. Many politicians tried to tell the people that this is not a problem in terms of security or integration. Both led to a strengthening of right-wing populist parties, which is not purely an Austrian phenomenon.
SPIEGEL: Even you, a conservative, had to choose between a representative of the Green Party and one from the FPÖ in the May 22 vote. Which one did you vote for?
Kurz: I made my choice responsibly as a citizen.
SPIEGEL: You don't want to say?
Kurz: The elections were free and democratic, and any result would have to be accepted.
SPIEGEL: Why did your party, the Austrian People's Party (ÖVP), not issue any endorsement?
Kurz: Both governing parties, the Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) and the ÖVP, decided not to make any endorsements for the runoff. Many people believe a recommendation from the government may even have harmed its recipient.
SPIEGEL: German Deputy Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, a member of the Social Democrats, recommended that Austrians not vote for Hofer. Was that a welcome endorsement?
Kurz: Commentators say that, at best, Sigmar Gabriel's advice was welcomed by Hofer because it actually may have driven some voters toward him (laughs). Jokes aside, I believe the interest from across Europe to be a positive thing.
SPIEGEL: Now, for the first time, you have a Green Party head of state in the form of Alexander Van der Bellen. What are your expectations?
Kurz: I expect that he will fulfill his role in a very dignified manner.
SPIEGEL: Your ministry had made preparations in anticipation of having to explain Hofer's election outside the country. Is the FPÖ representative a politician whom Austria must apologize for?
Kurz: For us, it was about answering potential questions. They were, of course, to be expected. We would have explained that the election was fair and democratic -- regardless whether one likes the result or not.
SPIEGEL: Austrian writer Robert Menasse says that people who support FPÖ head Heinz-Christian Strache are "patriots who don't know that they're fascists."
Kurz: I do not see the use in insulting half of Austrians as fascists and idiots. It is not just our country that has shifted to the right. More and more people in the middle are unhappy. Clearly the established parties have, for a long time, thought it to be a matter of course they would get elected.
SPIEGEL: Have the traditional mainstream parties in Austria run out of steam, along with the decades-long model of a Grand Coalition, placing the ÖVP and the SPÖ in a government together?
Kurz: You would probably like me to draw conclusions about the future of the Grand Coalition (between the center-left Social Democrats and the conservative Christian Democrats) in Germany. I cannot say anything about that. In practice in Austria, the model has become ever more unpopular in the last few years, because both parties have obstructed each other on important issues. But the change in chancellor to Christian Kern provides an opportunity. It will probably be the last one.
SPIEGEL: There is discomfort not only with established parties, but also with the European project across the entire Continent. Was Austria a precursor, so to speak, with this election?
Kurz: Yes, of course. When we look at the situation in the EU, we need to honestly admit that it desperately needs to develop further, that we need to strengthen it when it comes to the bigger questions -- and allow member nations to make more decisions about the smaller questions themselves.
SPIEGEL: More direct responsibility at the national level is one of the FPÖ's main demands.
Kurz: Then you can also accuse me of sharing the opinion of European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, who is also in favor of this. I would like to have a Europe that has a strong foreign and defense policy, ensures economic growth and is active in addressing the issues of the refugee crisis. But perhaps not one that imposes new regulations on allergens that requires food menus to be changed everywhere. When that happens, it creates the feeling that the wrong priorities are being set.
SPIEGEL: Is Austria a divided country?
Kurz: Right now, we should be filling in the divides -- and doing so by taking people's existing concerns seriously. We in Austria have always had lots of immigration. But when one starts, as happened in Europe last year, to open the borders and to transport people northwards as fast as possible, then of course it's not just Syrians who come. People from all around the world then see their chance to quickly come to Europe.
SPIEGEL: Austria reacted by closing the western Balkan route.
Kurz: That was overdue. There was massive resistance to our plans. But I think it has now been recognized that it was the right step.
SPIEGEL: In Berlin too?
Kurz: I have regular contact with German ministers and parliamentarians, and have received very positive feedback.
SPIEGEL: The German chancellor and the interior minister complained at the time about Austria "going it alone."
Kurz: It wasn't a case of "going it alone." It was a regional measure, coordinated with our neighboring states.
SPIEGEL: In Germany, some insinuated that Austria was reverting to the imperial era and throwing its weight around as a regional power in its former sphere of influence.
Kurz: We are neither a regional power nor are the Balkans our sphere of influence. These are self-confident countries. We should be particularly thankful to Macedonia, a country that has taken on a very difficult task without profiting from it. Quite to the contrary: Instead of praise, there was criticism from the international media. The reason for our decision was that we were being massively overstretched -- we had to stop the influx. Whether that also had a positive impact in Germany, that judgment must be made there.
SPIEGEL: Did you have the feeling you were doing the Germans' work on their behalf, and then being scolded for it?
Kurz: If you put it that way yourself, then I, of course, don't have to (laughs). We have, thank God, a very good relationship with the German government. There were resentments, but they've been resolved. Germany is the strongest player and Angela Merkel is the strongest government leader in the EU.
SPIEGEL: What was the primary reason for the decrease in refugee numbers: the agreement with Turkey or the closing of the Balkan route?
Kurz: We should not set off individual achievements against each other. The closing of the western Balkan route, however, was a considerable contribution. Even the Greek foreign minister recently admitted as much. It has become less attractive for people to make their way to Europe. Working together with Turkey can be a further building block. It may be able to create short-term relief. But I also warn against us relying on the Turkey deal. Otherwise we may ultimately be left in the lurch.
SPIEGEL: Are you afraid that Europe is making itself dependent on Turkey?
Kurz: The Turkey deal can only be Plan B. Plan A needs to be a strong Europe that is prepared to defend its external borders on its own. If we do not do that, then we are living in a Europe that is dependent -- on other countries, and possibly even on personalities like President Erdogan. And dependency is dangerous.
SPIEGEL: Control of the external EU border is a nice catchphrase, but how is that supposed to work, for example, off the Libyan coast?
Kurz: The people need to be rescued, but that cannot be packaged with a ticket to Central Europe. That only promotes the influx. We need to become active as fast as possible in Libyan waters, so that the people cannot even embark for Italy.
SPIEGEL: What would be the alternative to the deal with Turkey?
Kurz: The issue is, first of all, joint protection of the EU's external borders. Secondly, more humanitarian aid is needed (in the areas where the flight originates), so that living conditions there improve. And thirdly, we should say clearly: It is we in Europe, and not the human traffickers, who decide whom we take in. Whoever wants to enter illegally has forfeited their chance. At the same time, countries like Austria and Germany are declaring themselves willing to bring some of the poorest of the poor to Europe through resettlement programs. The decision cannot merely benefit the young men who are fit enough to withstand the journey. We do not have to immediately grant someone who arrives in Lesbos the right to move into an apartment in Berlin. Once we communicate that message, Europe will become significantly less attractive.
SPIEGEL: How do you know that?
Kurz: I am also integration minister and speak with many refugees. When I ask if they came with the goal of living in Greece or Poland, most of them answer "no."
SPIEGEL: Is the Turkey deal actually working in practical terms? So far only a few hundred people have been sent one way or the other.
Kurz: Chancellor Merkel got Turkey to cooperate through perseverance. There has at least been a serious effort on the Turkish side to prevent people from setting off for Europe. Recently, only about 100 people have been arriving in Greece per day. Last year, it was several thousand daily at times. This effort can, however, also very quickly dwindle.
SPIEGEL: Political developments in Turkey are worrisome. The immunity of lawmakers was recently lifted. Is this a result of the deal -- because Erdogan now has free rein?
Kurz: Not a result of the deal, but a matter of fact. How we deal with it is crucial. Europe's fundamental values cannot be negotiable. Keyword visa-liberalization: There cannot be any exceptions for Turkey either.
SPIEGEL: Erdogan is threatening to terminate the agreement, which creates the impression that he is pushing the Europeans around.
Kurz: If we Europeans are not in a state to be able to solve the refugee crisis ourselves, if we only depend on Plan B with Turkey -- then that is not simply an impression, it is the truth. But Europe cannot be susceptible to blackmail or be weak. I am, in any case, not in favor of having a deal with Turkey at any price.
SPIEGEL: Turkey is refusing to reform its anti-terror law. Do you think that the liberalization of visa regulations will still take place this year?
Kurz: That depends. I have gotten the sense in the last year that developments when it comes to human rights are very alarming. In the long term, it needs to be in our interest to have a Turkey in which human rights are respected. Anything else would mean destabilization right on our border. If we look away, the developments in Turkey will constantly get worse.
SPIEGEL: Is your warning also aimed at Angela Merkel?
Kurz: No, I do not mean the German chancellor. I mean all of us, we Europeans. We need to show the necessary strength together.
SPIEGEL: Could the Turkish model be repeated in an African country -- that governments demand money in exchange for stopping migrants?
Kurz: Of course.
SPIEGEL: It looks likely that the upper ceiling Austria has established for the number of asylum applicants it wants to accept each year will be reached this autumn. Then what?
Kurz: Then it will be necessary to turn people back at the Austrian border.
SPIEGEL: Will Austria close the Brenner Pass if a growing number of refugees arrive from Italy?
Kurz: We would like to avoid having to do inspections at the Brenner Pass. That would also be difficult for us for emotional reasons, because of the connection to South Tyrol.
SPIEGEL: Now, at the age of 29, you have already been in government for five years and are seen as the only person who can still save your party, the faltering ÖVP. Why aren't you grabbing the reins and reaching for power, as the new party head or as a candidate for chancellor?
Kurz: That is a non-issue, because we have a party chairman and deputy chancellor in the form of Reinhold Mitterlehner. He has my full support.
SPIEGEL: In 2000, your party formed a coalition government with the right-wing populist FPÖ under the leadership of Wolfgang Schüssel. Would you rule out a repeat?
Kurz: The candidate from the FPÖ just received almost 50 percent of the votes. If they do half as well during the next parliamentary election, it may no longer be possible to have a coalition without the FPÖ. At the moment, I cannot rule out any coalition, whether it is one between the SPÖ and the FPÖ, or the ÖVP and FPÖ or one that is a purely FPÖ government -- but I will work to ensure that things to do not go that far.
SPIEGEL: Foreign Minister Kurz, we thank you for this interview.