IT WAS all smiles this week as Austria assumed the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union, one of the club’s law-making bodies. But behind the scenes Sebastian Kurz, Austria’s young chancellor, provokes knotted brows. Mr Kurz’s political identity, more than that of most other European leaders, is bound up with illegal immigration. Fans say his tough line, honed as foreign minister during the 2015-16 refugee crisis, blunts the appeal of the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), the junior coalition partner to his centre-right People’s Party. Foes say his shift towards harshness makes it hard to tell the difference between moderates and extremists. “Kurz is on a dangerous course,” said Jean Asselborn, Luxembourg’s foreign minister, this week.
In office for barely six months, Mr Kurz has made his share of enemies. Some detect a whiff of demagoguery. There have been mis-steps: a meeting with the Bavarian government, which raised eyebrows in Berlin; Mr Kurz’s call for a European “axis of the willing” against illegal immigration. Some salty language has surfaced in Austrian documents on the difficulties of integrating men from regions marked by “patriarchal…or backward-looking religious attitudes”. Even central European officials fear the Austrians sometimes go too far. “There’s a naked populism there,” shudders an EU official who has watched Mr Kurz in action.
That seems unfair. The well-coiffed Mr Kurz may have swallowed large parts of the FPÖ’s platform, but he never rails against elites or dabbles in George Soros conspiracy theories. Inside Austria, many see him more as opportunist than grand schemer. “I’m not sure Kurz has a strategy for Europe beyond trying to remain chancellor of Austria,” says Laurenz Ennser-Jedenastik of the University of Vienna. Yet all agree on his remarkably well-tuned political antennae. Mr Kurz detected earlier than his counterparts, such as Angela Merkel in Germany, that illegal immigration demanded a firm response from the mainstream right. “It’s not a question of left or right,” he told Charlemagne this week from his office in Vienna. “It’s just a question of rational politics.”
So it rather suits Mr Kurz that Austria takes the helm just as Europe’s migration headache has come thumping back. At a summit last week the EU’s heads of government again agreed to try to overcome their long-running differences over how to share responsibility for asylum-seekers who reach Europe. In its new role the Austrian government must try to broker a deal, but it has no faith that it will find the breakthrough that eluded so many others. Instead Herbert Kickl, the interior minister and an FPÖ member, has urged a “Copernican revolution” in asylum policy. And there is a model. “We have to learn from Australia,” says Mr Kurz.
To simplify a bit, following the Australian model means doing two things. First, taking tough action along borders, at sea and “upstream” (inside Africa) to slash the number of asylum-seekers smuggled to Europe. Second, striking deals with poorer countries to establish camps, run with UN agencies, to receive, detain and, eventually, return migrants. Thwarting smuggling, the argument goes, would reduce drownings at sea (over 1,000 have died this year), and reassure voters who might otherwise be tempted by the far right. A bit of theatre helps, too; in June the Austrians sent police and troops to the Slovenian border to stage an exercise in pushing back refugees. Says one Austrian official, “80% of the work has to be calming down others.”
The summit gestured in this direction by proposing “disembarkation platforms” for migrants saved at sea. Mr Kurz calls it a “milestone”. But among many unanswered questions was whether such migrants would then be able to apply for asylum in the EU. The Austrians insist that they must not. Otherwise the centres would become magnets for fresh migrants from across Africa—irritating the countries that must be persuaded to host them.
Fortress Europe, then? If so, it has a gate. Once order at the borders has been restored and voters reassured, genuine refugees may be selected for resettlement by EU countries via the UN’s refugee agency—albeit in far smaller numbers than in 2015-16. “It’s much more humanitarian to help those really in need than those who are able to pay for a smuggler,” says Mr Kurz. Even the central Europeans, who refuse to accept refugees redistributed inside the EU, might play along if they can choose them from outside.
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Control first; then generosity. It is an alluring thought. Europe’s model, in which asylum is reserved mainly for people who somehow reach its territory, guarantees smuggling and drowning. Conversely, Australia resettles proportionally more refugees via the UNHCR than almost any other country. It also admits huge numbers of economic migrants. But it should not be a model for Europe. It pays Nauru and Papua New Guinea to house its asylum-seekers in grim “offshore processing” camps. Convincing African countries to do something similar would require cannier diplomacy than the EU can muster, combining trade, migration, visa and development tools. Italy’s previous government was getting there with Libya, but at questionable humanitarian cost.
Mr Kurz matters because Europe’s divided governments are desperately groping for a solution to their immigration problems that falls short of the full Australia. Yet their domestic politics are pushing them to demand ever tougher action, even as asylum applications and border crossings fall. This leaves the EU flailing around with a mishmash of policies that tread a fine line between politics, international law and operational reality. Each step gradually erodes Europe’s territorial principle for asylum.
There is a curious symmetry to this. Mr Kurz brought far-right ideas into the Austrian mainstream to keep the parties that originally peddled them away from the top table. Now his European counterparts are adopting elements of his migration proposals in the hope that they will forestall something much more brutal. They assume that this remains possible. It may not be.