Leading lights - Issue 131 - Magazine | Monocle

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Austria is the European nation to watch in 2020. Long recognised for its soft-power assets – culture and tourism – it is the country’s domestic political experiment that is catching everyone’s attention. Despite being steeped in tradition, Austria takes a surprising number of risks and has more to teach the world about how to govern than you might think. Yes, in the past those risks have left the nation with a chequered history but it has just embarked on a new political experiment: one that delivers a governing coalition of conservatives and Greens. Here’s a primer on the players and what’s at stake.

The lonely centre
Somewhat ironically, Austria’s location at the very heart of Europe has left it with few natural political allies; it is torn between looking west to Brussels, east to Russia or reviving its former Habsburg power base in the middle. “Austria stands between the two blocks; it often sits very much alone in Brussels,” says Paul Luif, a professor of political science at the University of Vienna. “But the position of Austria is interesting. On the one hand, we don’t have any EU partners. On the other hand, we can potentially play an important role as a bridge builder.” The latter is a function that Austria has sought to interpret with varying degrees of success in recent decades and that its current chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, has hopes of reviving.

Youth over experience
“He’s a very young leader, I have to tell you,” said Donald Trump, then 72, during a meeting last year at the White House with Austria’s then 32-year-old chancellor, Kurz. “You are a young guy. That’s pretty good.” Kurz’s reply was telling. “The problem with age is getting better from day to day,” he said. Albeit in a Trumpian way, it was a moment of recognition. Kurz was the first Austrian leader invited to the White House in 13 years, thanks in no small part to his hardline views on immigration that have endeared him to the right and to central European leaders, while provoking consternation among his European partners.

But Kurz, the leader of Austria’s conservative People’s party, is no ordinary populist. Now 33, he remains the world’s youngest head of state, the country’s most popular politician and is already at the helm of his second government – this time in a coalition with the centre-left Greens. His cabinet is youthful, gender-balanced and has one of Europe’s most ambitious climate targets. Supporters view him as a savvy operator with his finger on the pulse of Austrian (and European) society; critics view him as little more than a political opportunist who follows where the polling wind blows.

One thing that everyone can agree on: he is not to be underestimated. Forced to end his first coalition government over a scandal that rocked the far-right Freedom party, last year Kurz’s led his People’s party to its best election result since 2002.

Conservatives going Green?
Can a Green party and a conservative party really govern together? “It’s an interesting experiment,” says Ulrike Lunacek, a former leader of Austria’s Greens and the country’s new secretary of state for culture. “We don’t know whether we will succeed in doing this for five years.” Austria’s Greens were the second biggest winners in the country’s federal elections last year; their willingness to reach a deal with Kurz’s conservatives has caught the attention of other European powers. So how did they reach an agreement? Essentially by leaving each other spheres of influence: Kurz gave the Greens free reign on climate policy, putting them in charge of a “super-ministry” for the environment, energy, transport and technology, and agreeing to an aim to become carbon neutral by 2040 – a more ambitious target than the EU’s.

In return the Greens accepted concessions in other areas, particularly on immigration policy where Kurz’s conservatives will continue to take the lead. “Most of our voters want us to be in government, even if they don’t like big parts of it,” says Lunacek. “We take our responsibilities seriously and, for us, the big part is the environment. That’s what made us win elections, and we have a responsibility.”

The power of culture
“Most of the money goes to contemporary artists and projects – not Mozart, not Schubert,” says Wolfgang Waldner, a diplomat and cultural attaché who served as Austria’s ambassador in Washington until November 2019. The trick is to be subtle about it. “We would host events with a classical programme and sandwich something progressive and experimental in between,” says Waldner.

Unlike the political moment it is now experiencing, this is one aspect of global diplomacy where Austria has always shined among European nations. Austria hosts thousands of cultural events a year across its network of embassies and nearly 30 cultural forums, making it something of what Waldner calls a “cultural superpower” around the world.

“We place more emphasis on soft power than hard power and we have the gift of a centuries-old tradition of culture,” says Michael Zimmermann, Austria’s ambassador to the UK. “For us, it’s important to show that support for arts and culture should be a given part of the state’s role. That is what our foreign cultural policy aims to communicate.”

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