Austrian Coalition Puts Europe’s Human Rights Values to the Test

December 20, 2017 – Over the weekend, Austria’s radical populist right Freedom Party (FPÖ) became part of the governing coalition, gaining control of the interior, foreign, and defense ministries. The last time the party joined a coalition, Austria’s government was shunned by its European partners and threatened with European Union sanctions. This time the reaction has been muted, perhaps because radical right populism in European politics is increasingly accepted as the norm.

What will the FPÖ’s impact on law and policy be? It is already clear that the coalition’s five-year government program will likely pose serious challenges for the human rights values at Europe’s heart.

Sebastian Kurz, Austria’s new Chancellor and leader of the centre right Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), the senior partner in the coalition, travelled to Brussels yesterday to meet with EU leadership. The choice of destination for his first trip is supposed to symbolize the new Austrian government’s commitment to the EU.

But the EU needs clear leadership that respects rights in asylum, migration, integration, and security policy. It is far from clear whether Austria, which will assume the rotating presidency of the European Council in mid-2018, will contribute in that way.

On migration, Austria’s new government proposes that, instead of being admitted to Europe, migrants and refugees rescued at sea should be sent to processing centers outside Europe. In other words, they will not be brought first to a place of safety, as the law of the sea requires. Kurz has previously pushed an agenda to replicate Australia’s odious refugee-processing model – by outsourcing responsibility for asylum seekers to Libya. Clearly, Austria’s mainstream ÖVP is part of the problem; this isn’t just about the FPÖ’s influence.

Under what the new government terms, “the fight against political Islam,” it proposes measures to close kindergartens, schools, and cultural institutions associated with types of Islam the government considers alien to Austrian values. It also proposes “sanctions” against immigrants who fail to integrate with Austrian culture.

This anti-immigrant sentiment is closer to the positions taken by the “Visegrád Group” – a bloc made up of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia – than the founding values of the EU.

Europe’s leaders and institutions should be vigilant about the potential threat to the Union posed by new Austrian government policies. Europe should stand up for rights of minorities and migrants, including through legal enforcement action if necessary. After all, it’s the values of equality, dignity, and respect that are the glue holding the Union together.