On Wednesday, the White House will host one of Europe’s rising political stars; the 32-year-old Chancellor of Austria, Sebastian Kurz.
Since becoming head of state after a knife-edge election in 2017, Kurz has endeared himself to conservatives around the globe with his youthful charm and vehement opposition to the European Union’s immigration policies. Richard Grenell, Trump’s ambassador to Germany, described Kurz as a “rock star” in a 2018 interview with the far-right publication Breitbart. For the second half of 2018, Austria —and thereby Kurz — assumed the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union.
Beneath the charm and accolades, however, rests far darker traits that make Kurz an ideal European ally for Donald Trump. Namely, his rampant Islamaphobia and a power-sharing agreement with the far-right Austrian Freedom Party (FPO), which has enabled the far-right to inject their ideas into the mainstream of Austrian politics.
In order to establish a governing majority after the 2017 elections, Kurz’s conservative People’s Party (OVP) partnered with the FPO, led by Heinz-Christian Strache, a former neo-Nazi and now vice-Chancellor who reformed the FPO to focus against immigration and Islam.
In its online manifesto, for instance, the FPO notes that “Austria is not a country of immigration” and that “the privilege of status as a public body shall be reserved for religious communities who acknowledge the separation of church and state.” In 2017, Strache called for an Austrian law to ban “fascistic Islam”, saying that otherwise “we Austrians, we Europeans will come to an abrupt end.”
The ruling coalition has adopted Strache’s mindset. In June 2018, the Austrian coalition shut down seven mosques and expelled dozens of imams who they accused of being funded by foreign powers. “This is just the beginning,” Kurz said at the time. “Political Islam’s parallel societies and radicalizing tendencies have no place in our country.”
Meanwhile within the FPO, there have been multiple scandals showing the extent to which far-right sentiment is thriving within the coalition. Last March, an employee of the Austrian embassy in Israel was recalled after posting a picture of himself online wearing a T-Shirt with a Nazi tank division name. FPO members were also sent pictures of Hitler by a local party chairman in the west of the country. In February 2018, a local FPO official was forced to resign after it emerged he’d led a fraternity which distributed songbooks about killing Jews.
These incidents are not isolated either. From 2013 to 2017, the Mauthausen Committee, a group which seeks to educate people about the horrors of the Mauthausen concentration camp, noted 60 cases of far-right activity within the party, including anti-Semitism, racism and Nazi sympathizing.
“It is no surprise that the FPO is adhering to its far-right course despite entering a government coalition,” Willi Mernyi, chairman of Mauthausen Committee Austria, said in wake of the elections in 2017. “What is surprising is the record speed with which they are delivering the initial proof.”
As ThinkProgress has previously noted, the FPO is also increasingly aligned with Russia. In 2016 it signed a cooperation pact with United Russia, the political party of Vladimir Putin, and several FPO politicians have also appeared on Russia Today, the state-controlled television network. In August 2018, as if to further emphasize the increased coziness between Russia and Austria, Vladimir Putin was a guest at the wedding of Austria’s foreign minister Karin Kneissl.
The anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies of Kurz’s government will undoubtedly have fans within the Trump White House and their allies on Capitol Hill. For his part, white supremacist Representative Steve King (R-IA) has made frequent trips to the country, and gave an extensive interview to an Austrian far-right TV channel in which he outlined his white nationalist beliefs. Coupled with the simmering far-right sympathies within Kurz’s coalition, this week’s trip is a clear indication that neither he nor his government are merely a fresh-faced vessel of conservatism.