Sebastian Kurz Remaking Europe's Future From Dark Past

Young Austrians see themselves in their 32-year-old chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, a conservative populist with big ambitions. In championing him, they also flirt with the country’s dangerous past.
Critics of Kurz warn that his slick manner and appearance—likened by one young Vienna resident to American Psycho's Patrick Bateman—is blinding fans to his real goal: eroding parliamentary democracy.
FE_Austria_01_861653134_B&W Source: VLADIMIR SIMICEK/AFP/Getty

May 2017, when Sebastian Kurz took control of the center-right Austrian People’s Party (OVP), he remade it in his image. Lest the world ­underestimate the significance of this, the 32-year-old ­rebranded the OVP as the Sebastian Kurz List–New People’s ­Party. ­Seven months later the conservative populist became Austria’s ­youngest-ever chancellor, in addition to the world’s first millennial head of state and, according to some analysts, the future of Europe.

Like other right-wing populists ascending to power in the European Union, the ambitious Kurz has pushed a hard-line immigration agenda in response to economic stagnation and the Syrian refugee crisis. But his youthful persona and political happenstance have elevated his status and his ideas far beyond Austria’s borders. His rise coincided with the transition of the EU presidency to Austria, a six-month term, ending in December, that has given him a platform to challenge the liberal order of Europe and its cherished tradition of open borders.

His tenure as EU president is not without controversy. Kurz’s official motto, “A Europe that protects,” is another way of saying “secure the continent’s borders.” He has the support of the openly xenophobic Freedom Party of Austria (FPO), as well as far-right leaders Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s prime minister, and Matteo Salvini, Italy’s deputy prime minister. Together, the three have proposed measures to control Europe’s borders, ­including establishing screening facilities for migrants ­outside the ­continent and returning those intercepted at sea to the country from which they came.

For the first time in 100 years, since the end of the Habsburg Empire—when Austria ruled much of Europe for close to 500 years—the country finds itself in a position of power. The economy is growing, and unemployment is down. In September, the neoliberal daily Die Presse praised Kurz’s appearance at the United Nations as a show of strength “from the new small superpower.” The newspaper lauded what it described as Kurz’s “speed dating”: meeting with

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