Kurz, 27, puts fresh face on Austrian foreign policy

VIENNA Tue Dec 17, 2013 1:06pm EST

Newly appointed Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz attends a session of the parliament during the presentation of the new government in Vienna December 17, 2013. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

Newly appointed Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz attends a session of the parliament during the presentation of the new government in Vienna December 17, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Leonhard Foeger

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VIENNA (Reuters) - Sebastian Kurz, who became Europe's youngest foreign minister this week at the age of 27, hopes to refresh Austria's stuffy image and present it as a modern country open to the world

His appointment may also help the centrist coalition government revamp its own image after barely scraping a combined majority from voters weary of the status quo in September elections, in which the new youth-oriented Neos scored surprisingly well.

The conservative People's Party (OVP), which shares power with the center-left Social Democrats, surprised the political establishment by handing the job to Kurz - a rising star who made a name for himself as state secretary in charge of integrating the migrant community.

But the appointment of the youngest Austrian minister in the history of the second republic, established after World War II, drew opposition fire.

"When Mr Kurz becomes foreign minister without any diplomatic experience, you have to be amazed. This is the continuation of Austria's farewell to foreign policy," right-wing leader Heinz Christian Strache told parliament on Tuesday.

Kurz, who won the most direct votes of any member of parliament in the election, took the blows.

"It's true, of course. Due to my age I have limited experience and of course hardly any diplomatic experience. But what I bring is lots of diligence, energy and the desire to contribute something," he told Reuters.

The new foreign minister, who sports a swept-back mane of brown hair and usually shuns a tie, now enters a new world of international relations.

Kurz hit the phones shortly after his nomination last week.

He held talks with the foreign ministry's chief of staff into the early hours of Friday on how to tackle the challenges ahead, but missed a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels so he could be sworn in on Monday.

He spoke that day to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to set up a meeting at a security conference early next year.

YOUTH WING

Kurz said he has been politically active from age 10. He joined the OVP's youth wing in Vienna in 2003 and after a year of mandatory military service became its head in 2009, pushing local issues such as demanding a round-the-clock subway service.

Elected to Vienna's city council in 2010, he focused on generational fairness and ensuring pensions.

Integrating foreigners into Austrian society has been his defining project since a 2011 cabinet reshuffle brought him into the government as a state secretary, a position below minister.

Initially greeted with skepticism, he is now widely seen as a hands-on politician with concrete ideas including requiring an extra pre-school year for children with poor German skills.

Kurz, who says he still lives in the same flat in a working-class Vienna district he had before joining the government, says he will not let his new role go to his head.

"This is a big step but it doesn't at all mean that my circle of friends or my approach to life will change. I will certainly be the same guy that I am," said Kurz, who has been likened to Klemens von Metternich, who was 36 when he became foreign minister of the Austrian empire in 1809.

Many Austrian university students are only finishing their degrees at age 27, but one ministry official noted that Alexander the Great had conquered Persia by that age.

"It's a management job and you have guys of that age running companies of several billion dollars, so why not a thousand-member ministry?" the official asked.

(Editing by Pravin Char)

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