VIENNA, April 14 (Reuters) - Austrian Foreign Minister Maria Fekter has declared a victory in her lonely battle with the other 26 European Union countries to maintain her country’s banking secrecy and avoid reporting foreigners’ accounts to their tax authorities.
Dismissing suggestions that her position had left Austria under pressure and isolated, the woman who has vowed to “fight like a lion” to defend the country’s banking rules insisted she had emerged on top in weekend talks with EU partners.
“I can even report a success,” she told the Oesterreich paper, because her counter-call to shed more light on opaque offshore trusts elsewhere was now part of an initiative by big EU countries to crack down on cross-border tax cheats.
It was a typically self-assured performance by Fekter, who described herself once as “the only man in the Austrian government”.
She has a reputation for speaking out when others hold their tongues. Her frankness about the euro zone crisis has upset some important men such as Italy’s prime minister and the former head of the Eurogroup club of euro zone finance ministers.
She has developed a thick skin in rising from small-town politics to become Austria’s most powerful woman.
“I have been in Austrian national politics for 22 years, and you learn how to deal with criticism ... sometimes very invidious criticism,” she told Reuters in an interview last year. “You are treated more brutally as a woman than men would be, but I can deal with this.”
Fekter, 57, sits on the right of her conservative People’s Party, junior partner in a testy coalition with Chancellor Werner Faymann’s Social Democrats. There is no love lost between Fekter and Faymann, who has said he is ready to discuss sharing data on foreigners’ accounts.
She wants to be remembered for whipping Austria’s finances into shape, reforming taxes and helping stabilise the euro zone, in part via bailouts of laggards that have earned her the enmity of Austria’s far-right opposition.
Her straight talk has turned up the volume of Austria’s voice in European politics. And with elections due by September she will be a major campaigner for the conservatives, one who is already sometimes touted in media as a possible leader of the People’s Party.
She has a track record of speaking out of turn or undiplomatically, though she often complains that opponents misquote her or deliberately take her comments out of context.
Last June she told a TV interviewer that Italy might need a bailout because of its high borrowing costs, a comment that Prime Minister Mario Monti called “completely inappropriate”.
She suggested last year that Greece’s problems could force it out of the European Union, and infuriated then-Eurogroup chief Jean Claude Juncker - who chaired meetings of euro zone finance ministers that she attends - by briefing media on a deal to raise the bloc’s financial firewall before he announced it.
She later apologised, then complicated things by saying Juncker was upset because he was suffering from kidney stones, a comment Austrian media criticised as an invasion of his privacy.
The incidents made Brussels officials joke about being “Fektered”, while a Munich newspaper dubbed her the “witch of the south”.
She became the star of the EU finance ministers’ talks in Dublin on Friday and Saturday, single-handedly shaping the debate.
“The Austrian woman is well able to answer for herself. If you want to put a question to Maria, Maria will answer you,” Irish Finance Minister Michael Noonan told one news conference.
Maria Theresia Mayr was born in Attnang-Puchheim, a small town in the largely rural province of Upper Austria, to a well-off family with a gravel and construction materials business. She acknowledges being a rambunctious child, the only girl in a pack of brothers and boy cousins.
Fekter’s plans to study art changed abruptly when her older brother died in a car accident and the family turned to her as the next generation to run the business. She studied law and business to prepare and became managing partner in 1986, gaining real-world experience she often cites in policy debates.
That was the same year she entered local politics. Four years later she was elected to parliament, quickly becoming a state secretary for tourism in the economy ministry.
She thrives on rubbing shoulders with voters, her folksy style shining through when her standard German lapses into broad regional dialect as she warms to a subject in speeches.
“She has a very direct manner that sometimes is a great advantage. She does not pretend. Or you can put it more negatively and say she is not very diplomatic,” long-time friend Terezija Stoisits from the opposition Greens party has said.
Even political opponents say Fekter is a straight shooter, able to cut deals with a handshake and then back them up.
Fekter says her ability to grasp complex issues, strip them down to the essentials and present them in clear terms is what makes her a popular interview subject for the media.
She made the comment about being the only man in the Austrian cabinet after getting an invitation to an event addressed to “Herr Fekter”. She never appears in public with the real Herr Fekter, husband Martin, and rarely with their grown daughter.
Made interior minister in 2008, she took a hard line on crime and immigration, helping to stake out her party’s line in the face of a resurgent right wing, and became Austria’s first female finance minister in 2011 when her predecessor resigned due to illness.
It is a job she says she relishes, letting her shape things like former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who died on Monday and whom Fekter admired as a gutsy reformer and rare example of a successful woman in politics.
“The political philosophy of Margaret Thatcher appealed to me so much because she really changed Britain and transformed it from an ailing country into an economic power,” she has said.