BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Seventeen winters ago, the European Union offered a very cold shoulder to a chancellor who brought Austria’s far right into government, and some EU leaders even spoke of boycotting Tyrolean ski resorts in protest.
On Monday, the strong chance Sebastian Kurz’s centre-right will invite the Freedom Party back into a Vienna coalition raised barely a murmur in Brussels. That said something about how the FPO has moved from its neo-Nazi past and a lot about how the rest of Europe has shifted rightward, especially on immigration.
An Austrian government led by a man who campaigned on tough border policies and featuring the FPO would, two years ago, have been “an earthquake” for Europe, a senior EU official said.
Now, following the crisis of 2015-16 in which over a million refugees and others came by sea to Greece and Italy, often then reaching Germany via Austria, critics of open doors have shifted Europe their way. Said another Brussels insider: “They’ve built the theatre that we are all playing in now.”
A hard-nosed deal with Turkey to hold back Syrian refugees, tougher action on detaining and deporting failed asylum seekers, scaling back rescue boats and cooperation with Libyan forces have contributed to a substantial fall in new arrivals.
In Germany, where fellow travellers of the FPO damaged Chancellor Angela Merkel in an election last month, her bold welcome for refugees in 2015 has given way to support for ramped up border defences.
Congratulating the 31-year-old Kurz on Sunday’s election victory, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker alluded to concern about a eurosceptic government in Vienna.
The Brussels chief executive wished him success in forming a “stable, pro-European government”. Juncker’s spokesman would not say that the Commission was pressing Kurz to shun the FPO, as EU leaders did when Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel formed a coalition with the party then led by Joerg Haider in 2000.
That February, nearly 18 years ago, Juncker as prime minister of Luxembourg was among the 14 EU leaders who barely spoke to Schuessel or his ministers for six months and later revised EU treaties to create powers to suspend renegade member states.
There were harsh words. Belgium’s foreign minister - father of its current premier Charles Michel - called on people not to take winter holidays in Austria. Yet current Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders was one of many attending an EU meeting who politely congratulated their absent young Austrian colleague and said they looked forward to working with his new government.
None so much as mentioned those suspension powers which the EU gave itself after their failure to change Schuessel’s mind.
Fellow ministers chorused on Kurz’s pro-EU credentials. His party colleague Johannes Hahn, who holds Austria’s seat on Juncker’s Commission said that whatever government Kurz formed would have “a very pro-European agenda because all the major political parties are very much committed to the European Union”.
That reflects a shift in the FPO under Heinz-Christian Strache. He has toned down hostility to the EU and distanced the party from anti-Semitism while criticising Islam.
It took the far-left leader in the European Parliament to offer anything but a mild reaction. Gabi Zimmer said the vote should “strike fear into everyone” and accused Kurz of espousing “bigotry and prejudices” to beat a party led by a “neo-Nazi”.
But Kurz faces a Europe very different from the one that ostracised Schuessel. Power has shifted to fellow conservatives, compared to 2000, when governments including those of Germany, France, Britain and Italy were in the hands of the left.
EU enlargement to the ex-communist east has brought in many more leaders, such as in Poland and Hungary, who are open in their hostility to immigration, especially by Muslims. Kurz won a particularly warm tribute from his Hungarian counterpart.
And more governments - French, Dutch, Nordic and now German - face the problem Schuessel had of a popular far-right party.
That has contributed to a reluctance to criticise EU peers over strategies to contain such insurgencies - though leaders will be looking to Kurz to rein in the FPO, as they did when they needed to justify letting Schuessel back into their fold.
That lesson, of having to climb down after rushing to the rhetorical barricades but failing to make Schuessel budge, shows up today in a hesitation to suspend Hungary or Poland for failings on democratic values.
As one EU official put it: “Austria in 2000 showed us how not to go in without an exit strategy.”
Additional reporting by Gabriela Baczynska in Luxembourg; editing by Mark Heinrich
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