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Austrian far right says 'very good start' in Kurz coalition talks

VIENNA (Reuters) - Austria’s far-right Freedom Party said coalition talks with conservative leader Sebastian Kurz made a “very, very good start” on Wednesday, mapping out a process that could end its decade in opposition.

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Foreign Minister Kurz, who is just 31, and his People’s Party won last week’s parliamentary election with 31.5 percent of the vote but they need a partner to form a stable government.

Kurz’s hard line on immigration and his decision to force the collapse of the current coalition with the Social Democrats, who came second, made the anti-immigration Freedom Party (FPO) - founded by ex-Nazis in the 1950s - a more willing partner.

“It was today a very, very good start to negotiations ... a positive mutual gauging by the negotiating teams,” FPO leader Heinz-Christian Strache told a joint news conference with Kurz after the first round of talks at an ornate palace in Vienna.

Coalition talks in Austria last roughly two months on average, and Kurz has said he wants a deal by Christmas.

Both men had negotiating teams of four party officials and agreed on five headings for their talks, ranging from “future”, for issues such as science and the environment, to a more self-explanatory “security, order and protecting the homeland”.


The two sides have much common ground on immigration, an issue that dominated the election after Europe’s migration crisis left many voters feeling Austria was overrun. But after Wednesday’s talks they said they would start with another issue both have focused on: reducing inefficiencies in state spending.

Kurz and Strache said they would examine finance ministry data with a view to deciding where savings could be achieved.

“Our aim is to find the losses through friction in the system and then of course to deal with where there is the potential to increase efficiency,” Kurz said. “That as a first round should build the foundation for the subsequent negotiations on content.”

The rise of far-right parties like France’s National Front and the Alternative for Germany since the migration crisis started in 2015 makes it less likely the FPO’s accession to power would provoke the same outcry as in 2000, when the European Union imposed short-lived sanctions on Austria.

But some European leaders have expressed concern at its strong showing and President Alexander Van der Bellen, who has the power to appoint and dismiss governments, has said any coalition must be guided by “fundamental European values”.

What that means for the FPO and the talks is unclear. As part of a push to make itself more acceptable to the mainstream, it has stopped calling for Austria to leave the bloc and says it is now “pro-European” while saying Brussels should hand back more powers to member states.

That overlaps with Kurz’s view that the EU should be slimmed down and focus on tasks like trade and securing external borders.

“Europe is of course an issue,” Kurz said when asked why it wasn’t in one of the five broad headings for talks, adding that it would come under the heading “state and society”.

“From my point of view the atmosphere was a very, very positive one,” he added.

Writing by Francois Murphy, editing by Alister Doyle