VIENNA (Reuters) - The head of Austria’s far-right Freedom Party stuck to his guns on Wednesday over a racially charged claim that Austrians risk becoming a minority in their own country, straining relations in the ruling coalition ahead of this month’s European elections.
Last week, Freedom Party (FPO) leader and Austrian Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache said his party was fighting against “population exchange”.
“These terms that you mention, the Freedom Party of Austria has always used them, for decades,” Strache told a news conference when asked about his comment.
“Many citizens rightly say these are political decisions - the extent to which one wants to continue to allow immigration on a massive scale, the extent to which demographic development then leads to a situation where an ancestral population becomes a minority, and many do not want that,” Strache said.
Roughly 16 percent of Austria’s population has foreign citizenship, national statistics office data for 2018 shows, up from 10 percent a decade earlier.
Austria took in roughly 1 percent of its population in asylum seekers in 2015 during Europe’s migration crisis.
Arrivals have since slowed to a trickle, but the FPO and its bigger coalition partner, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s conservative Austrian People’s Party (OVP), have pledged to prevent any repeat of that influx.
Strache’s remarks echo language used by Austria’s Identitarian Movement, a group similar to the ‘alt right’ in the United States, which says mass immigration is causing a “great exchange” or “great replacement” and needs to be reversed.
While the small Identitarian Movement, which is not a political party, has existed for years, it was thrust into the spotlight in March when the man charged with killing 50 Muslims at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand was found to have made a 1,500 euro ($1,700) donation to the group.
That prompted Chancellor Kurz to call the movement “disgusting” and demand that the FPO sever any ties with it.
The FPO has said it is doing that by ending any sharing of premises or members, but Strache’s comments show it still finds some ideological common ground with the Identitarian Movement.
Kurz, who came to power in 2017 with a hard line on immigration similar to that of the FPO but with an otherwise traditionally conservative platform, has distanced himself from Strache’s remarks without calling into question their coalition.
“If you have a coalition partner there will always be things that don’t suit you, you don’t like, you dispute,” Kurz told national broadcaster ORF on Tuesday night.
Kurz said he did not like the expression “population exchange”, adding that it was also inaccurate “because there is no exchange but rather a migration towards us and not in the opposite direction”.
Reporting by Francois Murphy; Editing by Gareth Jones