On October 16, 2017, Hungarian government propaganda papers were ecstatic. It looked almost certain that the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), led by the young Sebastian Kurz, would emerge as the strongest party after the national election. The Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) finished second, only slightly ahead of the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), but most people expected Kurz to turn to Heinz-Christian Strache’s FPÖ to form a government. And indeed, four days later, coalition talks began between ÖVP and FPÖ.
The pro-government Origo exclaimed, as soon as Kurz’s victory seemed assured, that “Viktor Orbán also won in the Austrian election.” The paper quoted Russia Today, which predicted an even deeper division within the European Union with Kurz’s victory. The position of Berlin and Paris, it said, will be weakened when Austria joins the Visegrád 4 countries in opposition to open borders, which in turn will lessen the likelihood of a federalist solution in the near future.
Right-wing analysts like Ágoston Sámuel Mráz echoed Russia Today, adding that, although Austria is unlikely to join the Visegrád 4, with Kurz’s election “the Central European concept will be strengthened.” As he put it, in Austria “Sebastian Kurz was victorious, but it was Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán who won.”
After the announcement of the conclusion of successful coalition negotiations on December 18, there was general optimism concerning closer relations between Austria and Hungary under the leadership of a government without the socialists. Austrian pundits made all sorts of predictions about cooperation, especially on matters of immigration. Hungarian government experts emphasized with satisfaction that ÖVP, as far as the refugees are concerned, had adopted FPÖ’s more radical approach. They noted, however, most likely with some regret, that the coalition agreement contains a reference to Austria as an integral part of the European Union. 888.hu was especially happy about the large presence of FPÖ in the coalition and published an article on Austrian Interior Minister Herbert Kickl (FPÖ), who considers Viktor Orbán a prophet and a model for Austrian politicians to emulate.
It is not at all clear at the moment how close a relationship Sebastian Kurz wants to maintain with the Visegrád 4, especially after he warned against “overinterpreting things.” As he put it, “there are measures and initiatives where we have goodwill in western European countries … [and] there are others where we will perhaps get applause from the Visegrad countries, and still others where we agree with all other 27 EU member states.” Híradó, the official Hungarian government news outlet, put it even more bluntly when it reported that “Sebastian Kurz rejected speculation that Austria would draw closer to the V4 countries as opposed to its Western European allies.” Kurz announced that he is planning to visit Paris and Berlin in the coming weeks, stressing that Germany is Austria’s biggest neighbor and most important economic partner. In brief, it is unlikely that Viktor Orbán can rely on Kurz in his anti-Merkel moves.
I found the comments that the new Czech Prime Minister, Andrej Babiš, made a couple of days ago amusing. He announced that the Visegrád 4 countries must convince Brussels that the refugee quotas are senseless, and he “has a clear plan how to fight against the quotas and find new allies.” In the next few weeks he is planning to visit the Bulgarian prime minister and Jean-Claude Juncker. He is also going to Davos, where he will meet the Austrian chancellor. That is his plan. If the neophyte Czech prime minister thinks that a couple of private chats will change the solid opposition to the Polish, Czech, and Hungarian refusal to abide by EU rules, he still has much to learn.
I don’t think that Viktor Orbán ever seriously believed that Austria would be part of the Visegrád 4 any time in the future, but I suspect that he didn’t anticipate a potential source of friction between the two governments only a few days after the formation of Kurz’s government. After the first cabinet meeting, Kurz and Strache announced that the Austrian government will reduce the amount of child support for children of “guest workers” whose families remain behind. In 2016, the Austrian government paid 273 million euros for 132,000 children living outside of the country. Hungary and Slovakia received the largest amounts of money: Hungary 80 million and Slovakia 63 million.
This move is part of a broader Austrian government agenda that includes cutting taxes, reducing benefits for refugees, and restricting new immigrants’ access to many social services for five years. Or, as Péter Techet wrote in a thought-provoking article on Austria, this government wants to end the Austrian welfare state as it currently exists.
Discriminating between EU citizens is illegal according to the EU Constitution. Yet Kurz seems confident that his government won’t violate EU laws by reducing family allowances. At least this is the opinion of the party’s expert, who argued that the size of the benefit should be determined by the purchasing power of the country of the child’s residence. It is ridiculous, he said, that a Romanian family with two children receives €300, which is the equivalent of an average salary in Romania. However, it may not be as simple as the Austrian labor lawyer thinks. Jean Claude Juncker’s deputy chief spokeswoman already issued a warning that the European Commission is closely monitoring the situation, and I wouldn’t be too sanguine about Austrian success in this matter. Earlier such attempts by Germany to discriminate against so-called foreigners were squashed.
In an ironic twist, Orbán, who fights so valiantly for the rights of Hungarians in the United Kingdom, may have to turn to the hated Brussels for protection against the Austrian government he greeted with such enthusiasm.