Angela Merkel is usually the picture of pragmatism, but she’s also become rather famous for her penchant for unwittingly rolling her eyes at foreign leaders like Donald Trump or Vladimir Putin. Perhaps on Wednesday she’ll let one slip for the new chancellor of Austria, Sebastian Kurz, who is in Berlin for a visit.
At just 31, Mr. Kurz is the western world’s youngest leader and less than half Angela Merkel’s 63 years. But that’s not the only thing that makes these two polar opposites: Mr. Kurz has catapulted himself to power on the back of a youthful exuberance and willingness to work with – even espouse – the policies of far-right politicians, who have joined him in a coalition government. Ms. Merkel is seen by supporters as a bulwark against extremism and a leader of the liberal free world – but could also be on the way out as she struggles to form a fourth government under her leadership.
And yet, though Austria might be one-tenth the size of Germany, these two leaders need each other. Mr. Kurz, who insists he is pro-European but favors slower integration, will need Ms. Merkel’s ear if he really wants to have a seat at the big boys and girls' table and influence EU policy.
But the German chancellor could also use the young statesman's credibility among the central and eastern European governments that have grown deeply skeptical of the European Union. Mr. Kurz is said to speak almost daily with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, a noted EU skeptic. Austria and Hungary share a common border and centuries of intense political relations. If anyone can pull Mr. Orbán back into the European fold, it might be his Austrian counterpart.
Depending on your point of view, Mr. Kurz was either avoiding this moment or purposely kept Ms. Merkel waiting. Since becoming Austria’s chancellor in December, he has already traveled to Brussels and Paris. His contact with Ms. Merkel to date had been limited – she congratulated him by telephone on his electoral victory in October and his inauguration in December. The two also met briefly on two separate occasions at meetings of the European conservative party alliance in Brussels.
In Berlin, Mr. Kurz was determined to turn on the youthful charm that helped get him elected, and lay aside any doubts that his right-wing government will be a thorn in Angela Merkel’s side. At a joint press conference, he urged reporters to judge his government "by its actions" and its program – a plea that Ms. Merkel seemed to take to heart. It’s a similar line he toed when meeting France’s Emmanuel Macron (Europe’s second-youngest leader) last week. “We are a clearly pro-European country, and I am a convinced European,” he told French newspaper Le Figaro on Friday.
Yet his past policies also suggest a willingness to work with central European leaders, to hold the line against unchecked immigration and deeper European integration. It was Mr. Kurz, as Austrian foreign minister, who played a central role in shutting off the unprecedented flow of refugees into Europe during the 2015-2016 crisis. He agreed at a meeting with Balkan nations to close the route that most asylum seekers had taken to get into Europe. Angela Merkel, who had pledged an open-door policy to those fleeing war in the Middle East, was not invited to the meeting.
Austria, of course, has a cultural affinity with many of these countries that were once in a union with Austria's Habsburgs. Though that union may have ended with World War I, Vienna has maintained close ties, trade and financial links ever since. But it was Austria's rightward shift and Mr. Kurz’s election that was celebrated in capitals like Budapest, Warsaw and Prague, where right-wing populist leaders have taken charge.
Many of these leaders have fought repeatedly with Ms. Merkel and Brussels on issues ranging from immigration quotas to their more autocratic tendencies. If Mr. Kurz plays his cards right, he could become something of a middleman in Europe for the so-called “Visegrad countries” of Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Hungary. Ms. Merkel no doubt hopes he will prove a moderating influence rather than a typical far-right leader. In Wednesday's press conference she once again prodded Austria – and by extension its Eastern European allies – to accept a quota for taking in immigrants that come to Europe.
That influence is all the more important since Austria will take over as chair of the European Council, one of two legislative bodies in the European Union, in the second half of this year – at a crucial time when broad reforms of the 28-nation bloc are being discussed. Austria might be small, but with the backing of his eastern neighbors, the youthful Chancellor Kurz has a chance to punch well above his weight – and perhaps even force Ms. Merkel to view him as her equal.
Christopher Cermak is an Austrian and American citizen and editor for Handelsblatt Global in Berlin. Hans-Peter Siebenhaar is Handelsblatt's correspondent based in Vienna. To contact the authors: [email protected] and [email protected]