Why you should care
He’s much more than a pretty face.
If you met Sebastian Kurz in an Austrian café over a pint of lager, you probably wouldn’t guess what he does for a living. Judging by his smart suit and slicked back hair, you might take him for a budding lawyer or banker, maybe even a model on a Brooks Brothers shoot. But this fresh-faced blonde is Austria’s Minister of Foreign Affairs.
Kurz, now 28, was only a year younger when he took the job— and became the youngest cabinet member in the history of the Austrian republic. Europe’s youngest foreign minister, too, who landed in international news when his country hosted the recent Iran nuclear talks. Indeed, his rise has been meteoric, and not just because of his youth and good looks. As it turns out, Kurz has a preternatural ability to hold the spotlight, to remain the star of the ruling conservative People’s Party, thanks to some bold thinking. As the whole of Europe struggles with immigration and jihadism, Kurz intends to make his little country into a model melting pot. Perhaps this is a strange ambition for a right of center leader, but, he says, “There’s really no other choice.”
To be sure, Austria is not exactly a political heavyweight. When most people consider Austria– if they consider it all– they think of it as a southern appendage of Germany. Its population is a mere eight million, a tenth of its neighbor to the north. Yet its small size and high proportion of immigrants may make Austria a sort of microcosm or petri dish for the demographic remaking of Europe. Almost one in five residents were born outside the country.
What this means in practice, for Kurz, is welcoming immigrants by giving them tools they need to assimilate. At 24, he was appointed State Secretary of Integration– a newly created post Kurz used to ramp up early childhood education, and, especially, to ensure that every kid that entered elementary school knowing German. That may not sound like such a big deal, but in the context of Europe, it’s a powerful statement. After all, both Angela Merkel and Tony Blair have openly declared the failure of multiculturalism. Keeping that multicultural mindset while fighting the threat of Islamist terrorism is a challenge. Already, Kurz says, 200 Austrian Muslims have joined ISIS: His job, he says, is to stop that number from growing.
Kurz’ plan? It’s the country’s new Law on Islam, which bans Islamic associations from receiving regular funding from any foreign group. Detractors say the law is discriminatory, since neither Christians nor Jews are under the same obligation. But the minister says that’s simply because they do not receive foreign money. The Law on Islam, he says, aims to support a community whose members “can feel they are both proud Muslims and proud Austrians.” Kurz’s whole M.O., it seems, is that one can be Austrian and Muslim, or Austrian and Syrian, or Austrian and Martian, perhaps. He aims to mount a public relations campaign of sorts — to teach would be immigrants what it is to be Austrian before they arrive: “We need to work with other countries and reach out to immigrants before they come,” he says, “so that they can understand their rights and obligations.”
The idea is bold, but many say Kurz is too green and simply does not have the training or the political capital to deliver on his vision. Indeed, despite his perfectly fitted suits and his refusal to answer any personal questions, hearing Kurz speak, it’s clear he is not yet used to the spotlight. His blue eyes scan the room as he fumbles for words and takes oddly long pauses. Support within Austria is not a given either. “It will be very hard for him to make a difference abroad without all the connections and internal support politicians build over time,” says Gustav C. Gressel, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
Yet not looking like a grey-haired, contented conservative politician might actually play in his favor. “He’s got no skeletons in his closet and he speaks very frankly,” says Gressel. And despite his newfound popularity, politics hasn’t changed him much. Kurz still lives in the same working neighborhood of Vienna where he grew up, where he shares a small apartment with his girlfriend.
As all European foreign ministers, Kurz has spoken about conflicts like Syria and the Ukraine but his eye is always on the Balkans. As Austria’s natural zone of influence, the origin of most of its immigrants and a growing nest for jihadism, the young Minister wants to be the region’s spokesperson in the EU, lobbying for their entrance into the union and taking a hands on approach to the diplomacy. As part of his “the sooner the better” approach ministry integration officers have already been sent to the embassies of Ankara and Belgrade.
At this rate, Kurz could be presidential material before he gets his first gray hair. But analysts fear he might be flying too close to the sun, like Icarus. “This huge promotion means that any mistakes might now cost him his career,” says Elina Brutschin Assistant Professor of International Relations, at the Webster Vienna Private University.
Kurz is not worried. “I don’t plan to stay in politics for life,” he says adding he comes from a generation where having the same job all your life is not a thing any more, “I’ll continue to work here for as long as I feel I can get things done.”Now his goal is to prove naysayers that, while the rest of Europe seems ready to throw the towel, Austria’s new approach will revive multiculturalism.