In a DER SPIEGEL interview, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, 32, talks about his goals as holder of the rotating European Council presidency, the fight against illegal immigration and his relationship with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Kurz: You have a completely different view than I do. I don't stand on one side or the other. Rather, I try to do what I feel is right. The debate between the CDU and CSU was not one that Austria could ignore. The government in Berlin came extremely close to an agreement that would have placed the burden on other countries, including Austria. That is something we could not and cannot accept and I made that clear to both Mrs. Merkel and Mr. Seehofer.
DER SPIEGEL: You maintain good relationships with countries like Hungary and the Czech Republic, neither of which want to accept any migrants at all. Do you think you can change their stance as European Council president?
Kurz: The question bothers me. I don't have better or worse relations with the Visegrád States than I do with other EU member states. I am in favor of not drawing a distinction between the good North and the bad South, the reputable West and the disreputable East. When Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán visited me -- after I had already met with Dutch Prime Minister Rutte, Chancellor Merkel and President Macron -- there was a huge outcry. How volatile must the mood in Europe be if it is considered abnormal to stay in contact with one's neighbors? Austria is a country at the heart of Europe. My most important goal as council president is that of filling in the chasms that have opened up.
DER SPIEGEL: How exactly do you intend to do that? When you meet with Orbán, do you address his polemics targeting the foundation belonging to Jewish financier Georg Soros?
Kurz: Of course. There can be no compromises when it comes to the rule of law and democracy, that is the foundation of our European idea. But it is important that we avoid distinguishing between first- and second-class member states. The discussion should remain focused and respectful at all times.
DER SPIEGEL: Regarding the issue of the future lead candidates for the office of European Commission president, do you think Germany's Manfred Weber, the CSU politician who recently threw his hat into the ring, is the right person for the job?
Kurz: I know him and have high regard for him. He is a dedicated European who has made a significant contribution to the European Union as a whole.
DER SPIEGEL: At the informal EU summit on Sept. 20 in Salzburg, Brexit will be the main topic of conversation, not migration. Does that fit with your agenda?
Kurz: I hope that we are able to make some progress on Brexit. The most important challenge during the Austrian council presidency is the orderly preparation of Brexit. Should Britain's exit be messy, it would result in massive harm to both sides, including us in the EU-27. It would be good if in Salzburg we already had a European Commission proposal for finding an agreement with Britain this fall.
DER SPIEGEL: Your coalition partner, the right-wing populist Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), has repeatedly drawn negative attention to itself. There were accusations of alcoholism directed at European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and messages of solidarity with Italian Deputy Prime Minister Salvini. Why don't you call them to order?
Kurz: I am the chancellor and not the chief commentator. I try to avoid belittling others. Unfortunately in Austria, there have been repeated verbal indiscretions from different parties. Swastikas were daubed on the walls of homes belonging to parliamentarians and grave candles set up outside.
DER SPIEGEL: Are you alarmed?
Kurz: No, things are still in check. Incidents such as the one in Chemnitz are unimaginable in Austria. Our history, when compared to the different developments that took place in East and West Germany, is completely different.
DER SPIEGEL: Is it true that you have a 10-year plan aimed at leading Austria back to the top of the EU?
Kurz: We have a clear goal of returning to the top.
DER SPIEGEL: That implies that Austria used to be at the top?
Kurz: Ten years ago, it was said in the media that Austria was the better Germany. We were the country with the lowest unemployment and healthy economic growth. We have fallen back since then, but now, we are once again experiencing a positive dynamic. Our economy is growing at a rate of 3.2 percent, unemployment is constantly dropping, and foreign direct investment has reached unprecedented heights in some areas. Just think of the billion-euro investment by Infineon. Furthermore, we are working hard to reduce the tax burden on working people. We recently implemented a much larger pension increase than has been seen in the recent past. At the same time, we have been able to get by without taking on new debt for the first time in 60 years.
DER SPIEGEL: But that has come at a cost. Cuts have been made to social welfare and to employment programs and there is less money available for the integration of the long-term unemployed. Even within your conservative camp, there has been some criticism of your social policies.
Kurz: I believe that good social policy leads to people having more money for their lives and not when the state has as much as possible to distribute. Of course we are implementing reforms that have been met with criticism, but without them, returning to the top would not be possible.
DER SPIEGEL: For the last six months, all of your country's intelligence agencies have been under the control of the FPÖ, a party that maintains close ties with Russia. What is your reaction to reports that Western intelligence agencies no longer see Vienna as a trustworthy partner?
Kurz: I haven't yet received any indication to that effect from the Germans or from the other governments.
DER SPIEGEL: The curtsy performed by Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl to Russian President Vladimir, who was a guest at her wedding, will not likely have increased the confidence of your European partners. Did that bother you?
Kurz: The decision to invite Putin to the wedding was one made by the bridal couple. Our political stance on Russia has not changed. The sanctions were only just extended in June, a decision that we naturally supported. Nevertheless, after the wedding I had a working meeting with the Russian president.
DER SPIEGEL: What was the result?
Kurz: That I am able to keep two things separate. The first is the necessary response to a violation of international law and to Russian aggression. The second is the necessity of keeping dialogue channels open. And that is what we are doing. Because there will only be peace on our continent with Russia, not against it.
DER SPIEGEL: At Ukraine's expense?
Kurz: Positive relations with Ukraine are just as important to us. I just reaffirmed that to President Petro Poroshenko in Kiev.
DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Chancellor, we thank you very much for this interview.
Interview Conducted By Peter Müller and Walter Mayr