AP Interview: Austrian minister says less is more for EU

Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in Vienna, Austria, Friday, March 17, 2017. Kurz sees reforms that shift power on many issues to members from EU bodies as essential for EU survival. And he says he measure the success of Austria’s EU presidency in the second half of 2018 on that score. (AP Photo/Ronald Zak)
Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in Vienna, Austria, Friday, March 17, 2017. Kurz sees reforms that shift power on many issues to members from EU bodies as essential for EU survival. And he says he measure the success of Austria’s EU presidency in the second half of 2018 on that score. (AP Photo/Ronald Zak)
Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz poses for a photo during an interview with The Associated Press in Vienna, Austria, Friday, March 17, 2017. Kurz sees reforms that shift power on many issues to members from EU bodies as essential for EU survival. And he says he measure the success of Austria’s EU presidency in the second half of 2018 on that score. (AP Photo/Ronald Zak)
Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in Vienna, Austria, Friday, March 17, 2017. Kurz sees reforms that shift power on many issues to members from EU bodies as essential for EU survival. And he says he measure the success of Austria’s EU presidency in the second half of 2018 on that score. (AP Photo/Ronald Zak)

VIENNA — Much of Europe is cheering this week's Dutch election as a defeat for anti-EU forces. Yet populist demands to weaken Brussels' clout are being embraced by some mainstream leaders, including one who may play a temporary role in shaping the bloc's future.

Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz sees reforms that would shift power from European Union institutions to member countries as essential for EU survival. Progress on such reforms is how he plans to measure the success of Austria's EU presidency when his country takes over the rotating role for six months in the second half of 2018.

"We need a change of course in the European Union," Kurz told The Associated Press in an interview Friday. "The most important is the focus on the big questions and a European Union that steps back on the small questions."

Dutch politician Geert Wilders suffered an election defeat this week, in part because voters did not support his promise to take the Netherlands out of the EU. Populist politicians elsewhere already had recognized the unpopularity of too strong a Eurosceptic message.

Austria's powerful Freedom Party, for instance, now preaches more national rights and less oversight from Brussels, instead of an outright EU withdrawal.

Kurz is a member of the centrist People's Party. But his message is not that different from the Freedom Party's.

His comments reflect a greater European trend — mainstream parties encroaching on formerly populist positions to weaken the popularity of anti-establishment parties.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte was the latest to benefit from such a strategy. Even before the Netherlands election, Rutte's People's Party of Freedom and Democracy had moved increasingly to the right to counter Wilders' popularity.

Kurz on Friday suggested less is more for the EU, which he said stands to benefit if it focuses more on issues that even skeptical members can accept.

"More cooperation in questions like external security and defense," he said. "And at the same time, no more rules on what restaurant menus should look like in Europe."

Kurz says most bloc members agree in the wake of the large influx of migrants Europe saw in 2015 and 2016 that strong controls on EU external borders are needed.

He said that a willingness to send migrants who enter the continent illegally to centers outside Europe must be part of a common immigration strategy, a stance that until relatively recently only was advocated publicly by Europe's anti-migrant parties.

But Kurz rejects suggestions that such views mean a turn by Europe's political mainstream — and the EU itself —toward views previously espoused only by populists and rejected by the establishment.

"Who is a populist, and who isn't?" he asked, refuting as false arguments that maintain "there is a certain group of parties that are good and right and the others are bad."

Instead, he speaks of a "democratic competition" and changing circumstances that shape fluctuating political messages.

In defense of Hungary and other East European members whose populist leaders are most critical of the EU, he says they have "the same right to express their opinion" as other member nations.

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