New Austrian leader rejects talk of eastern EU alliance

FILE - In this Jan. 1, 2018 file photo, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz talks at a joint news conference with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte at the federal chancellery in Vienna. Austria's new chancellor is rejecting suggestions that his government will align broadly with eastern nations that have clashed with the European Union over migrants and other issues. Kurz warned Friday Jan. 5, 2018 against "over-interpreting things." (AP Photo/Ronald Zak,file)

SEGGAUBERG, Austria — Austria's new chancellor on Friday rejected suggestions that his government will align with eastern European Union nations that have clashed with the bloc over migrants and other issues.

Chancellor Sebastian Kurz leads a coalition with the traditionally euroskeptic Freedom Party that took office just before Christmas. Both Kurz' conservative People's Party and the Freedom Party have taken a hard line against migration.

The position has generated speculation that Austria could move closer to the Visegrad group of Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia than to its western EU allies.

Kurz, who at 31 is Europe's youngest leader, warned Friday against "over-interpreting things."

"There are measures and initiatives where we have goodwill in western European countries," he told reporters after a meeting of the new Cabinet. "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."

Kurz plans to visit Paris and Berlin in the coming weeks. He said he expects a "good exchange" with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, stressing that "Germany is our biggest neighbor, our most important economic partner."

Of French President Emmanuel Macron, who has championed efforts to reform the EU, Kurz said: "It is clearly positive for all of us in the European Union that there is a French president who aspires to change something in the European Union."

Kurz called for an EU that is strong on "big questions" such as border security but leaves many policy decisions to individual countries and regions.

Austria will hold the EU's rotating presidency in the second half of this year, when the bloc should be finalizing the terms of Britain's departure.

"I very much hope that we succeed in organizing an orderly departure by the British," Kurz said, arguing that a failure to do so would hurt both sides.

Speaking alongside Kurz, Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache downplayed comments in an interview with public broadcaster ORF in which he appeared to raise the idea of housing asylum-seekers in military barracks.

Strache, the Freedom Party leader, said Friday his comments had been taken out of context and "no mass accommodation is planned" for asylum-seekers in military facilities.

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