The Thermometer Interview: Alexandra Föderl-Schmid

October, 10 2017
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Welcome back to The Thermometer Interview, a series of conversations testing the temperature of Europe.

September’s German election saw the far-right Alternative for Germany perform above expectations, winning 13 percent of the vote. Angela Merkel won a fourth term as chancellor, and she will now attempt to form a delicate coalition with the Greens and liberal Free Democratic Party. Negotiations are expected to drag on beyond Christmas. Elsewhere, while the future of Central European University in Budapest seems to have been secured, the Hungarian government has stepped up its anti-Semitic campaign against American philanthropist George Soros, “preparing documents that allege [he] is planning to inundate Europe with Third World refugees,” The Forward reports.

Across the border from Hungary in Austria, voters are preparing to go to the polls in critical legislative elections. The center-right People’s Party (ÖVP), led by 31-year-old foreign minister Sebastian Kurz, is expected to win; more likely than not, Kurz will look to govern with the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), as their agendas dovetail on issues ranging from tax cuts to refugees and integration. The far-right has been out of power in Austria since 2007, when it was led by the flamboyant provocateur Jörg Haider, who praised Adolf Hitler’s “decent employment policies” and referred to Mauthausen concentration camp as a “punishment center.” Today Heinz-Christian Strache, who in 2012 posted an anti-Semitic cartoon to his Facebook page, leads the FPÖ.

With the vote coming up on October 15, Moment sat down at the United Nations headquarters in Vienna with leading Austrian journalist and editor Alexandra Föderl-Schmid. In 2007, Föderl-Schmid became the editor of the liberal newspaper Der Standard, in doing so becoming the first woman to edit an Austrian daily. At the end of August, she left Der Standard for Munich’s Süddeutsche Zeitung, where she will be their Israel correspondent. Among the topics we discussed, in fact, was what lies behind the Austrian Freedom Party’s newfound love of Israel and burgeoning relationships with mid-ranking officials in Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party.

How has Austria got to the point where, again, it is on the verge of having an ÖVP-FPÖ government?

It’s difficult because Austrians should remember what happened during the first ÖVP-FPÖ coalition, with corruption and bribery. But nevertheless, Austrians are willing to vote for a right-wing party like the FPÖ. The migration and refugee crisis was a big issue in central Europe, and in Austria, there is a lot of xenophobia. When the refugees began to arrive in 2015, we saw a decisive shift to the right among all parties—including the Social Democrats (SPÖ). Migration is still an important campaign issue that parties can exploit.

The ÖVP was essentially dead until Kurz became its leader. He remains in polling the most popular politician in Austria by a country mile. Is this because of the migration issue—that he was the leader who closed the Balkan route for refugees coming into Austria?

That is one explanation—in television debates, he always finds a way to bring things back to the issue of refugees.

He’s quite successful in presenting himself as a kind of new leader. He’s young, he looks good—he is the son-in-law of the nation. We have seen this in France, too, but contrary to Macron, who has formed his own party and movement, Kurz has not. He is also quite successful at putting out political slogans without having to give too much detail—he says, “Let’s cut taxes,” without telling his voters what that would mean.

What do we actually know about what Kurz as chancellor would mean for Austria and Europe?

Nobody knows and this is the big miracle of this election campaign. Nobody knows what Kurz really wants to do.

Where did the SPÖ go wrong?

I think chancellor [Christian] Kern had a chance [to win]. In January, he presented his “Plan A,” explaining what his government would do about social [security], the EU, and so on, but he hesitated to stop working with the ÖVP and go for elections. It was his fault. He gave Kurz a chance to prepare for becoming party leader. He missed a chance to present his ideas on housing, energy, and his digital agenda.

Every European country has some sort of problem at the moment with far-right populism, but in Austria, there is this longstanding issue with the FPÖ. How do you account for this?

There is how Austria has dealt with its past compared to Germany—Austria always considered itself the first victims of Hitler, which is completely wrong, of course. There is the problem of what is called in German the ‘brauner Bodensatz’ (the brown sediment), people on the far-right who [remain anti-Semitic]. When I was editor-in-chief of Der Standard, I received a lot of mail calling me the editor of the Judenblatt (Jewish paper), because its founder [Oscar Bronner] is Jewish.

A lot of Austrians are still, to be honest, xenophobic—stronger than in other western European countries. You also see in EU studies when asked if they would like to be ruled by a strong leader, 20 percent of Austrians still say yes. Haider, Strache and Kurz fit to this scheme. And, you have this situation that two strong parties [the ÖVP and SPÖ] have dominated everything for decades, so the FPÖ is able to say the system is rotten and we are a new party.

In recent years, the FPÖ has been very ostensibly pro-Israel and has built up relationships with middle-ranking people in the Likud. What’s behind that?

They want to be accepted, including by Israel. Haider had a lot of connections in the Arab world—he was a friend of Muammar Gaddafi and his son lived in Carinthia [where he was governor]—but the new leadership decided it wanted to be friends with Israel. They are not recognized officially or welcomed by members of the [Israeli] government.

Does it actually represent a change in ideology for the FPÖ? Under Haider, there was an emphasis on downplaying Austria’s past, saying various things about the Holocaust, and so on, but then you have Strache going to Yad Vashem and doing displays of contrition and remembrance.

No, it’s just on the surface and it’s just a diplomatic attitude—nothing else. They are preparing for one of their members [former presidential candidate Norbert Hofer] to become foreign minister.

Therefore it’s about gaining international legitimacy? I assume it doesn’t matter to Austrian voters whether a party is pro-Israel or pro-Palestine.

No, it doesn’t. It’s about the international image of the party, exactly.

Finally, the last time there was an ÖVP-FPÖ government, the European Union attempted to place pressure on Austria to avert that. What will happen this time?

I don’t think anything will happen at the European level. Look at what is going on in Europe—you have so many right-wing parties now that have emerged. I’m sure nothing will happen and sanctions are not the best idea, to be honest. I think they will have to accept it in Brussels.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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