Ibizagate: Intentional and unintentional consequences of the government crisis in Austria for (Eastern) Europe

Ibizagate: Intentional and unintentional consequences of the government crisis in Austria for (Eastern) Europe
Can Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz survive the Ibizagate scandal?
By Gunter Deuber of Raiffeisen Research in Vienna May 28, 2019

The coalition between Austria’s conservative-liberal ÖVP and the right-wing populist FPÖ has been viewed very critically in Austria and abroad since it was formed in December 2017. It has also been an issue for the Eastern European bloc as Austria tried to position itself as a "bridge builder" between West and East.

At the beginning of the ÖVP-FPÖ coalition there were widespread concerns that Austria would move closer to Eastern European and the Visegrad states.

This rapprochement was based above all shared and restrictive views on refugee policy. After all, the young and dynamic Austrian Chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, still Foreign Minister at that time, had established Austria as closer to the Balkan route and had a common position with the Visegrad countries on halting the inflow of refugees.

However, Austria's rapprochement with the Visegrad states did not go much further. It was already unlikely at the beginning of the ÖVP-FPÖ coalition that the young Chancellor, who was quite ambitious internationally, would feel comfortable with a role as a "newcomer" in the Visegrad Club, which is not well liked in Western European countries and dominated by "old men" such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Polish party leader Jaroslaw Katcyinski.

Moreover, as a net contributor to the EU, Austria is also tied to the other net contributors on many policy matters. Vienna has been comfortable with cuts made in the EU funds going to Central and Eastern Europe. That imposed a limit on the political rapprochement with Central and Eastern Europe.

Austria has always had a historically special relationship with Russia. Those ties were on display following the Novichok chemical nerve agent attack in the UK on ex-spy Sergei Skripal in March 2018, as Vienna was the only western European power that did not expel Russian diplomats.

Austria's EU presidency in the second half of 2018, did not include any Russia-friendly initiatives, although Austria has considerable economic ties with Russia. In addition, the coalition partner FPÖ in particular has made a name for itself in recent years with Russia-friendly actions or statements – even calling for the west to accept Russia’s annexation of the Crimea.

However, the Chancellor, who in a clever move after the election drew the European political agendas under his aegis into the Chancellery, ensured that Russia-friendly positions did not become part of realpolitik in Austria. He, too, has recognised that there is nothing to be gained from Russia-friendly positions at the moment.

Another aspect to the failed Austria coalition from the very beginning was the FPÖ's special relations with Russia. After all, the FPÖ has maintained a party partnership with Russia’s ruling United Russia party since 2016. At times even Western states (including Germany, which is not overly critical of Russia) feared that FPÖ ministers in the interior and security sector could pass on sensitive information from the Western secret service sphere to Russia.

That means the staging of the Ibiza meeting between FPÖ politicians and a fake Russian oligarch borders on a real satire. As a result of this Ibizagate affair the ambitious chancellor’s career is now in ruins and the FPÖ has been totally discredited.

However, the Ibizagate affair can now also have unintended consequences. It supports the prevailing opinion internationally and in certain circles of US politics that some EU states, and Austria in particular, are too close to Russia or can be bought from Russia.

The backlash from Ibizagate is that the USA pushes ahead with another round of sanctioning on Russia. Although Russia had nothing to do with the Ibiza meeting, but that's not the point. It's the political narrative of too much naivety towards Russia and this narrative was certainly promoted by Ibizagate.

In this respect the joy in left-wing circles in Austria and internationally should not be too great. Ibizagate could on the one hand promote a further isolation of Russia and on the other hand bring down a personality that is in itself pro-European and internationally respected, the young (former?) Chancellor Kurz.

It is not yet clear whether he will survive Ibizagate unscathed. In this respect, it is not yet quite clear how much damage the Ibizagate affair will cause overall, for Austria, for Eastern Europe and for the EU. It only remains to be hoped that Ibizagate has harmed the populists beyond Austria. Then at least something in the pan-European sense would have been achieved.