Head of the Freedom Party (FPOe) Heinz-Christian Strache (L) and head of the People's Party (OeVP) Sebastian Kurz shake hands at the end of a news conference in Vienna, Austria, December 15, 2017..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
VIENNA - Austrian conservatives led by Sebastian Kurz reached a coalition deal with the anti-immigration Freedom Party on Friday, paving the way for Austria to become the only western European country with a far-right party in government.
The agreement, two months after a parliamentary election dominated by Europe's migration crisis, ends more than a decade in opposition for the Freedom Party (FPO), which last entered government in 2000 with the People's Party (OVP) that Kurz now leads.
Kurz's party won the October 15 election with a hard line on immigration that often overlapped with the Freedom Party's. The FPO came third with 26 percent of the vote.
"We can inform you that there is a turquoise-blue agreement," Kurz said in a joint statement to reporters with FPO leader Heinz-Christian Strache, referring to their two parties by their colors.
Benjamin Netanyahu and Christian Kern discuss Israel , Austria ties on April 25, 2017 (credit: GOVERNMENT PRESS OFFICE)
Strache and Kurz said the details of their deal would be made public on Saturday, after a meeting with President Alexander Van der Bellen and discussions with their parties' leadership structures.
"We want to reduce the burden on taxpayers... and above all we want to ensure greater security in our country, including through the fight against illegal immigration," Kurz said, touching on core issues for both parties.
In 2015, when more than a million refugees and other migrants arrived in Europe, Austria took in more than 1 percent of its population in asylum seekers, one of the highest rates in the EU. Many voters felt their country was overrun, and both parties have pledged to prevent a repeat of that influx.
Strache and Kurz have pledged to restrict new arrivals' access to many social services for their first five years in the country, and to provide recognized refugees with only a "light" version of regular benefits for five years.
While other far right parties in Europe have gained ground this year, entering parliament in Germany and making France's presidential run-off, the Freedom Party is going further by entering government and securing key ministries.
A person familiar with the talks said before Friday's announcement that the far-right party was poised to secure the Interior, Foreign and Defense Ministries.
Unlike France's National Front, the FPO has backed away from calling for a referendum on leaving the European Union, but Kurz has still secured a guarantee that there will be no Brexit-style referendum in Austria, a person familiar with the talks said.JEWISH WARNINGS
In October, the head of Austria's Jewish community issued a warning
to the OVP and Social Democrats (SPO) against working with the far-right FPO.
"When the nationalist wolf puts on a blue sheep skin it does not change its nature, only its appearance," said Oskar Deutsch, head of Austria's main Jewish association, in an open letter on Facebook to both centrist parties.
"If OVP and SPO believe they can tame the wolf, they are deceiving themselves," Deutsch said.
Founded by former Nazis six decades ago, the Freedom Party long ago left the political fringes to establish itself as a mainstream party.
Strache insists that antisemites have no place in today's FPO, which routinely has to expel members who step over the line. He has visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem and has called antisemitism a crime.
"[The FPO] make scapegoats of people who think and look differently," Deutsch said, adding that "almost daily" there were racist and antisemitic incidents.
"Symbolic visits to Israel cannot conceal all this. Austria's Jewish community will not whitewash [this]."EUROPE IN HAND
Kurz has sought to head off potential criticism by offering assurances that his government will be pro-European. He also plans to shift responsibility for some EU issues from the Foreign Ministry to his office, the person familiar with the talks said, giving him greater control over EU policy.
When the FPO last entered government under the late Joerg Haider, who praised Hitler's employment policies, other EU countries imposed sanctions on Vienna in protest. There is unlikely to be a similar outcry this time, given the rise of anti-establishment parties across the continent.
Kurz, who is just 31, campaigned on the promise of bringing change to Austrian politics despite heading a party that has constantly been in power in various coalitions for the past 30 years. Many of the policies he and Strache have announced, such as cutting taxes and spending, have been proposed with few details so far.
"We ask for your understanding that we can only provide more detailed information tomorrow," Kurz said.
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