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Immigration in Austria – from coercion to cooperation?

Austria has a rocky past when it comes to immigration, but as Johannes Perterer examines, the introduction of one man has changed the landscape of Austrian politics completely.

At first sight, Austria seems to be everything but a comfortable place for immigrants and those of immigrant descent.

The European Migrant Integration Policy Index, which analyses how advantageous or detrimental the legal situation of immigrants in a certain EU country is, puts Austria second-last on the list, with only Latvia lagging behind. In terms of naturalization of foreigners, Austria is plum last.

What’s more, the republic has one of the most vibrant and successful right wing populist parties in Europe. The FPÖ (Freiheitliche Partei Österreich), which stands for “Austrian Freedom Party”, with its party leader Heinz-Christian Strache, received 20.5 per cent of the votes in the last parliamentary election in September 2013. The party has been accused of a xenophobic, racist and hostile rhetoric towards immigrants and those with an immigration background. Their well-known formula of success is to externalize the blame for complex societal problems by projecting it on immigrants of all generations.

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Ever since the party last made up part of a government – in 2005 – it has been steadily growing. Some observers even suggest that, had it not been for additional competitors on the right and various intra-party corruption scandals, it would have become the strongest power in the last election.

Sebastian Kurz – a game-changer

The burgeoning right’s hostility towards foreigners and those of foreign descent is a major factor in the political landscape which still carries considerable political momentum. But the overall tone of the immigration debate has remarkably changed since April 2011, when the office of State Secretary for Integration was created by the Christian, conservative party ÖVP. Sebastian Kurz, then a 24-year-old law student, was named state secretary for integration.

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Receiving scorn and mockery from the media and even his own party colleagues behind closed doors for his lack of experience and youthfulness, no one took him seriously or expected much of him. An omnipresent media storm accompanied the nomination of the youngest member of an Austrian government in history.

But after six months, the media started to embrace the administration of office carried out by Kurz. As one of the first actions in office, he issued a catalogue of 20 measures to improve integration. His intent was to take actions which would augment the integration process in the long run, making language ability and education his top priorities.

Before Kurz assumed office, the immigration debate on the right was determined by accusations and passive-aggressive claims on what immigrants had to do to deserve to be living in Austria. Kurz ended this vicious and unproductive cycle of aggressiveness and defiance by believing the more immigrants would be better educated and fluent in German, the more they would also wish to contribute and be a part of the Austrian culture and society. He didn’t address these issues in a polemic way in order to gain political capital, rather he came up with plausible solutions, suggesting a second mandatory year of pre-school for everyone and created a new system to acknowledge foreign university degrees in Austria.

Cooperation, not coercion, as well as “integration through achievement” were the maxims he spread during his first years in office. He did something which politicians usually don’t do – he acted with a vision, with long-sightedness, and tried to tackle the problems with integration from the bottom up.

Sebastian Kurz is now the most popular politician in Austria. It is a bizarre thing to praise a politician, as a journalist – a profession which usually prides itself for its critique of domination. However, in this case, one has to give credit to whom credit is due.While the two opposite camps in the immigration debate have shown that their interest in solutions is secondary to ideological warfare to attract new votership, Kurz chose a middle way. He showed that solutions can be found which are less based on emotion and which are more pragmatic and more focused on constructive solutions.

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