Sebastian Kurz was in Italy recently (Friday 14/09) to attend a large political event. Three out of the four local daily newspapers in the area did not bother announcing the arrival of the Austrian chancellor. Even stranger, none of Italy’s national media signalled, however briefly, the visit of a rather controversial head of government, from a neighbouring country. Why? (Especially as Matteo Salvini, Lega leader and Italian interior minister, was openly in Vienna the following day).
Kurz is at the helm of a centre-right executive with a very strong far-right slant. Vienna is close to the Visegrád group, that widely known cluster of countries lobbying hard to destabilise the European Union. To top it all, Austria’s foreign minister invited Vladimir Putin to her wedding recently. There’s no doubting in which direction the political breeze is blowing over Vienna.
Not only did Kurz come unannounced, the venue in Bozen/Bolzano also looked very inconspicuous and secretive – a building site surrounded by industrial estates. Two vertical flags – but no lettering whatsoever – mark the SVP congress on the outside and nothing else.
Kurz came to Bozen/Bolzano – South Tyrol’s capital, Italy’s final city before you enter Austria – to deliver a speech at the annual congress of the South Tyrolean People’s Party (SVP). The conservative politician remarked on “the outstanding economic data of South Tyrol, both in terms of economic growth and full employment. Although unemployment is declining in Austria, we still envy South Tyrol’s figures [2.9 percent]. [Your region] has a big tourist industry, a strong economy and high quality of life. One of the reasons behind this is SVP‘s work and that of Governor [Arno] Kompatscher.”
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On the face of it, the SVP has put a lot of emphasis on European values – on bridges rather than walls. Yesterday, it pledged to continue to do so. This officially triggered the electoral campaign for the local parliament election this autumn. (South Tyrol is an autonomous region.)
Therefore, it strikes one as odd that Kurz was invited to such an important event. In fact, Kurz has time and again offered German-speaking South Tyroleans an Austrian passport. These make up 69 percent of the population. The rest are excluded from the offer, meaning that his is an inflamatory proposal in an ethnically divided territory. Kurz likes acting in the nationalistic fashion of Viktor Orbán. Not very European, so to speak.
So, the only newspaper that reported on Kurz‘s visit was Corriere dell’Alto Adige. An editorial by Toni Visentini strongly implied that the politics pursued by Kurz – as well as SVP, by association – pursue a type of Europe where it is OK to say “’Austrians first’, ‘Italians first’, ‘Britain first’, in a context where everyone is free to suddenly say no to commonly agreed rules because one doesn’t like them anymore.” In the same vein, Visentini, a prominent local journalist, also said that “[Vladimir] Putin and [Donald] Trump … do not want a strong and united Continent but would rather deal with many small, disjointed countries – weaker ones. [Europe] is at the risk of imploding from within at the hand of their allies, of whom there are already many in sundry countries.”
You could argue that by openly flirting with the current Viennese government, you are implicitly supporting wider policies which put a lot pressure on Europe. Why one should do so from the very heart of it, right from the middle of the Alps (offering in theory an all-encompassing view on things) is suspicious to say the least, especially at a time of such unusual prosperity. But obviously the bigger fish sometimes need the help of keen, smaller fish too. Keeping this to themselves and not telling anybody else is part of their game.
Thankfully, conscientious reporters doing their job properly are still on the scene. Yet, the bigger question remains: why all this secrecy? To paraphrase America – in open information we trust.
First published on the author’s site and reproduced with permission. Image by the author.
Alessio Colonnelli is a freelance writer on Europe; minority rights and regional autonomies; political dissent; and the state of social democracy.
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