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‘Challenging task’: foreign minister to become Austrian leader after graft scandal

Austria's top diplomat Alexander Schallenberg on Sunday said an "enormously challenging task" awaited him after embattled Chancellor Sebastian Kurz named him as his successor in a spectacular leadership change in the EU member.

Austria's Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg (C) arrives to meet Austria's President at Ballhausplatz in Vienna, on October 10, 2021. 
Austria's Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg (C) arrives to meet Austria's President at Ballhausplatz in Vienna, on October 10, 2021. Photo: ALEX HALADA / AFP

Kurz – at age 35 one of Europe’s youngest leaders and long celebrated as a “whizz kid” — announced late Saturday that he was stepping down as chancellor, bowing to pressure to resign after he was implicated in a corruption scandal.

Saying he wanted to “make space to prevent chaos,” the conservative — who has headed two governments over the last four years — has suggested foreign minister Schallenberg to take over the chancellery.

‘New chapter’

The 52-year-old diplomat met President Alexander Van der Bellen on Sunday following a talk with Vice Chancellor Werner Kogler of the Greens.

In brief comments before meeting the president, Schallenberg spoke of an “enormously challenging task and time, not easy for any of us”.

“But I think we are showing an incredible degree of responsibility for this country,” he told reporters.

Kogler, who in turn was seeing Van der Bellen, told reporters he had a “good, trustful” meeting with Schallenberg earlier in the day.

“Above all, I am pleased that there is the possibility of opening a new chapter in the government coalition work,” the 59-year-old Greens veteran said.

Kogler had already indicated late Saturday that his party would support Schallenberg to keep the conservative-Greens coalition in government.

Pressure on Kurz to resign, including from the Greens, started after prosecutors on Wednesday raided several locations linked to his People’s Party (OeVP).

They announced that Kurz and nine other individuals were under investigation over claims that government money was used between 2016 and 2018 in a corrupt deal to ensure positive media coverage.

Kurz has denied any wrongdoing, reiterating on Saturday that allegations against him were “false” and that he would seek to clear up the matter while he continues as party leader and as a lawmaker in parliament.

‘Place holder’

Analyst Thomas Hofer said Kurz would, for now, continue to be “the most influential person in the People’s Party on the national stage”.

“In Kurz’ view, Schallenberg is a place holder… Kurz made his move in such a way that he still is in control of the party and the government team on his side,” Hofer told AFP.

The opposition has blasted the continued conservative-Greens coalition given the graft investigation, with Social Democrats (SPOe) leader Pamela Rendi-Wagner saying even on the back benches Kurz would remain a “shadow chancellor”.
The OeVP-Greens coalition — a first at a national level — entered office in January 2020 and has already been put under strain several times by the fallout from other corruption scandals and differences over questions such as refugee policy.
In the latest scandal, prosecutors’ core allegation is that between 2016 and 2018 finance ministry resources were used to finance “partially
manipulated opinion polls that served an exclusively party-political interest”.
This correlates to the time period in which Kurz, already a government minister, took over the leadership of the OeVP and later that of the Alpine nation at the helm of a coalition with the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe).
Prosecutors allege that payments were made to an unnamed media company – widely understood to be the Oesterreich tabloid, which was also raided on Wednesday — in return for publishing these surveys.
In 2019, Kurz’s first coalition with the FPOe collapsed after his ally became engulfed in a corruption scandal dubbed “Ibizagate”.
But fresh elections once again saw Kurz’s OeVP come out on top, leading him to form a coalition with the Greens from January 2020.

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AUSTRIAN CITIZENSHIP

Could presidential criticism lead to Austrian citizenship rule changes?

Federal President Alexander Van der Bellen has hit out at Austria's naturalisation process, saying "the hurdles are too high". But how hard is it to get Austrian citizenship - and will the criticism lead to change?

Could presidential criticism lead to Austrian citizenship rule changes?

Austria’s federal president Alexander Van der Bellen, who is eyeing a second term in office in the autumn elections, has said that the hurdles for citizenship are too high in the alpine country.

“Citizenship is a valuable asset. I think the hurdles for obtaining it are too high.”, he said in an interview with the newspaper Kleine Zeitung.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How does Austria’s presidential election work?

Van der Bellen mentioned a case with a German citizen who has lived in Austria for 20 years and cannot obtain dual citizenship: “He can vote neither here nor there. And that is the European Union?”

Austria does not allow for dual citizenship of naturalised citizens except in very few cases (including naturalisation of those who are descendants of Holocaust victims).

This is one of the many hurdles to citizenship in the country.

What makes Austrian citizenship so difficult to get?

Citizenship through naturalisation, meaning you are not the son or daughter of an Austrian citizen, is particularly hard to get.

First of all, the majority of applicants will need to give up any other citizenships they hold. So, a British citizen taking Austrian nationality through marriage or residence time will have to give up their British passport.

READ ALSO: Which European countries have the toughest rules for gaining citizenship?

Besides severing that connection to a home country where people might still have many ties, this can lead to difficulties in matters of inheritance and property ownership, for example.

The naturalisation process is also long and expensive in Austria. In Vienna, the application costs €130. If successful, the new Austrian citizen can expect to pay from € 1,100 to € 1,500 just for the award – that doesn’t include costs with documentation, translation, and issuance of documents such as an Austrian passport.

The length of the process varies, but it can take more than a year for citizenship to be awarded.

The requirements will also be different depending on how long the person is legally an Austrian resident and what is their connection to the country.

READ ALSO: Reader question: Will my children get an Austrian passport if born in Austria?

For example, after 30 years of residence in Austria, you need to prove you are not a danger to the country and that you can support yourself.

You also need to prove German skills and pass a citizenship test.

The minimum amount of time of legal residency after which you can require citizenship is six years for people who fall into specific categories, such as legal and uninterrupted residence in Austria and possession of the citizenship of an EEA state, birth in Austria or German at a B2 level.

Will Austria change its citizenship rules?

It is improbable that there will be any significant changes soon. Despite Van der Bellen’s statements, citizenship laws are not within the federal president’s competence and mostly depend on legislative changes.

The party leading the ruling coalition, ÖVP, is against any changes, claiming that making the process easier would “depreciate” Austrian citizenship.

READ ALSO: ​​Why has naturalisation in Austria doubled in 2022 – and who are the new citizens?

Austria has recently seen a jump in naturalisation numbers, but that can largely be viewed as a one-off phenomenon after changes in the process for descendants of Nazi victims.

While junior partner Greens have been in favour of easing some rules, little is expected to happen with the ÖVP in power. The next parliamentary elections are set for 2024, though. If the SPÖ continues climbing in the polls, an SPÖ-Green coalition could push forward different rules.

Also, if the Red-Green-Yellow ruling coalition in Germany does succeed in easing naturalisation rules in the neighbouring country, Austria could see further pressure for domestic changes.

But that remains to be seen, mainly depending on the 2024 election results.

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