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Who is Alexander Schallenberg, Austria’s new leader?

Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg is taking on the top job after the country's leader Sebastian Kurz stepped down this weekend over a long-running corruption probe.

Austria's new Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg
Austria's former Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg is seen as a close ally of his predecessor Sebastian Kurz. Photo: Jure Makovec / AFP

On Sunday night, Schallenberg made only brief comments to media in which he said the leadership change was “a surprise for all of us”.

Born in Switzerland, he spent his childhood in India, Spain and France where his father took on ambassador roles. Aged 52, he is divorced and a father of four. 

The Foreign Minister began his career as a lawyer, heading up the legal section for Austria’s EU delegation in Brussels. After returning to his home country in 2006, Schallenberg became a press spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry, under ministers Ursula Plassnik and Michael Spindelegger.

In June 2019, the ÖVP-FPÖ government collapsed, and Schallenberg was made Foreign Minister in a transitional government, keeping his role when Sebastian Kurz won the election later that year — the only minister to do so. The new Chancellor promoted Schallenberg, giving him responsibility for “strategic foreign policy planning”.

Despite only becoming a member of the Austrian People’s Party relatively recently, he showed himself to be a defender of a tough party line on migration. In 2020, after a fire at a refugee camp in Greece, Schallenberg went on TV to reiterate the position of not taking in refugees from the disaster, calling to “remove the emotions from the debate”. He later said he regretted his choice of words but not his stance.

The new Schallenberg government is set to be sworn in on October 11th.

He’s seen as a strong ally of predecessor Sebastian Kurz, who told Der Spiegel in a 2007 interview that Schallenberg was one of the most talented ministers he had ever known.

Political analyst Thomas Hofer told AFP that his appointment meant Kurz would continue to be the party’s most influential person.

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

One of the challenges facing the new Chancellor is leading a coalition with the Green Party, which has different views to the ÖVP on several issues and not least migration. 

In August, Schallenberg criticised the Greens for their “derogatory tone” after Vice Chancellor Werner Kogler accused the ÖVP of lacking humanity over the acceptance of more refugees from Afghanistan.

Speaking on national broadcaster ORF’s ZIB 2 news programme, the then Foreign Minister said of the coalition: “This is not a marriage of love […] but the cooperation actually works very well.”

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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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