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Austrian opposition calls for free all-day childcare

Austria's centre-left opposition has renewed calls for free all-day childcare, arguing that documents from the corruption probe into ex-chancellor Sebastian Kurz show he sabotaged a previous effort to introduce this.

Man and child playing with building blocks
Currently, childcare provision varies significantly between Austria's states. Photo: Ketut Subiyano/Pexels

All-day childcare is currently not available for all families in Austria, but the Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ) is calling for it to be mandated by law for children under three.

 At a press conference on Thursday, Pamela Rendi-Wagner, SPÖ Chairwoman, argued that Austria is lagging behind countries like Germany and Denmark that already provide all-day childcare.

Rendi-Wagner was joined by Lower Austria SPÖ leader Franz Schnabl at the press conference.

Currently, kindergarten in Austria is only mandatory for children from the age of five with a minimum requirement of 20 hours a week, which means many families are left without state-funded childcare in the afternoon.

However, childcare provision varies depending on the state with stark differences between places like Vienna, where parents can access subsidized all-day childcare, and Tyrol, where only the minimum allowance is provided by the government.

READ MORE: How does childcare work in Austria?

The demand for the expansion of childcare by the SPÖ follows recent allegations that former Federal Chancellor Sebastian Kurz (ÖVP) blocked a proposed all day childcare law in 2016.

Rendi-Wagner said: “The expansion [of childcare] would have been an urgently needed step for children, schoolchildren, mothers and families.”

On Twitter, Rendi-Wagner also shared concerns about the amount of money currently being spent on childcare by the federal government.

She said: “Hope a few zeros have been forgotten here. But fear it is a sad reality.”

The SPÖ is now planning to introduce the issue to parliament, at both a state and federal level.

What is the background to the all-day childcare law?

Back in 2016, the Austrian federal government was considering a new law to provide families across Austria with all day childcare by 2020.

However, recently revealed communications between Kurz and Thomas Schmid, then-Secretary General in the Ministry of Finance, show the duo discussed blocking the planned law that was being spearheaded by then-Chancellor Reinhold Mitterlehner (ÖVP).

READ MORE: Who’s who? The key players in Austrian politics

According to the Kronen Zeitung, Rendi-Wagner says the law was blocked to allow then-Foreign Minister Kurz to pave a way to become Federal Chancellor.

Kurz became Chancellor in December 2017 but he recently resigned amid an investigation into alleged corruption. An explainer article about Kurz’s resignation can be found here.

The cost for the original proposal for all day childcare in 2016 was €1.2 billion.

According to the Austria Press Agency (APA), Austria’s municipalities have since benefited financially from the funds that should have been invested into childcare.

What are the other parties saying about childcare?

On Thursday, Upper Austria’s governor Thomas Stelzer (ÖVP) and FPÖ leader Manfred Haimbuchner, presented their political guidelines for the next six years. 

Der Standard reports that the plan includes an expansion of childcare in the state by increasing the number of childcare facilities and introducing longer opening times.

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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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