Austria’s ex-chancellor Kurz quits politics

Austria's ex-chancellor Sebastian Kurz has announced he is leaving politics during a press conference on Thursday morning.

Sebastian Kurz
Austria's former chancellor Sebastian Kurz implicated by ally in corruption scandal (Photo by Ludovic MARIN / AFP)

The conservative, who became the world’s youngest democratically elected head of government aged 31 in 2017, announced during a press conference at 11:30 am that he is resigning as head of his party and as a lawmaker.

Kurz described the last few months as “an incredibly tense time” and a “rollercoaster of emotions”. He said the recent birth of his son made him realise he no longer wanted to be in politics.

In reference to the allegations against him, Kurz described himself as “neither a saint nor a criminal” but maintained that the allegations are false.

“A new chapter begins in my life that I can open today,” the 35-year-old conservative told reporters. “Above all, I look forward to spending time with my family and my child before I dedicate myself to new professional challenges in
the new year.”

“Today’s decision was not easy for me,” he told reporters, adding that having to fight corruption allegations against him had taken a heavy toll and diminished his “passion” for politics.

Tomorrow, Kurz will convene a meeting of the Federal Party Executive when he will hand over his role as ÖVP Chairman to August Wöginger. 

Der Standard is already reporting that government circles have said Federal Minister of the Interior Karl Nehammer will become the next Federal Chancellor of Austria.

In a spectacular turn of events, the now 35-year-old Kurz stepped down as chancellor in October, shortly after he was implicated in a sweeping corruption investigation. He was replaced by former Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg, but remained head of his party, the conservative People’s Party (ÖVP).

He has repeatedly dismissed any allegation of wrongdoing and became a member of parliament after resigning as chancellor.

Tabloid newspaper Kronen Zeitung recently cited sources close to Kurz as saying that the recent birth of his son made him want to step back from politics. The report was confirmed by Austrian news agency APA. 

READ ALSO: Comeback Kurz? Why you shouldn’t count Austria’s ex-chancellor out just yet

Kurz over the weekend announced on Facebook the birth of his son Konstantin, saying the family “was enjoying our time.”

The corruption scandal erupted in October when prosecutors ordered raids at the chancellery and the finance ministry while investigating allegations that Kurz’s inner circle used public money to pay for polls skewed to boost his image.

READ ALSO: Who’s who in Austrian politics?

Prosecutors also suspect that in return for the polls, and fawning coverage of Kurz, tabloid Österreich received lucrative public adverts. Prosecutors say that Kurz and nine other individuals, as well as three organisations are under investigation over the affair.

Kurz’s coalition with the far-right collapsed in 2019 when his ally became engulfed in a corruption scandal, leading to fresh elections. Those returned Kurz as chancellor, this time heading an administration with the Greens.

Following Kurz’s announcement, his own party colleagues as well as some opposition politicians expressed support. President Alexander Van der Bellen said he thanked Kurz in a telephone call for the “good and trustful cooperation”.

Kurz’s former deputy, Vice Chancellor Werner Kogler, said he had “great respect” for Kurz’s decision.

“Despite all the differences, we have achieved a lot together,” he tweeted.

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How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area

European countries agreed on Thursday to push towards a long-stalled reform of the bloc's migration system, urging tighter control of external borders and better burden-sharing when it comes to asylum-seekers.

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area
European interior ministers met in the northern French city of tourcoing, where president Emmanuel Macron gave a speech. Photo: Yoat Valat/AFP

The EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson, speaking after a meeting of European interior ministers, said she welcomed what she saw as new momentum on the issue.

In a reflection of the deep-rooted divisions on the issue, France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin – whose country holds the rotating EU presidency – said the process would be “gradual”, and welcomed what he said was unanimous backing.

EU countries backed a proposal from French President Emmanuel Macron to create a council guiding policy in the Schengen area, the passport-free zone used by most EU countries and some affiliated nations such as Switzerland and Norway.

Schengen council

Speaking before the meeting, Macron said the “Schengen Council” would evaluate how the area was working but would also take joint decisions and facilitate coordination in times of crisis.

“This council can become the face of a strong, protective Europe that is comfortable with controlling its borders and therefore its destiny,” he said.

The first meeting is scheduled to take place on March 3rd in Brussels.

A statement released after the meeting said: “On this occasion, they will establish a set of indicators allowing for real time evaluation of the situation at our borders, and, with an aim to be able to respond to any difficulty, will continue their discussions on implementing new tools for solidarity at the external borders.”

Step by step

The statement also confirmed EU countries agreed to take a step-by-step approach on plans for reforming the EU’s asylum rules.

“The ministers also discussed the issues of asylum and immigration,” it read.

“They expressed their support for the phased approach, step by step, put forward by the French Presidency to make headway on these complex negotiations.

“On this basis, the Council will work over the coming weeks to define a first step of the reform of the European immigration and asylum system, which will fully respect the balance between the requirements of responsibility and solidarity.”

A planned overhaul of EU migration policy has so far foundered on the refusal of countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia to accept a sharing out of asylum-seekers across the bloc.

That forces countries on the EU’s outer southern rim – Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain – to take responsibility for handling irregular migrants, many of whom are intent on making their way to Europe’s wealthier northern nations.

France is pushing for member states to commit to reinforcing the EU’s external borders by recording the details of every foreign arrival and improving vetting procedures.

It also wants recalcitrant EU countries to financially help out the ones on the frontline of migration flows if they do not take in asylum-seekers themselves.

Johansson was critical of the fact that, last year, “45,000 irregular arrivals” were not entered into the common Eurodac database containing the fingerprints of migrants and asylum-seekers.

Earlier, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser suggested her country, France and others could form a “coalition of the willing” to take in asylum-seekers even if no bloc-wide agreement was struck to share them across member states.

She noted that Macron spoke of a dozen countries in that grouping, but added that was probably “very optimistic”.

Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, hailed what he said was “a less negative atmosphere” in Thursday’s meeting compared to previous talks.

But he cautioned that “we cannot let a few countries do their EU duty… while others look away”.

France is now working on reconciling positions with the aim of presenting propositions at a March 3rd meeting on European affairs.