Austria president urges reforms after fresh graft revelations

Austria's president Alexander Van der Bellen on Thursday called for wide-ranging reforms of the country's political culture following fresh revelations over a graft scandal, which led then-chancellor Sebastian Kurz to resign last year.

Austria president urges reforms after fresh graft revelations
Austria's President Alexander van der Bellen addresses journalists at Hofburg Palace. (Photo by Joe Klamar / AFP)

Austrian politics has been rocked by a series of corruption scandals with Kurz’s resignation in 2021 marking a spectacular fall for a politician who had been hailed as the “Wunderkind” of Europe’s conservatives.

In statements to federal prosecutors leaked to media and reported on Tuesday, Thomas Schmid, a former senior official of the Austrian finance ministry and close aide of the ex-chancellor, incriminated Kurz and his conservative People’s Party (OeVP) by accusing them of misappropriating public money to pay for polls, which were skewed to boost Kurz’s image.

“We need a complete overhaul,” President Alexander Van der Bellen said in a televised address on Thursday, alluding to Austria’s political culture being repeatedly tainted by corruption.

“A transparent, comprehensible and, above all, perceptible general restructuring… is needed.”

READ ALSO: Austria’s Sebastian Kurz implicated by former ally in corruption scandal

“This is about democracy in our home country and trust in democracy, which is once again being massively shaken,” he added, calling corruption “a paralysing poison”.

According to Van der Bellen, new legislative elections are not justified at the moment.

Schmid, himself implicated in the major corruption scandal, had approached federal prosecutors in April, requesting to be a key witness, the state economic crime and corruption prosecutor (WKStA) said on Tuesday.

Since June, Schmid has been interrogated for “15 full days” by the federal prosecutors, they said.

‘Order from Kurz’

According to the testimony, Kurz allegedly knew that the polls aimed at helping him win the OeVP’s chairmanship and the chancellor’s office were funded by the Austrian finance ministry.

“Yes, he was aware of that… I only implemented this tool because I received the order from Kurz”, Schmid said referring to the commissioned polls.

“I promoted Kurz and the OeVP through the federal ministry of finance, used the resources of it to support the advancement of the OeVP under Sebastian Kurz,” Schmid added.

Schmid alleged Kurz also asked him to make a statement to exonerate Kurz of all blame.

READ ALSO: Austrian presidential elections: What exactly does the president do?

Kurz had countered his former ally’s “false accusations” by supplying to the WKStA a recording of a phone conservation between the two of them.

Kurz has announced that he would take legal action against Schmid.

The current scandal erupted in October 2021 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 favourable polls.

BACKGROUND: EXPLAINED: Why was Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz forced to resign?

Prosecutors also suspect that in return for the polls, and fawning coverage of Kurz, tabloid Oesterreich received lucrative public adverts.

Kurz resigned in October and left politics in December, with his former interior minister now running the country.

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‘Inhuman speech’: Austria’s far-right blasted for wanting to tie social benefits to German skills

Politicians in Austria criticised a far-right FPÖ leader who called for a suspension of citizenship granted to non-Europeans and for the tying of social benefits to proof of German skills.

'Inhuman speech': Austria's far-right blasted for wanting to tie social benefits to German skills

Austrian politicians criticised Austria’s Freedom Party (FPÖ) member Maximilian Krauss in Vienna after he demanded proof of German as a prerequisite for social benefits and asked for “no citizenship to be granted to people who come from outside Europe”.

Jörg Konrad, a member of the liberal party NEOS, denounced the “inhuman speech” and said that the sole criterion for receiving the benefits was “need”. “Serious politics and striving for solutions simply cannot be expected from the FPÖ,” Konrad said.

During a Vienna Parliament session on Wednesday, Krauss, chairman of the FPÖ, pointed out that more than two-thirds of the total 260,000 people “collecting” minimum benefits in Austria lived in Vienna. 

READ ALSO: What measures against foreigners is Austria’s far-right trying to take?

According to him, the majority of them, almost 60 percent, did not have Austrian citizenship and were “making themselves comfortable at the taxpayers’ expense” in Vienna.

“The majority of minimum income recipients were social migrants unwilling to work”, Krauss said.

The FPÖ representative stated: “By now, we know that neither rocket scientists nor the urgently needed skilled workers came to our country in 2015”.

Krauss called for obligatory German language skills for tenants of municipal apartments or proof of German as a prerequisite for social benefits, such as the minimum income. He also demanded that Austrian citizenship should not be granted to people who come from outside Europe and said that immigration or family reunifications must be slowed down or suspended.

What is the ‘minimum income’?

The issue was raised because, according to Krauss, migrants came to Austria and, in particular, to Vienna, looking to live off of the country’s social system and the city’s “Minimum Income” (Mindestsicherung).

According to the City of Vienna, the “minimum income” is financial support to secure the cost of living and the rent of Viennese with little or no income. Only Austrians, EU or EEA citizens, persons entitled to asylum or third-country nationals who are long-term residents can apply for this assistance. 

The applicant must also generally prove their willingness to work via registration with the labour office AMS. In addition, there are several other preconditions and required documents to apply for assistance.

The monthly payment amount varies according to each person’s conditions, but, in 2022, it’s not more than € 978 per person, with possible extra payouts of up to €117 per minor child and up to € 176 if the person has a disability.

A sign reading ‘control’ (‘Kontrolle’) stands on the road at the German-Austrian border near Lindau, southern Germany. (Photo by STEFAN PUCHNER / DPA / AFP)

‘Xenophobic instincts’

“The minimum income serves as a social safety net against poverty, especially for children, single parents and people who are particularly at risk of poverty”, said centre-left SPÖ member Kurt Wagner. 

He went further: “The FPÖ rarely contribute to solving a problem but are often the problem themselves because of their populism and xenophobic instincts”.

READ ALSO: Is Austria’s Freedom Party a ‘far-right’ party?

Green politician Viktoria Spielmann said that the minimum income is enough to ensure the most basic needs: “Have you ever had to make do with such an amount? To put the amount into perspective, rents in Vienna averaged €500. So the minimum income was the least that would secure people’s existence.” 

For her, calling recipients “lazy” or unwilling to work is unfair.

So, how much do foreigners take up?

In 2021, 135,649 Viennese received the minimum income, according to Stadt Wien data. The number of non-Austrians receiving the payments was 77,746, accounting for about 57 percent of recipients. 

However, the City of Vienna mentioned that the Austrian capital has a higher proportion of foreign residents and cited a study that concluded that compared to Austrians, migrants from non-European countries had more difficulty getting jobs, even after years of living in Austria.

READ MORE: Diversity and jobs: How migrants contribute to Vienna’s economy

Additionally, foreigners also bring money into the Austrian economy. 

Figures from Austria’s Chamber of Commerce (Wirtschaftskammer) showed that business owners in Vienna with a migration background generate € 8.3 billion in revenue and create around 45,500 jobs. 

Walter Ruck, President of the Vienna Chamber of Commerce, said: “Companies with a migrant background not only enrich the diversity of the corporate landscape in Vienna, but they are also an economic factor.”