Austrian leader defends EU credentials in Brussels

Austrian Vice Chancelllor Heinz-Christian Strache (L) and Chancellor Sebastian Kurz attend a news conference after a cabinet meeting in Vienna, Austria, December 19, 2017. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger
European Council President Donald Tusk poses with Austria's Chancellor Sebastian Kurz ahead of a meeting in Brussels, Belgium, December 19, 2017. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir
Austria's Chancellor Sebastian Kurz poses with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker ahead of a meeting in Brussels, Belgium, December 19, 2017. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir
European Council President Donald Tusk welcomes Austria's Chancellor Sebastian Kurz ahead of a meeting in Brussels, Belgium, December 19, 2017. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

By Alastair Macdonald and Robert-Jan Bartunek

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Austria's new chancellor traveled to Brussels on Tuesday on his first foreign trip since being sworn in, aiming to dispel concerns that his coalition with the far right spells trouble for the European Union.

Responding to a letter on Monday from European Council President Donald Tusk that underlined EU worries, 31-year-old conservative leader Sebastian Kurz tweeted back that his new government would be "clear pro-European and committed to making a positive contribution to the future development of the EU".

A day after he took office at the head of a coalition with the far-right Freedom Party (FPO), Kurz delivered that message in person to Tusk and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, whose EU executive has responded to October's election with little of the outrage that greeted the FPO's first taste of government in Austria 17 years ago.

At a joint news conference in Brussels, Juncker said he would judge Kurz's government by its deeds.

"This government has a clear pro-European stance. That is what is important for me," Juncker said.

The FPO has distanced itself from its Nazi-apologist, anti-Semitic past, while surges in irregular immigration and militant attacks have pushed the European political mainstream rightward, leading to a much more muted reaction than in 2000.

But a French member of the Commission was wary: "Things are doubtless different from the previous time, in 2000," tweeted Socialist former finance minister Pierre Moscovici.

"But the presence of the far right in government is never without consequences."

Confirmation of the FPO's return to a share of power raises concern that small, wealthy Austria will be an intractable voice on EU asylum reform and efforts to increase the EU budget.

The bluntest criticism has been south of the Alps, where a plan to offer Austrian citizenship to people living in Italy's German-speaking border region has rekindled worries over old territorial arguments.

"IRON FIST, VELVET GLOVE"

A junior foreign minister in Rome said the offer may be couched in a "velvet glove of Europeanism" but bore "a whiff of the ethno-nationalist iron fist".

Kurz assured Italians on Tuesday that he would consult Rome on the plan, which is a long-standing FPO policy, adding he would speak to Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni.

For an EU battered by mounting nationalism that goes well beyond Brexit, there is concern too that criticism of Brussels in Vienna may help fuel the euroscepticism of former communist member states in Central Europe, including Poland, where the Commission is seriously considering imposing sanctions that were initially designed in response to the FPO's rise early this century.

Speaking in Brussels, Kurz said he would make it Austria's task to bridge the gap between EU member states in the east and the west, adding his country would fight to stop illegal immigration into the EU.

In a letter of congratulation to Kurz, Tusk made clear his concerns about the new coalition in Austria:

"I trust that the Austrian government will continue to play a constructive and pro-European role in the European Union," Tusk wrote, noting that Austria will from July enjoy six months of influence in Brussels as chair of EU ministerial councils.

Germany and France, the EU's lead powers, also indicated a vigilance about Austria in their comments on Monday which highlighted Kurz's pledges to foster European cooperation.

Kurz's visit to Brussels comes on the eve of an important Commission meeting on Wednesday, where Juncker's team will consider recommending sanctions on Poland for its continued defiance of warnings that its new laws on the judiciary are contrary to EU democratic standards.

"We are in a difficult process, which I hope will turn out to be a process of convergence. But not all bridges to Poland will be burnt tomorrow," Juncker said.

(Editing by Andrew Roche)

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