On Thursday evening, Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz flew to Berlin to celebrate a European vaccine triumph, as he presented the Axel Springer Award (previous recipients include Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk) to the founders of the German company BioNTech.
It was a notable contrast to the role Kurz had cast for himself just days before: as the leading critic of what he saw as a European vaccination disaster.
On Tuesday, Kurz had stood alongside the leaders of Bulgaria, the Czech Republic and Slovenia, and excoriated the EU’s vaccination distribution programme. It was failing to distribute doses of Covid-19 vaccines fairly and fast to member states, he said, and EU leaders needed to take urgent action.
It was a carefully choreographed critique. And it followed others. Only the Friday before, Kurz had attacked the EU’s vaccine programme for its opacity and lack of accountability.
The broadside caught many in Brussels off guard, with seasoned diplomats, and even key allies, taken aback by the bluntness of the Austrian leader’s criticism. German chancellor Angela Merkel could not find time in her diary to meet Kurz on his two-day visit to Berlin — though both sides insisted the lack of a meeting was simply a matter of bad timing.
Austrian government officials have been at pains to downplay any notion of a rift. The chancellor is very supportive of the European Commission’s work, said one senior chancellery official in Vienna. Kurz’s frustration, they added, was aimed at the EU body responsible for guiding vaccine distribution, the so-called steering group. It had acted far beyond its political remit and the framework agreed by EU leaders, the official said.
To observers in Brussels, however, Kurz’s disquiet over the EU’s vaccine drive appears to follow a familiar pattern.
As with his alignment with “frugal”, fiscally conservative countries that held up recent EU budget negotiations, it repeats a modus operandi in which alliances with other small European states on specific issues are leveraged to some effect on the EU stage.
Barely three weeks ago, for example, Kurz flew to Israel to meet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to forge a future “vaccine alliance” alongside Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen. Then, as now, officials played down any notion of a disagreement with the commission. But the implicit message was that Austria did not have confidence in the EU to safeguard its future health interests.
In Austria itself, Kurz’s stand-off with Brussels has also attracted attention.
“A lot of people were surprised to be honest — even people that know him quite well. It was a massive attack on the EU,” said Thomas Hofer, a prominent Austrian political commentator and strategist.
“My take is that it was born out of a very, very defensive position [domestically] that the chancellor and his party have been in for some weeks now.”
The government, a coalition between Kurz’s conservative Austrian People’s party and the Greens, has been embroiled in a corruption scandal reaching the upper levels of government. Kurz’s ratings, the highest for any Austrian chancellor in years, have begun to slide. The People’s party is now polling at around 35 per cent, down from 37.5 per cent in the 2019 election, and highs of 40 per cent over the course of his premiership.
Austria has delivered just 13 doses of vaccine per 100 residents, slightly ahead of the European average of 12. In comparison, the UK has now delivered 40 doses per 100 residents.
Moreover, Austria has been among the countries in Europe worst hit economically by the crisis. Gross domestic product declined in the last quarter by 4.3 per cent, preliminary data show — more than for any other country in the EU.
“Kurz is very good at picking up on sentiments or feelings out there in the public and getting the best out of them for himself,” said Hofer. “For a part of his base I think this [criticism of the EU] might play very well. Everybody is looking for someone to blame.”
Following the chancellor’s criticism of the EU, the opposition Austrian Social Democratic party said: “When Sebastian Kurz points his finger at others, he’s usually screwed something up himself.”
One senior People’s party official suggested there might also be a personal dimension to Kurz’s attacks on the EU vaccine steering committee. That body’s co-president is the Austrian Clemens-Martin Auer, a former People’s party health official in Austria. Kurz and Auer have repeatedly fallen out over political and public health issues.
Kurz’s dealings with Brussels also reflect a generational divide, said Velina Tchakarova, director of the Austrian Institute for European and Security Policy. Many older politicians in Brussels disapprove of his style.
“He is actually a very strong proponent of the European project, but what is new is that he comes to it from a new generation of political leadership and he looks at it through different glasses.”
Tchakarova suggests that Kurz’s criticism of the vaccine process is about reinforcing EU solidarity — particularly by finding a collective voice for smaller EU states — rather than challenging it.
“I see this as part of a wider debate he is interested in having about the future of EU institutions. This is not a single case, there are going to be similar cases in the future. The question is in what way this [kind of approach] can be constructive.”