On Thursday evening, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz flew to Berlin to celebrate the triumph of the European vaccine, presenting the Axel Springer Prize (previous winners include Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk) to the founders of the German company. BioNTech.
This was in marked contrast to the role Kurz had played himself days before: as the main critic of what he saw as a European vaccine disaster.
On Tuesday, Kurz stood alongside the leaders of Bulgaria, the Czech Republic and Slovenia, and excoriated the EU vaccine distribution program. It is failing to distribute doses of Covid-19 vaccines fairly and quickly to member states, he said, and EU leaders must take urgent action.
It was a carefully choreographed review. And he followed others. Only the Friday before, Kurz had attacked the EU vaccination program for its opacity and lack of accountability.
The edge caught many in Brussels off guard, with seasoned diplomats, and even key allies, surprised by the frankness of the Austrian leader’s criticism. German Chancellor Angela Merkel couldn’t find time in her diary to meet Kurz during his two-day visit to Berlin – although both sides insisted the lack of a meeting was simply a matter of bad timing.
Austrian government officials have tried to minimize any notion of a break-up. The Chancellor is very supportive of the work of the European Commission, said a senior Chancellor official in Vienna. Kurz’s frustration, they added, was aimed at the EU body responsible for guiding vaccine distribution, the so-called steering group. He has acted well beyond his political remit and the framework agreed by EU leaders, the official said.
To observers in Brussels, however, Kurz’s concern over the EU’s vaccination campaign appears to follow a familiar pattern.
As with his alignment with “frugalEconomically conservative country which has delayed recent EU budget negotiations, it repeats a modus operandi in which alliances with other small European states on specific issues are exploited to some effect on the EU stage .
Just three weeks ago, for example, Kurz flew to Israel to meet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in forge a future “vaccine alliance” alongside Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen. Then, as now, officials played down any notion of disagreement with the commission. But the implicit message was that Austria did not trust the EU to safeguard its future health interests.
In Austria itself, Kurz’s standoff with Brussels has also drawn attention.
“A lot of people were surprised to be honest – even people who knew him fairly well. It was a massive attack on the EU, ”said Thomas Hofer, a prominent Austrian political commentator and strategist.
“I think he was born from a very, very defensive position [domestically] that the Chancellor and his party have been around for a few weeks now.
The government, a coalition between the Austrian people’s conservative party of Kurz and the Greens, has been implicated in a corruption scandal reach higher levels of government. Kurz’s ratings, the highest of any Austrian chancellor in years, began to decline. The People’s Party now votes at around 35%, up from 37.5% in the 2019 election, and peaks of 40% during his tenure.
Austria delivered only 13 doses of vaccine per 100 inhabitants, slightly more than the European average of 12. In comparison, the UK has now administered 40 doses per 100 inhabitants.
In addition, Austria is one of the countries in Europe hardest hit economically by the crisis. Gross domestic product fell 4.3 percent in the last quarter, according to preliminary data, more than for any other EU country.
“Kurz is very good at picking up feelings or feelings from audiences and making the most of them for himself,” Hofer said. “For part of his base, I think [criticism of the EU] could play very well. Everyone is looking for someone to blame. ”
Following the Chancellor’s criticism of the EU, the Austrian Social Democratic opposition party said: “When Sebastian Kurz points at other people, he usually messed up something himself.
A senior People’s Party official suggested that there might also be a personal dimension to Kurz’s attacks on the EU’s Vaccines Steering Committee. The co-chair of this body is the Austrian Clemens-Martin Auer, former head of health for the People’s Party in Austria. Kurz and Auer have argued on several occasions over political and public health issues.
Kurz’s relationship with Brussels also reflects a generational divide, said Velina Tchakarova, director of the Austrian Institute for European and Security Policy. Many older Brussels politicians disapprove of his style.
“He’s actually a very strong supporter of the European project, but what’s new is that he’s coming from a new generation of political leaders and he’s looking at it through different glasses.”
Tchakarova suggests that Kurz’s critique of the vaccination process is aimed at strengthening EU solidarity – in particular by finding a collective voice for the small states of the EU – rather than questioning it.
“I see this as part of a larger debate he wants to have on the future of the EU institutions. This is not a unique case, there will be similar cases in the future. The question is how [kind of approach] can be constructive. ”