Even before his first actions in office, Austria’s new foreign minister drew greater domestic and international media attention than most foreign ministers of the small Alpine country are used to. Why? Because Sebastian Kurz, aged 27, is the youngest federal minister in Austrian history and also the youngest European foreign minister to date. But apart from shallow sensationalism, how should we regard this rather unusual appointment? Is it a ground-breaking role-model for youth involvement in high-level politics or just a PR stunt with detrimental side-effects for the office and foreign politics?
Kurz was born in Vienna in 1986. He entered politics at the age of 17 when he became a member of the youth organisation of the Austrian People’s Party in 2003. He served as chairman of the Young People’s Party first at regional level in Vienna and later at federal level. The fact that he never completed his study of law at the University of Vienna was something critics would later sneer at. Kurz himself probably doesn’t mind too much, as his career advanced significantly in 2011 when he was appointed Secretary of State for Integration. This first appointment was accompanied by controversial debates in media and social networks that focused on his young age and little political experience, mostly predicting soon and complete failure. Media coverage grew more favorable, however, when it turned out that Kurz was quite apt at taking initiatives and assuming relatively moderate positions in Austria’s heated-up debate on integration affairs.
As he had successfully avoided major political mistakes in his two years in office, he was in an auspicious position on the eve of general elections in October 2013. He was able to use his positive image in the public to attain the most preferential votes of any candidate for the National Assembly (35.000 votes). In a surprising move, the Austrian People’s Party nominated him for the office of foreign minister in late 2013. Again, many observers reacted with doubt as to whether Kurz possesses the political experience and expertise the office requires. As in 2011, public opinion was beginning to shift in favor of Kurz after it became evident that he was able to perform the basic tasks as foreign minister – such as highly ritualised state visits or standing one’s ground in open debates in international organisations.
How much expertise does one really need?
Three months after his assumption of office, we are now in the position to assess what is true about the concerns and hopes associated with the 27-year-old foreign minister that were voiced by his critics and supporters. Take, for instance, the argument that his lack of experience in international relations and his little experience in domestic politics makes him unsuitable as foreign minister. Critics of this arguments have been swift to point out that most previous foreign ministers did not have a background in international relations either, instead relying on the formidable expertise of ministry officials and diplomats. Proficient communication and social skills might be sufficient – at least as long as there is ample time for adequate preparations that allow staff to develop possible courses actions, political positions and briefings for the minister. Up until now, this work mode seems to have stood the test. It might even yield better results than if an overly self-confident minister immune to advise insists on getting his way against the advice of his better informed and trained staff. Perhaps the greater reliance of young politicians on experts’ knowledge is an opportunity to enhance the importance of expertise in political decision-making without descending into technocracy.
One hope associated with Kurz’ appointment was that his young age would raise more attention for international affairs – a political field rather far from the centre of public interest in Austria – than a more senior foreign minister would. In this regard, the record of the past months has been sobering. While Kurz’ appointment in December and his first visits at EU institutions as well as to his colleagues in neighboring European countries did draw considerable attention of national and international media, public interest soon abated. The argument that the novelty of a 27-year-old foreign minister would redirect public attention in the long run has been refuted both in terms of quantity and quality: Public attention has not only returned to its former level but during its peak had also remained focused on the age and personal background of Kurz, rather than examining the actual issues the was dealing with in greater detail.
A role model for youth?
The expectation that Kurz can serve as a role model for other youth is double-edged. On the one hand, he does illustrate that important governmental offices are not out of reach of young people determined to pursue a political career. On the other hand, Kurz’ career is not that of a one unsatisfied with the state of politics who strives to alter the workings of our political system. Instead, Kurz is a perfect example of Austrian party politics – working his way up in the Austrian People’s Party, avoiding to raise uncomfortable questions or issues, and not even remotely acting as a young rebel. This conformist’s path obviously does much to propel one’s career but might not be the kind of role-model young Austrians disaffected with the current state of politics but eager to actively participate in new forms of democracy are looking for.
A possible risk Kurz faces is that any major mistake is likely to be attributed to his age rather than simply his political convictions, his party or his way of working. However, one advantage Kurz enjoys by coincidence is that his predecessor, Michael Spindelegger, was not as committed to foreign policy as some diplomats and ministry officials would have liked. Spindelegger not only held the office of foreign minister but also those of vice-chancellor in a coalition government and of head of the Austrian People’s Party, both rather cumbersome and time-consuming offices. Spindelegger’s time as foreign minister was unmarked by any significant political successes and somewhat tainted by Austria’s surprising and unilateral withdrawal of its 380 troops from the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon peacekeeping mission following clashes between Syrian rebels and the Syrian army near the border. So the standard Kurz has to achieve in order to compare favorably with his antecessor is not too high.
So has the time come for other high-level offices to be held by young politicians? Based on the experience examined in this article, yes, since young age itself is no characteristic disqualifying anyone as long as other skills and attitudes allow for the lack of experience and expertise to be compensated by the political infrastructure high-level officials have at their disposal. The hope that Kurz can serve as a role-model for Austria’s youth and motivate them to engage in (new forms of) politics, however, is delusional, as Kurz’ career more closely resembles party politics of the 20th century than it reflects the views and expectations of those increasingly disaffected with the state of politics.
Images source: http://oevp-wien.at/sebastian-kurz/startseite