Hanging behind the desk of Sebastian Kurz, the Austrian foreign minister who led his party to victory in Sunday’s elections, there is a massive artwork that dominates the room. It consists of a map of Europe, nearly as big as the wall it hangs on, covered in black sketches of young people lounging around or going for walks in a modern city. Only after staring at the work for a moment does one realize that the map is upside down.
Early this February, when Kurz sat for an interview with TIME at his office at the Foreign Ministry, he left a similar impression on your correspondent. On the surface he seemed like the image of a young, confident and easy-going European. But after listening to him speak, it was clear that he does not shy from turning European politics on its head. “Many of my supporters,” he told me, “They want to change the system, and they are not in favor of the establishment.”
It was a fitting description of how Kurz – a conservative from one of Europe’s oldest and stodgiest parties – managed to win in an era of ballot-box insurgencies: he styled himself as one of the insurgents. Early results suggested on Monday that his center-right People’s Party won 31% of the vote, while its most likely coalition partner in the next government, the far-right Freedom Party, got 27%. The outcome caps an incredible rise to power for Kurz, who was only 24 years old when he became a government minister in 2011. Now 31, he is set to be the youngest Chancellor in Austria’s history – and the youngest elected leader in the world.
One of the qualities that aided his career, he says, is a kind of political flexibility that rejects the old boundaries between the right and the left. Like many of his peers in European politics, he tends to pick his policies based on what works and what’s popular, regardless of whether it fits with the standard vision of his party. “It’s a question of evidence-based politics,” he says. “If you know that something does not work, you should not keep doing it.”
Over the last two years, this approach has sometimes brought him into conflict with the leaders of the E.U., whose authority he has been willing to subvert in the name of getting things done for Austria. His greatest political victory took place early in 2016, when he devised a scheme to close the E.U.’s borders to migrants and refugees. Rather than wait for the E.U. to reach consensus on how to deal with the refugee crisis of 2015, Kurz negotiated with several countries outside the E.U. – most importantly Macedonia and Serbia – in order to close the so-called Balkan route, which more than a million asylum seekers had used to reach Western Europe that year.
As Kurz puts it, “I started to cooperate not in the whole E.U. but with our Western Balkan friends.” The result was a diplomatic coup for Austria, and its young Foreign Minister was still beaming over it when we met a year later. With a nod to other European statesman and, in particular, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, he said: “They thought they would follow the right path with the policy of open borders, and they now have to inform people that this was a mistake.”
But Kurz’s move to close the gates of Europe came with some painful drawbacks. Tens of thousands of migrants, mostly from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, wound up stranded in squalid camps in northern Greece once the borders toward Western Europe were shut. It was a major blow to E.U. morale. “If these tactics will go on, this will set a fire to the base of the Union,” Dimitris Vitsas, the Greek Defense Ministry official who was in charge of dealing with the fallout from the border closures, told me at the time.
In Brussels, too, Kurz did not win many friends with his gambit in the Balkans. The E.U. was trying at the time to negotiate a separate agreement with Turkey, one that would slow the influx of migrants without leaving Greece or any other E.U. members in the lurch. When asked whether Kurz had been helpful on these efforts, the E.U.’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, grew visibly annoyed. “Don’t go into that conversation,” she told me when we spoke in February. “I don’t like at all the terminology of closing of the borders, because our borders are not closed. We manage the flows. We don’t build walls.”
But whether she liked it or not, a series of closed borders is exactly what refugees faced when they reached the Balkans early last year. As part of the agreement that Kurz negotiated, Austrian police were even dispatched to Macedonia to help secure those borders. For Kurz, it was one of the defining victories of his tenure, and he has no regrets. Closing the borders was necessary, he says, in order to stop an endless flow of migrants from risking their lives on the flimsy boats they use to reach European shores. As for the question of E.U. solidarity, he says it was already in tatters by the time he set out to close the borders. “For most E.U. countries [the refugee crisis] was not a problem,” Kurz said. “Most of them said that it’s a problem for Austria, Germany, Sweden, but not for us.”
That’s why he decided to go it alone, and in the process he set an important precedent. He showed that when the E.U. fails to build consensus within its ranks, some of its members might simply decide to go rogue, forming ad hoc alliances that ignore the interests of their fellow E.U. nations. This approach seemed to do wonders for the young diplomat’s popularity at home. It allowed him to show that regardless of the pressure he might face from Brussels, he is willing to act unilaterally on the global stage – guided only by what he perceives to be Austria’s interests.