Sebastian Kurz, the conservative Chancellor of Austria, may have found a solution to one of Europe’s most vexing problems: the rising popularity of the radical right.
Unlike many of his peers in Germany, he does not want to dismiss Europe’s new nationalists as a bunch of neo-Nazis in disguise. Nor does he support the strategy of a cordon sanitaire, which mainstream parties in France have used to isolate the xenophobes in parliament and keep their hands off the levers of power.
Instead Kurz has taken a riskier bet. He has brought the far right into his government.
At the end of last year, after leading his conservative People’s Party to victory in legislative elections, he agreed to govern in coalition with the Freedom Party, a movement founded by Austrian Nazis in the aftermath of World War II.
Kurz says the decision was a democratic necessity – the Freedom Party won more than a quarter of the vote in those elections. His critics say he made a Faustian bargain, sanitizing some of the most odious figures on the right-wing fringe and bringing them into the mainstream.
Opinion is split among E.U. leaders on the wisdom of Kurz’s partnership with the Freedom Party, whose hate-baiting attacks against migrants from the Muslim world has outraged many European liberals. But apart from some statements of disapproval, E.U. leaders have not ostracized Kurz or his coalition partners. Indeed, under his leadership, Austria took over the rotating presidency of the E.U. as planned this summer, allowing Kurz to proceed with his experiment in governing alongside the radical right.
Earlier this fall, ahead of the one-year anniversary of that experiment, TIME sat down with Kurz at his office in Vienna. At 32, he is the youngest Chancellor in Austria’s history. (This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
TIME: Back in 2000, when the Freedom Party was last allowed to join a coalition government in Austria, the world responded in outrage. The E.U. imposed sanctions against Austria that year. Israel withdrew its ambassador from Vienna, citing the Freedom Party’s history of anti-Semitism and its Nazi roots. The U.S. refused all official contacts with the Freedom Party. Hundreds of thousands of protestors brought Austrian cities to a standstill. What do you remember from that time?
I remember the demonstrations. I remember the sanctions. I also remember that many reforms were made in Austria under that government. But look, when that government was formed, I was only 14 years old. So I was interested in many things, but politics was not really one of them.
Why do you think the European reaction was so much more muted this time, when you brought the Freedom Party into your government?
I think the situation today is not comparable with the year 2000. The Freedom Party has changed a lot. And in Europe we have many right-wing or far-right parties winning elections. There is also a greater understanding in Europe that the E.U. is made up of 28 democracies. And in a democracy, whether you like it or not, it’s the people who decide. It’s the decision of the people.
Yes, but that logic has a peculiar history in Austria and Germany. During the elections held in Germany in 1932, the people decided in favor of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party, which came in first place that year with 37% of the vote. Isn’t there a lesson to be learned from that history today?
We should be very careful with such comparisons. I’m sorry. What we had back then was not a functioning democracy. The Nazis killed millions of people on our continent. They killed millions of Jews, children. So I would say it’s not right to compare today’s far-right parties with the Nazis.
Fair enough. But in 1932, no one predicted that the Nazis would soon attempt to commit genocide against the Jews. It was only clear that their rhetoric and many of their policies were targeting the Jews of Europe. Much the same can be said of the Freedom Party’s rhetoric against the Muslims of Europe today. Is that not reason enough to compare the two?
Look, there is no better form of government than democracy. What we have now is that the far left and the far right parties are getting stronger in Europe. And I think the best answer is not to focus on these parties or to criticize the voters who vote for them. What we need are politicians in the center who do a good job. And Austria is the best example of politicians in the center winning elections and doing a good job in government.
Austria is also the best example of the far-right gaining support in elections. The Freedom Party’s presidential candidate nearly won in 2016 with over 46% of the vote. How do you explain that?
To be honest, the reason why far right and far left movements became stronger and stronger in Europe is easy to understand. If grand coalitions [between the center-left and center-right], like we had for a long time in Austria, are not able to work together, if they blockade each other and fight all the time, if parties in the center forget what they need to do for the country and just follow pressure from NGOs or the media, then it’s no surprise that people vote for far right or far left parties. Most people want a normal centrist approach. But politicians in the center have to show them results.
Some of your clearest results have been on the issue of immigration. Your policies have reduced immigration into Austria dramatically. Why have you focused so much of your energy on that?
One big mistake of many politicians is to have no understanding for the real situation of people in their country. On migration, in Vienna we had the situation where things became worse and worse, and the answer of the Social Democrats who were ruling Vienna was, ‘Please, you should give up your prejudice. We will help you lose your fear. Please enjoy diversity.’
What’s wrong with losing your fear and enjoying diversity? To a lot of people those sound like positive messages.
Positive messages, yes. But positive messages from people who themselves send their children to private schools and who live in areas without many migrants. So I think that is the difference. Most people are not radical xenophobes. But if there are problems, [politicians] should not look the other way.
You gave a lot of ground in your negotiations to form a government with the Freedom Party. They got the right to appoint the heads of six out of Austria’s 10 ministries, including those responsible for the police, the military, the intelligence services and the diplomatic corps. Why did you give them so much?
First, if you really want to change a country, if you really want to make reforms, it’s necessary to start with the Ministry of Finance. For me it was extremely important to have the Ministry of Finance, because it’s relevant for the whole government, and it’s necessary to have it if you really want to change something.
The other price you paid was that you had to take on parts of their political agenda. Has that meant going against your principles?
No. It is populists who mainly do what they think is popular, but not what is best for their country. And on every issue I believe that our approach is 100% right. My positions on immigration have been consistent all these years. When I started in government, I said that children who come here should take German classes before they start regular classes, so they can follow what the teachers say. I said it should be possible to be a believing Muslim and a proud Austrian at the same time.
We did not close mosques without reasons. What we did was to close mosques that were not in line with our law. And the one who created that law was me. That was years before the  elections, years before I knew I would be a candidate [for Chancellor], years before I made a coalition with the Freedom Party. And you know which party criticized my Islam law the most? The Freedom Party. They criticized it because they said it was too soft.
Did that make you harden your position on Islam?
No. The only place where I changed my mind was on the burqa. That’s true. Because eight years ago, when I started as State Secretary [in charge of integrating migrants], I said it’s not an issue, because I never saw [women wearing veils] on the streets. But things changed. With the rise of ISIS, many people in the country became more radical.
Even when the Freedom Party causes a scandal at home or abroad—which seems to happen fairly often—you generally try to avoid criticizing them in public. Why is that? Are you trying to show a united front?
I criticize them whenever I think it is necessary. In some areas I do it one-on-one. Sometimes I do it inside the government. Sometimes I do it publicly, when I think they have crossed the line. But sometimes the criticism they get [in the media] is not right. And in those cases I don’t say anything.
- The Fight to Save the Salmon
- Inside the World of Black Bitcoin, Where Crypto Is About Making More Than Just Money
- The 'Great Resignation' Is Finally Getting Companies to Take Burnout Seriously. Is It Enough?
- Suddenly, Everyone on TV Is Very Rich or Very Poor. What Happened?
- Colin Powell Reflects on His Mistakes in Unpublished TIME Interview
- Business Travel's Demise Could Have Far-Reaching Consequences
- If the U.S. Spends Big on Climate, the Rest of the World Might Follow