As their country takes over the the EU's presidency, Austrian MEPs are divided on how the country's policies under chancellor Sebastian Kurz will influence European politics amid the rise of populism.

"Tensions have increased in the European Union. Our objective is to make the best possible use of our geographic position and be a 'bridge builder'," Kurz himself told journalists in Vienna last week.

There are concerns, however, about a government that includes the far-right Freedom Party (FPO) taking the lead in forming the policies of the bloc, on the back of a populist surge in Europe.

"In this period in the EU to have Austria in this pivotal position is a huge problem," Austrian Green MEP Michel Reimon bluntly told EUobserver.

"In this period in the EU to have Austria in this pivotal position is a huge problem," Austrian Green MEP Michel Reimon bluntly told EUobserver.

But Othmar Karas, an influential Austrian MEP from Kurz's own centre-right People's Party (OVP), argued it was a "common prejudice" to call Kurz's government populist, and that Kurz's policies are very much pro-EU. 

"Having a stable majority does not mean that you are a populist," he said.

"Kurz pushes forward with long-overdue reforms in Austria, which do not please everybody," he said, citing a new law, adopted on 5 July, that makes working time more flexible, and allows working days of up to 12 hours a day under some conditions.

Karas admitted however that while the FPO has adopted Kurz's 'constructive European' stances within the government, in the European Parliament they oppose everything that is European. 

"This is a problem," he added. 

Austria took over the EU presidency on 1 July. Presidencies are able to prioritise some policies over others, and push harder on issues that are in line with their own interests. 

Kurz reshaped the OVP, and won last year's Austrian election on the back of a strong anti-immigration stance, before entering into a coalition government with the hard-right FPO. 

He last month called for an "axis of the willing against illegal migration" between Italy, Germany and his own country, just as German chancellor Angela Merkel was embroiled in bitter dispute over returning asylum seekers with her interior minister Horst Seehofer, who leads the CSU, the Bavarian sister party to Merkel's CDU. 

Reimon said that Austria's presidency could give a boost to nationalist and populist forces in Europe. 

'Honest broker'

"The EU is in a very special situation as we see the developments with the new Italian government and the German internal political situation with [the] Bavarian CSU," he said. 

"This is a fragile time for the EU and now having a right-wing government overseeing the EU presidency could give a final kick [boost] to the populist movement," the MEP warned. 

That assessment is disputed by Karas. 

"I am glad that Sebastian Kurz is in charge of Austria's EU policies, not the FPO, the junior partner in the government. Austria is known as a country of careful diplomacy," he said, adding that Kurz's government will speak on "equal footing" with EU partners to find compromises.

"Our goal has to be to promote European solutions and to develop the EU further. If the EU is capable of acting and delivers, this will cut away the ground for populists and nationalist," Karas added. 

EU officials also insist that despite including a far-right party, Austria's government will act as an "honest broker" in controversial issues and, just as other member states taking the presidency position, it can work for the common interest. 

"We are swimming in the same direction," European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said in Vienna last week. "The Austrian government has a clearly pro-European programme."

Karas added that the presidency will give an opportunity for Austria to show that the country is "committed to the European cooperation" and to make its citizens understand that the "EU is not 'somewhere in Brussels', but we are all Europe".

However, the Green's Reimon argued that Kurz gets some of his ideas from Hungary's populist leader Viktor Orban and that Kurz can influence the discussion. 

Reimon noted Kurz is the first head of a western government to emulate Orban's policies. 

Karas said he does not see where Orban had influenced Kurz's policies - adding that Kurz wants to further European integration in security and defence, move forward with trade and upgrade the European external border protection. 

"All this is pro-European," he argued. 

"The fact that Kurz meets Orban or the Visegrad prime ministers does not mean that he is seeking a special alliance with them," he said, adding that Kurz enacted policies that hurt Hungarian workers living in Austria, such as cutting child benefits, and that French president Emmanuel Macron has also met with the V4 leaders. 

Pro-EU

Knowing Austria's government was briefly boycotted by the EU in 2000 for having included the far-right FPO in the coalition, Kurz travelled to Brussels a day after he was sworn in to prove his pro-European credentials to the EU.

"Kurz is definitely pro-EU when it comes to economic issues, and there is no talk about Austria leaving the EU," Reimon said. But he added: "On political and social issues he is anti-EU, when it comes to the political perspective for the EU."

"Kurz is reading the polls and is doing what is giving him a majority … there is no ideology behind what he is doing," he said. 

He added that the reason the EU does not criticise Kurz is that Brussels has learned, via the example of Hungary and Poland, that the commission lacks the means to confront member states' whose governments challenge core EU values. 

Reimon said Kurz copies 'Orban's model' by pushing for political control over the state media to a new level, mobilising against perceived threats - and realising that smaller EU states can shape events by blocking policies. 

He also added that Kurz's coalition partner, the staunchly pro-Russian FPO, has replicated in Austria the Orban government's campaign against US billionaire George Soros. 

Kurz's far-right allies have been trying to prove their EU credentials, despite being allied with anti-EU forces such as France's National Rally - the former National Front - in the European Parliament.

"Being in the same group doesn't mean that we all agree on everything," transport minister Norbert Hofer told journalists last week. 

Hofer, who was the FPO's candidate in the 2016 presidential election, insisted that his party was critical of the EU "if it becomes a purely centralised union," and that it would do "everything possible" to help the EU presidency work for a "more united" EU.

Long battle

From Hungary's Orban to Italy's far-right League and Germany's Alternative for Germany (AfD), politicians have been exploiting and stoking up anxieties of voters, who feel threatened by different aspects of globalisation, such as the EU's free movement. 

Across Europe, some feel left behind as they could not reap the economic benefits of economies opening up, but were hit by austerity during the financial crisis. 

Mainstream social democratic and centre-right parties have been slow to address these voters' concerns and their answers have so far been inadequate, forcing them to rethink their basic policies. 

Reimon said those parties, now often in opposition, will have to "accept that this is a very long-term battle". 

He said the last 30 years of mainstream politics said when 'the markets know best what to do', people started to lose faith in the problem-solving capacity of politics. 

"The real fight we have to do is to restore trust in politics and democracy, and we have to redistribute the economic growth of the last 27 years," he said.

"This is not about winning the next elections," he added.