Austria’s Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s approach to COVID-19 has been different from the rest of Europe. Similar to the refugee crisis in 2015 when Kurz was primarily responsible for closing the Balkan route, the Chancellor is also taking a bold position in the current crisis.
Kurz’s Big Decision
While other nations remain in lockup Kurz has pledged to initiate a return to normal. With his actions, Kurz, who remains tremendously popular in Austria, has many Germans looking enviously across the border. While Chancellor Angela Merkel’s crisis management and leadership have been stellar during the pandemic, there are quite a few people in Germany who would not mind swapping chancellors if it was an option. Merkel, well known for prolonged reasoning and assessment of the situation before making a decision, is very different from Kurz, who tends to be quick and decisive.
Europe is at a Crossroads
While COVID-19 is leading the European economy into the abyss — the recent €500 billion rescue package notwithstanding — Kurz is not inclined to wait for Germany nor for the EU to give the go-ahead. Unilaterally, Kurz is about to switch from defense to offense, and while doing so, he is inherently putting pressure on his neighbors — Germany in particular. Even Merkel recently admitted that Austria was “always one step ahead of Germany,” which is immense praise from a country that has arguably dealt with the crisis better than any other nation to this point.
Merkel’s words are honest, but frustrating for Germans at the same time. If Germany were not one of the wealthiest industrial nations in the world with arguably the best health care system on the planet, the proclivity for German citizens to adhere to the orders from “Mutti” — a well know German nickname for Merkel, meaning mother — would decline by the day.
Kurz is Leading the Way With Courage
Kurz is now leading the way for the rest of the continent. Everyone is cognizant that these last weeks have not been easy. People have been pushed to their limits, whether it has been financially, health-wise, or even psychologically. Several fundamental rights, such as the right to practice religion, freedom of assembly, and freedom of movement, have already been severely restricted in as part of the countermeasures evoked. In addition, many people fear for their future. The mood across Europe, around the world, remains deeply volatile. The longer nations are being shut down, the more likely an economic crisis becomes and the more detrimental the effect will be on individuals.
Sebastian Kurz is aware of all of these possibilities, these fears. His decision to get Austria out of the lockdown is not only groundbreaking and courageous. It is a potential sign of hope. During these depressing times, Kurz is providing people with some light at the end of the tunnel.
When Will Austria Reopen?
That light will likely appear rather soon. Kurz has promised Austrians that if they continued to adhere to the lockdown rules for another week, the country will start to reopen after Easter and then gradually move back towards normal. Kurz’s plan aims first to have regular shops begin to conduct business again. On May 1, all shops, including hairdressing salons and shopping centers, are supposed to follow. Meanwhile, schools will resume in the middle of May at the earliest, and restaurants are set to gradually reopen. Still, big events remain prohibited until at least the end of June in Austria, and the strict exit restrictions will continue to apply until at least the end of April.
Even if the announced easing is ultimately delayed, Kurz has already defused the horrid current situation with his words alone. He has been the personification of leadership, and if Austria were indeed to successfully reverse the shutdown in the upcoming weeks, the rest of the world will also get a jolt of much-needed hope. While the EU is not too impressed with his unilateral approach, it might thank him if Kurz manages to create the blueprint for the whole continent to return to normal — whatever a “normal” post-COVID-19 may look like.