Less than two months after he was sworn in for the second time as the Chancellor of Austria in a remarkable political comeback, Sebastian Kurz took a telephone call in early March that sent a shiver up his youthful spine.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was on the phone to relay an urgent warning. The pair first hit it off in 2013 when Kurz became Austria’s foreign minister aged just 27, and speak regularly. This call, though, was different. Netanyahu was watching coronavirus seep out of northern Italy and into continental Europe with rising alarm and felt compelled to offer some blunt advice.
“You are underestimating this in Europe. Wake up and take action,” Netanyahu boomed down the line from Jerusalem. Kurz describes the warning as a “wake-up call” that galvanised the 33-year-old Chancellor into action. Prime Minister Scott Morrison would soon be sharing phone calls with Kurz and Netanyahu as the crisis unfolded.
Austria was one of the first countries in Europe to close its land borders and impose a nationwide lockdown. Nearly 700 people have died from the pandemic in the Alpine republic – a remarkable outcome given its 400-kilometre border with hard-hit Italy. On a per capita basis, the disease has caused 76 deaths per million in Austria compared to 646 in Spain, 625 in Britain, 571 in adjoining Italy, 500 in Sweden, 454 in France and 106 in much-lauded Germany.
“It was good that we acted early, it was good that we reacted tough just as Australia and New Zealand did,” Kurz tells The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age in an interview from Vienna. “That was the reason it was possible to save lives in Austria and also the reason why we have been able to reopen our economy much faster than others.”
Kurz – a rising star of centre-right politics in Europe who is the world’s youngest leader – studied which other countries had also avoided a full-blown outbreak and sensed an opportunity to band together and share information, particularly about the best ways to ease economy-wrecking lockdowns without allowing the disease to explode.
The result is the so-called First Movers, an eclectic group of nations that ordinarily would have zero geographic, political or economic need to talk. The alliance comprises five European countries: Austria, Denmark, Norway, Greece and the Czech Republic, as well as Israel, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand.
Leaders privately believe the group has been hugely valuable at a time when bigger multilateral institutions like the United Nations, World Health Organisation and European Union have struggled to respond swiftly and practically to the crisis. There are also few lessons to learn from traditional powers like the United States and United Kingdom — other than perhaps not what to do.
“I think it’s not a competition with international organisations,” Kurz says. “But besides these big and necessary structures, it is good to have more direct contact with different countries like Australia where you can have a very open exchange of views and where you can learn from each other.”
The group has met three times online. Morrison has beamed in from his Parliament House suite with a particular interest in discussing how students can return to school as soon as possible but also used the gathering to build global support for an independent investigation into the origins of the virus.
Kurz instructed his staff to contact Australia’s ambassador to Austria, Brendon Hammer, to float the idea of Morrison joining the meetings. Hammer embraced the idea and quickly cabled his thoughts to Canberra. Morrison enthusiastically embraced the invitation to talk to Europeans who had managed to defy the surge of the virus across the continent.
“He loves this group,” said one person close to the Prime Minister. “They are practical people and have practical answers. No huge egos, just people who want to learn from each other.”
The leaders have also talked about strategies to reopen their economies, shared details of their respective testing and tracking regimes, and how to roll out a possible COVID-19 vaccine.
Kurz says a vaccine would not be compulsory in his country: “We think that’s not the question at the moment. The question is will we find a vaccine and will there be enough capacity for all countries in the EU? That’s the question we have at the moment and where we have to deliver.”
Kurz has only just returned to office in January after his first stint as Chancellor in coalition with the far-right Freedom Party collapsed after the junior partner was hit by a corruption scandal, prompting fresh elections in September 2019. The Kurz-led People’s Party won even more seats than before but now governs in an unlikely coalition with the Greens.
The Chancellor’s strong response to the pandemic has seen his popularity spike, and his Health Minister Rudolf Anschober — a Green — has also been widely praised.
But Austria’s response has not been without controversy. It failed to detect a major outbreak in its hugely busy Ischgl ski resort and its border measures drew some initial criticism, including from European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen who claimed closures threatened to interrupt the flow of goods throughout the bloc.
Kurz agrees his controversial hardline stance on immigration during the European migrant crisis made him more prepared to enact measures during the pandemic that are the antithesis of the EU’s open border operating model.
But he says there is now irrefutable evidence that tough restrictions in Austria, Israel and Australia have had a major impact in controlling the virus.
“It was good to take the right decision and not waste too much time on ideological questions,” he says.
“We knew this was a dangerous virus, that we could import the virus from Italy, and that is the reason why we decided to close the borders. I think those who said we need open borders were on the wrong track. One of the main goals of politics is to solve problems, not to pursue an ideology that is stronger than the reality you are dealing with.”
Bevan Shields is the Europe correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.