Austria’s smoking ban and the far-right Freedom Party

Late last month, I went to Austria to do some reporting on the-far right Freedom Party (FPÖ) and its role in the new Austrian government. (Back in December, the FPÖ became the junior coalition partner for the center-right Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), led by Sebastian Kurz.)

What I came away with was a story about the controversy over a proposed smoking ban in Austrian restaurants and coffeehouses, which was slated to take effect in May but which the FPÖ insisted (as a condition of their participation in the government) be thrown out. A resulting petition, started by doctors and cancer prevention organizations but embraced by opposition parties, has garnered more than half a million signatures and serves as perhaps the main way people are registering their displeasure at the FPÖ in government.

Every person I talked to pointed out that smoking in restaurants is a quirk of Austrian culture that outsiders can’t fully grasp: “In Austria, the question of smoking in restaurants can quickly get very emotional,” one person told me (as we met in a cafe, surrounded by a cloud of smoke). In fact, “Viennese coffeehouse culture” was added to UNESCO’s list of “intangible cultural heritage” back in 2011.

You can read the piece here, on Politico Europe. (And below, enjoy photographic proof that I fully sampled Austria’s restaurant and coffeehouse culture…)

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Figlmüller, where schnitzel is larger than one’s plate
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Chocolate truffle cake and tea at Demel Bakery
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Populism and #elezioni2018 in Italy

Today, Italy goes to the polls to elect a new parliament — and populist parties, including the Five-Star Movement and the far-right Lega, are poised to make gains at the ballot box.

Though I didn’t have any previous reporting experience in Italy, I spent a week there last month on a study tour organized by the Bosch Alumni Network and the Deutsch-Franzözisches Institut. Twenty journalists from around Europe came together to meet with politicians, small business owners and refugees (often over multi-course meals, cappuccino and/or wine). The trip was incredible for several reasons — not least of which because I confirmed, once and for all, that Italy’s campaign trail food is definitely the best campaign trail food.

First, for The Atlantic, I wrote about young voters in Italy and how growing up in the post-2008 recession era has helped drive them toward populist parties like the Five-Star Movement. A youth unemployment rate that’s almost twice the European Union average, combined with a major spike in temporary job contracts, make many of the people I spoke with think about leaving Italy to find opportunity elsewhere — and deeply distrustful of the political establishment.

My second story from Germany was a little different: to begin with, it was my first-ever article auf Deutsch. I started a two-month work placement at Der Tagesspiegel in Berlin this last week, and ended up writing a piece for them about how the far-right Lega (“League”) has used anti-immigration rhetoric and euroskepticism to transform itself from a regional party to a national political force. (For German-speaking followers, you can read that one here.)

The next big election is in Russia, where I unfortunately won’t be reporting. But I’ll be back on the European campaign trail again in late March: Hungary’s elections are on April 8.

Lunch with Giulia Sarti, a member of parliament from the Five-Star Movement, in Padua

Fear and Loathing in the Bundestag

My latest story, for The Atlantic, was about one of the direct results of Germany’s September federal election: the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD)’s early days in the German Bundestag.

Though the AfD has only been in the Bundestag for a few short months, its 92 members have already changed the daily business of politics in Berlin. I spent some time in the Bundestag, watching session and speaking to members of different parties, to understand exactly what life is like with the far right around.

One politician, from the Left party, told me he’s changed the way he addresses fellow members (or Abgeordneter) during speeches on the plenary floor. No longer are they “dear colleagues”; now, they are the much more formal “ladies and gentlemen.” Bundestag staffers and members alike have stopped saying hello to strangers in the hallways, for fear that they’ve run into an AfD member. And one member of the liberal Free Democrats, when I met him for coffee in the Reichstag building in which the Bundestag chambers are located, selected a corner table for us to discuss the AfD so we wouldn’t be overheard.

While it’s still too early to give a full assessment of the party’s impact in the Bundestag, it was fascinating to see the intangible ways in which their mere presence has altered things in Berlin.

Read the piece here in The Atlantic.

The view from inside the dome of Berlin’s Reichstag building.
The view from inside the glass dome of the Reichstag building, home to Germany’s parliament

A decisive day for Germany’s potential ‘grand coalition’

Today in Bonn, 600 delegates from Germany’s center-left Social Democrats (SPD) are about to vote on whether or not to continue negotiations toward another “grand coalition” with Angela Merkel’s conservatives.

It’s of course tough to predict exactly how the vote will turn out — but spending some time in the western German state of North Rhine-Westphalia last week showed me just how strong and visceral some SPD members’ opposition is to a so-called “GroKo.” Many of them felt their party didn’t get enough concessions from the conservative CDU/CSU bloc — like on their desire to create a citizens’ insurance, or Bürgerversicherung, another topic I reported on this month — and don’t necessarily trust their would-be governing partners to keep their promises. Many also worried that another grand coalition would further damage the SPD’s electoral prospects in the future.

Reporting out that story was a reminder of why I love being a political journalist: while it’s fine to be based in a big capital city like D.C. or Berlin, getting out into the rest of the country and talking to local-level politicians and voters is such a better way to take the temperature of a country or a party.  The piece was my last for Politico Europe, where I finished up my three-month placement last Friday.

Apart from heading to NRW, I’ve spent the majority of these last few months paying attention to the day-to-day progress of talks — starting with the first days of the Jamaica coalition negotiations (between Merkel’s CDU/CSU, the liberal Free Democrats and the Greens), then the breakdown of those talks, then the slow process the SPD has taken toward another grand coalition. It gave me a chance to delve into the key leaders in each of the parties and the roles they’re playing as these negotiations have unfolded.

Now that I’ve finished up with Politico, I’ll spend a few weeks traveling — including to Italy, for some reporting ahead of their March 4 elections — and then head back to Berlin for a second work placement.

Downtown Detmold, Germany, one of the towns in NRW I visited for my story.
The city center in Detmold, a town in North Rhine-Westphalia I visited as part of my reporting

Stumbling blocks in Germany’s coalition negotiations

In these last seven months I’ve been reporting around Europe, I’ve focused pretty exclusively on elections: the characters involved, how they and their parties fare, and the larger trends they speak to.

But without any other big elections on the horizon for a while — and because I’ve started my first fellowship-related work placement, with POLITICO Europe in Berlin — I’m now spending some time reporting on what happens after a country’s election. Here in Berlin, I’ve been tracking the efforts to form a governing coalition in Germany’s parliament.

More than a month after German elections, four parties—Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, its Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union, the liberal Free Democrats and the Greens—are more than two weeks into talks to form a so-called “Jamaica coalition” (named for the parties’ colors, black, yellow and green).

This week, I looked at how refugee issues could be the biggest stumbling block in actually coming to an agreement: the Greens hold vastly different views on the issue than the other three parties at the negotiating table, and it’s unclear as of now how they’ll bridge that divide. I focused in particular on the politics of refugee deportations, an issue the Greens have been vocal about as there’s been more pressure on Merkel’s conservatives to speed up the practice.

Read the piece here, on POLITICO Europe’s site — and I’ll have more on this front in the coming weeks, as pressure intensifies on the would-be coalition partners to make significant progress.

The Czech Republic’s “fake news” scene

After 18 total days on the road, 10 of which were election-related, I’m finally back in Berlin and staying put for a bit. My most recent stop: Prague for five days, to write about the Czech elections held last Friday and Saturday.

It’s hard to talk about Czech politics and the Czech political scene without looking at the vibrant “fake news” and disinformation scene. That was the focus of my piece from Prague, looking at the landscape of such sites — one of which, the Breitbart-esque Parlamentní listy, gets an estimated 8 million monthly visitors — as well as their potential impact on the political scene. While most people I talked to didn’t believe “fake news” actually persuaded voters to vote a certain way, these sites certainly do help reinforce anti-establishment views in people who are already prone to them. And given that anti-establishment parties got almost 60 percent of the vote in this weekend’s elections — including nearly 30 percent for populist-leaning businessman Andrej Babiš and his ANO (“YES”) party — anything that helped reinforce people’s beliefs on this front seems significant.

Prague was my last stop on the European campaign trail for a while — apart from elections in Iceland next weekend, which I’m sadly not planning to cover in person, there’s a bit of an election lull coming up. Stay tuned for some overall thoughts on trends and themes from Europe this year; and in the meantime, you can read my story from Prague here.

A view of Prague Castle from the Charles Bridge at sunset

The 31-year-old next chancellor of Austria

If there’s any overarching trend that spans all the European elections I’ve covered this year, it’s this: traditional, centrist political parties are struggling, and their losses are in large part far-right populists’ gain.

But in Austria, the traditionally center-right Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) bucked that trend in Austria’s parliamentary elections on Sunday, coming in first with more than 31 percent of the vote. The reason? 31-year-old Sebastian Kurz, the People’s Party leader who is expected to become the next chancellor and the youngest head of government in Europe. Kurz, who took over the People’s Party leadership this summer, worked to remake the party in his own image—both in terms of pitching it as a young, fresh, new “movement” (à la Emmanuel Macron in France) and by shifting its rhetoric sharply to the right on immigration, a move intended to co-opt the political space previously dominated by the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ).

As center-right parties look to figure out how they can regain support and fend off their far-right populist challengers, many will undoubtedly look to Kurz as a model of a new generation of European leaders.

Check out the piece here, for The Atlantic. Next up is the Czech Republic, which votes on Friday and Saturday — stay tuned for my reporting from Prague!

Sebastian Kurz speaks to supporters outside the ÖVP headquarters on Friday, Oct. 13, 2017.