When Trump Met Europe’s Youngest Leader

(Bloomberg) -- Ten years ago, Sebastian Kurz was campaigning to extend Vienna’s subway operating hours for party-goers. Now he appears to have the ear of the American president.

The Austrian chancellor was surprised to get 30 minutes one-on-one with Donald Trump – double the scheduled time – on a visit to Washington last month. They covered the whole gamut of European politics. He was even offered some Tic Tacs.

“The president was very interested in my views on a wide range of topics including the upcoming European elections, Germany and Brexit,” said Kurz, 32. “The main goal was to raise the president’s awareness. I also made clear that we understand the president’s concerns in some areas.”

When Trump Met Europe’s Youngest Leader

The cordiality in the White House, though, may say more about fractious transatlantic relations over trade and security than the meteoric political career of Europe’s youngest head of a government. 

Trump’s encounters with German Chancellor Angela Merkel have been frosty at best. French President Emmanuel Macron was forced to rethink his approach after the U.S. pulled out of Syria when the two had spoken about security less than 24 hours earlier. British Prime Minister Theresa May reached out to Trump only to be humiliated publicly for her Brexit negotiations.

When Trump Met Europe’s Youngest Leader

Kurz was flagged to the president as the new “rock star” of European politics by the U.S. ambassador to Germany after he won power in 2017 by harnessing conservative political forces and allying with anti-immigration nationalists. Domestic opponents say Kurz is risking Austria’s status with its traditional western European allies in Germany or France by cooperating with the far right.

But it’s his success that makes him intriguing to Trump, according to Jan Techau, a foreign policy analyst at the German Marshall Fund in Berlin. “Austria is too small a country to play a major role in the biggest disputes, but the person Kurz is interesting to the U.S. because he’s winning elections with conservative policies,” he said.

Indeed, the American president appeared to be impressed by a man who is four decades his junior but who also broke the political mold to rise to the top. Trump, 72, tapped Kurz’s forearm: “You are a young guy. That’s pretty good.” 

Trump was presented with a high-tech set of binoculars from Swarovski Optik after the Austrian delegation ditched the idea of a gift involving golf. Kurz later said he sees the encounter as the start of a dialog that includes contentious topics such as trade and energy security. 

“The president spoke to the chancellor as if he was speaking to Europe,” said Trevor Traina, the U.S. ambassador to Austria and a key person in organizing the meeting. “The conversation was frank because the president was pushing the chancellor to see how he responds, whether he can have hard discussions, what he’s made of.”

Kurz has been honing his playbook when it comes to meeting the world’s great and good. He’s been racking up the air miles to boost investment in his country of 9 million people and position Austria, a bridge between east and west during the Cold War, as an unlikely player on the global stage again.

He met Russian President Vladimir Putin four times in the past year. The U.S. trip was a 72-hour interlude between Seoul and Tokyo and a conference on the Middle East in Sharm-El-Sheikh in Egypt.

When Trump Met Europe’s Youngest Leader

The afternoon meeting at the White House was book-ended by dinners with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Ivanka Trump, her husband, Jared Kushner, and the ambassador. The dress code of jeans, shirt and blazer for the flight became one of sharp dark suits before the neck ties were ditched for the Kushner get-together.

“It’s easier to find solutions if you’ve met someone in person,” Kurz said on the way back from Washington. “It’s good when there’s a crisis and you can pick up the phone and talk to Jared Kushner.”

On the way back to Austria, the mood in Kurz’s team was of a job well done. “Now that we got the meeting with Donald Trump,” they joked, “maybe we should try the Queen of England.”

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