Austria's Sebastian Kurz, a rock star to conservatives, walks a 'thin red line' in Europe

Austria's Sebastian Kurz has been described as a "rock star" by the US Ambassador to Germany.

Berlin (CNN)Earlier this week, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin, two generations of European conservative leadership standing side by side.

Merkel, having just returned from the exhausting debacle of the G7 summit, talked about the "Herculean task" of keeping Europe united on immigration, finance and trade despite crumbling relations with US President Donald Trump.
Kurz, on the other hand, seemed energized, gearing up as Austria assumes the EU presidency next month.
    ''Our national focus will be security, with the goal of 'a Europe that protects'," he told reporters in a joint press conference. "In order to guarantee security in Europe, we need to strongly confront our defense policy in Europe. And we need a solution to our migration policy to secure the inner security of the EU.''
    The political fortunes of Merkel and Kurz appear to be on different trajectories.
    At 31, Kurz is one of the youngest world leaders, but he's also a seasoned political veteran with more than seven years of government under his belt. He shrewdly turned one of Europe's biggest crises -- the refugee influx of 2015 -- into a vote-getter at the ballot box.
    As a rebellion within Merkel's government over immigration policy threatens to bring her 13-year rule to an end, Kurz's star is on the rise. And that's cause for celebration for conservatives on the right-wing end of the spectrum.
    US Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell, a close ally of US President Donald Trump, recently enthused over Kurz in an interview with Breitbart. "Look, I think Sebastian Kurz is a rock star," he said. "I'm a big fan."
    Elected to the chancellorship in October, Kurz arrived in power just as Merkel's grip appeared to be weakening. He seems keen to dismantle at least some of what she has built and take the continent down a more hardline path, despite insisting regularly on his support for the European project.
    Last year his party was the driving force behind a law banning full-face Muslim veils in public spaces, and last week he announced the expulsion of up to 60 foreign-funded imams and the closure of seven mosques in a crackdown on "political Islam."
    He also seems keen to strengthen his country's links with Russia, meeting with President Vladimir Putin twice since coming to power in December. The Kremlin has also floated Vienna as a venue for a possible summer meeting between Putin and Trump.
    Putin and Kurz enter a hall before a press conference following their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow in January.

    'A conservative force to be reckoned with'

    Earlier in his career, Kurz was Austria's far more liberal minister of integration, a champion of "willkommenskultur" or "welcome culture" for immigrants. But as the country's foreign minister in 2015, he firmly opposed Merkel's decision to open Germany's doors to tens of thousands of refugees who marched through Austria to get there. Instead, he closed the borders and put a cap on the number of asylum seekers allowed to settle in Austria.
    It was a sign of a shift to the right, but also a shrewd political move.
    "He saw that the immigration policy of Merkel was goin