Can Europe’s Green Parties Learn to Love Power?

Austria offers a dispiriting preview of the future of progressive politics.

A sunflower lies on a table at the venue of the electoral party of German green party Buendnis 90 Die Gruenen in Berlin, on Sept. 23, 2013.
A sunflower lies on a table at the venue of the electoral party of German green party Buendnis 90 Die Gruenen in Berlin, on Sept. 23, 2013. PHILIPP GUELLAND/AFP via Getty Images

As a parent might talk to a child, Germany’s interior minister, Horst Seehofer, said last month that he was disappointed at Austria for the country’s continued refusal to participate in a European scheme to resettle child refugees currently living in the Moria refugee camp. On the night of Sept. 8, a fire swept through the camp on the Greek island of Lesbos, leaving most of its 12,000 residents without a bed for the night. By Sept. 11, Germany, France, Finland, Luxembourg, Slovenia, the Netherlands, Croatia, Portugal, Belgium, and Switzerland had all declared themselves ready to take in some of the children made homeless by the disaster. But not Austria.

The Alpine republic’s recalcitrance was “somewhat surprising,” Seehofer observed, in view “of the participation of a certain political party in the government,” a not-so-subtle dig in the ribs of the pro-migration Green Party, which joined a governing coalition with Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s conservative People’s Party (OVP) this year. But Seehofer’s cross-border insult was also a warning relevant to a far wider audience.

Europe paid careful attention when the OVP and Greens formed their government in January. As social democracy has weakened as a political force, Green parties in Austria, Germany, France, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Finland have been the beneficiaries. Though Austria’s conservative-green coalition was the first of its kind at the national level, it will not be the last. Ireland’s Greens entered into a partnership with both Fine Gael and Fianna Fail in June. In Germany, a so-called black-green coalition is now perceived as the most likely outcome of next year’s general election, a deal that would place a party with anti-establishment credentials at the center of global politics.

Conservative-green coalitions, if not the future, are at least a future for European politics, and Austria’s Greens are acting as a forerunner for other Green parties in Europe. The party’s fate matters far beyond Vienna; it shows that though it may be entirely natural for Europe’s Green parties to assume power, their ability to effectively wield it is another matter entirely.

Although Austria’s Greens protested during the 2019 general election that they would never go into coalition with Kurz and the OVP, in January 93 percent of delegates to the party’s federal congress voted to do just that. “It is a risk,” Green leader Werner Kogler, who is now vice chancellor, told the congress, “but we want to take this course.”

Now that road has led to a dead end. Kurz has been quite clear that Austria will not take in a single child refugee, and the most recent opinion poll on the subject indicated a majority of Austrians believe the country has taken in too many refugees already. That, therefore, is that, and now the Greens find themselves in the absurd situation of having to vote against measures in parliament with which it purports to agree, falling back on the excuse that Moria is something that can only be dealt with at the European level. Faced with a choice between principle and pragmatism, aiding refugees and coalition discipline, the Greens opted for the latter.

Looking back, the reaction when the coalition was formed was one of mild bafflement and bemusement combined with a frisson of excitement. This government was an “unlikely” one, it was reported, the result of a “political transformation” and a “pivot” by the Austrian chancellor. It was “unexpected.” It was “unusual.” It represented a “slight swing to the left,” which wouldn’t be difficult considering the last Austrian government was a conservative-far-right coalition that collapsed in scandal and corruption. The Greens’ progressive positions on environmental and social issues including discrimination, immigration, and marriage equality were to take the government in a different direction.

From the party’s origins, however, Austria’s Greens have been a movement of the middle class with both a younger, left-wing tendency and a bourgeois, conservative one. Consider that its defining event—the December 1984 occupation of the Hainburger Au, a wooded area of low ground where a hydroelectric power station had been planned—was a protest led by journalists, students, and academics in opposition to the Social Democratic Party (SPO) and trade union movement. The educated middle class remains the party’s vanguard. In the last election, the Greens performed well in Austria’s largest cities, in regions with higher income levels per capita, and among women, the young, and those who went through higher education.

The priorities of its core voters are reflected in the party’s policy agenda. Campaigning for state-level elections in Vienna is currently in full swing, and the local SPO has leaned into traditional themes like housing, employment, and health care and the OVP has parked its tanks on the far-right’s lawn by talking nonstop about integration. The Greens’ effort has amounted to pop-up cycle lanes and computerized representations of new parks, tree-lined streets, and pedestrian zones. Its core themes are politics for the haves.

Far from being unexpected, unusual, or unlikely, this conservative-green coalition is, then, a union of two parties of the Austrian middle class that has, up until this mini-crisis surrounding Moria, functioned as smoothly and efficiently as the right-wing government that preceded it. This is partially a product of circumstance, the coronavirus outbreak more or less coinciding with the lifespan of this coalition. Such times of crisis demand national unity, and the conservative-green government competently handled the first wave of the virus from mid-February to mid-June.

For the most part, though, the coalition hums because the Greens have not dissented from the OVP’s agenda. A crisis of people’s household budgets brought about by coronavirus-induced unemployment was addressed by bringing forward a previously scheduled tax cut instead of a temporary raise in unemployment benefits. At the European level, the Greens could do nothing as Kurz—as part of the “frugal four” along with Denmark, Sweden, and the Netherlands—tried to pare back the size and scope of the European Union’s historic 750 billion euro ($880 billion) coronavirus recovery package.

Though the party has carved out niches for itself in government—an enlarged environmental portfolio with responsibility for transport and energy, for example—the most important government ministries lie in conservative hands: interior, foreign, defense, finance, and education. Much of the government’s agenda bares no sign of the Green Party’s fingerprints. Its policy victories have thus far been limited to cosmetic ones such as new regional and nationwide public transport tickets that will cost between 1 and 3 euros a day, currently mired in negotiations between the federal government and the states over the not-insignificant question of who might pay for it.

When asked to defend his party’s record, Kogler always answers as follows. First, had the Greens not agreed to enter into coalition with the OVP, the far-right Freedom Party (FPO) would have. He is right. Of the options on the table, the Greens and the FPO were the only viable partners for the OVP, the liberals having too few seats and the SPO’s contempt for Kurz making their relationship irreparable and a grand coalition impossible. Second, the Greens had to have the courage to move from the fringes to the heart of power “in order to change and better the world.”

The unresolved refugee crisis in Moria, however, shows that the latter is easier said than done. In coalition negotiations, the Greens only managed to win concessions on environmental policy: not only the aforementioned “1-2-3” public transport ticket but an increase in air passenger duty and commitments to renewable energy and long-term carbon neutralization. But from a tax-cutting economic agenda to integration and immigration policies the far-right could have written, the dominance of the OVP showed in the final deal.

Perhaps of all the early coverage only Manès Weisskircher, a researcher at the Technische Universität Dresden, had it right when he cautioned of the prospect of more continuity than change, “a conservative course with some Green flavor.” Having won 13.9 percent of the vote in the 2019 general election to the OVP’s 37.5, the Greens find themselves an underpowered junior partner bound to an economic agenda about which they have few qualms and foreign and immigration policies they have little or no room to influence, and their room for maneuver is limited. Considering the impasse over Moria, the head of the Greens’ parliamentary group, Sigrid Maurer, admitted, “If we vote [with the opposition], then we breach the coalition.”

Austria’s Greens should be a lesson. For political observers, it is not to mistake environmentalism for radicalism. For parties like Germany’s Greens, more principled and idealistic than their sister party in Austria, it is to avoid being bought off with titles and ministries and ensure the green agenda is present and obvious in every area of policy, including matters foreign and social, during coalition negotiations. Otherwise Europe’s Greens will find that, far from being an instrument to shape the world, it will be power that shapes and binds them.

Liam Hoare is a freelance writer based in Vienna, where he is the Europe Editor for Moment.