Europe’s Green political parties appear to be coming of age. This month, Austria’s Greens joined the governing coalition in Vienna, led by the right-wing conservative People’s Party, a coupling that would have been unthinkable a few years ago.
Germany’s Greens are becoming more confident and say no future ruling coalition will likely be formed in Berlin without their participation. They are watching closely what happens to their Austrian counterparts in government, believing they, too, are more likely to enter government with the center-right rather than the center-left after federal elections due in Germany in a year’s time.
The German newspaper Bild editorialized recently that Austria’s conservative-green coalition could serve as an “example for Germany, an example for the whole of Europe.”
Until recently the Greens were seen as insignificant, impractical fringe players, but as climate change and environmentalism are increasingly taking center stage in Europe, with voters placing climate action high on their list of political priorities, that’s starting to change.
In May 2019, Green parties enjoyed a surge of support in continentwide elections for the European Parliament, especially among young urban voters. The continent’s conservative populists fell short of their hopes for major gains, mainly because of growing support across the continent for the Greens as well as for smaller pro-EU liberal parties, most of which also advocated strong climate action.
In Germany, the Greens made major gains at the expense of the country’s left-wing Social Democrats, making a historic breakthrough with more than 20 percent of the vote. Since then, they have consistently outpolled the Social Democrats in opinion surveys, coming just behind Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats.
Green parties elsewhere on the continent, especially in less affluent southern Europe, are finding it harder to morph into serious players, but they’re eager to learn from and emulate their German and Austrian counterparts, who have slowly built themselves up to being significant nationwide political forces by building up practical experience over many years in regional governments. The Green Party is also a junior member of governing coalitions now in Finland, Sweden, Lithuania and Luxembourg — where they’re ruling alongside left-of-center parties.
The formation of these new coalitions can’t just be credited to a so-called Thunberg effect, although the spotlight cast on environmental issues by the Fridays for Future movement of Greta Thunberg, the 17-year-old Swedish poster child of climate action, has undoubtedly helped, say analysts and Green politicians.
Much of the Green success in elections — and in government — can be tied to their own maturing and increasing political sophistication. Eager for power, Green parties are broadening their policies and above all, in a bid to ditch eco-moralism, are trying to develop market-friendlier practical climate action. They want growth but with the environment in mind, too. Hands-on governing experience, whether at the regional or national level, has provided a considerable boost.
The Greens are in coalition governments in 12 of Germany’s 16 state parliaments, seven of them alongside the Christian Democrats.
“We are working hard not to be perceived as a single-issue party,” said Robert Habeck, the co-leader of the German Greens. A former minister in the state government of Schleswig-Holstein, the 50-year-old has become one of the country’s most popular politicians, despite wanting to ban the combustion engine by 2030, higher taxes on flying, and EU tariffs on climate-unfriendly imported goods.
German Greens have a full raft of policies — from anti-austerity public investment plans for infrastructure to detailed social policies. They want a higher minimum wage and caps on rents.
On foreign policy they are more muscular than in the past, a bid to combine ethics and realism. They’re opposed on security grounds to allowing tech giant Huawei a major role in developing the country’s 5G wireless network, and they are critical of the Kremlin’s assertiveness and energy grip on Europe. Instinctively pacifist in the past, they remain skeptical of military interventions overseas, but recently Habeck told the Economist magazine, “European soldiers, including Germans, must be prepared to deploy under certain circumstances.”
In Austria, too, the Greens have been moving away from single-issue politics and worked to shed a reputation of being enemies of business. Party members eagerly embraced the chance to be in government. More than 90 percent of delegates at a special conference approved the alliance with the conservatives, despite disapproval of their new partners’ plans to introduce much tougher asylum rules and ban Muslim girls under age 14 from wearing headscarves at school.
Habeck has praised the decision of his Austrian counterparts to join government, but has sought to retain speculation that his party is more likely in the future to enter a Christian Democrat-led coalition in Berlin than a Social Democratic one, noting there are important policy differences that might be insurmountable.
How the liberal-leaning Greens navigate policy differences in Austria with Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s People’s Party may well prove instructive for their German counterparts.