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Austria’s new government includes the pro-environment Greens. That’s a first.

While the coalition is novel, the policies probably won’t change much

- January 7, 2020

On Tuesday, Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen formally appointed the country’s new government — a coalition between the center-right Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) and the Greens. It’s a first for Austrian national politics, which hasn’t seen this political lineup before. Forming the new government took several months of negotiations following September’s snap election, where the two parties made sizable gains.

On paper, it’s a significant political shift. The Greens will replace the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), which was in a coalition government with ÖVP up until May — and is infamous for its xenophobia and last year’s corruption bombshell. What to expect from the new government? There may be some significant changes, but much less than one might think.

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The ÖVP had considerable negotiating power

After the September election, the ÖVP, by far the largest party, enjoyed a quite comfortable bargaining position. ÖVP leader Sebastian Kurz could have also pushed for a coalition with the center-left Social Democratic Party or again with the FPÖ to resume his position as chancellor. In stark contrast to their campaign rhetoric, however, the Greens proved most eager to govern.

Last week, ÖVP and the Greens agreed to a pact of more than 300 pages. Kurz claims the coalition agreement proves “it is possible to protect border and the climate at the very same time.” Werner Kogler, leader of the Greens and Austria’s new vice chancellor, was never known for propagating the “protection” of borders. He now emphasizes “responsibility” for the country’s future — and has warned that Austria’s alternative would be a return of the right-wing ÖVP/FPÖ coalition.

The Greens backtracked on migration

Many observers expected migration to be the bone of contention in coalition negotiations — here, Kurz and his team clearly prevailed. In recent years, Kurz has made restrictive migration stances his priority, in an effort to attract FPÖ sympathizers.

The Greens instead have long advocated for liberal migration policies. However, they kept rather quiet on this issue during the 2019 campaign — unlike in 2017, when they were vocal about migration but found themselves voted out of parliament.

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To the surprise of many, the Greens are agreeing to policies that they previously condemned. The new coalition plans to expand the ban of headscarves in schools for all girls up to age 14. The government declares it will introduce preventive detention, a measure the coalition agreement discusses only in the section on asylum seekers. This was originally a key goal of the former FPÖ minister of the interior and a move that’s probably in conflict with Austria’s constitution. The new government also says it won’t promote quotas for the “distribution” of asylum seekers within the European Union, a proposal that would help countries at the South European border, such as Greece and Italy.

Moreover, should ÖVP and the Greens disagree on how to handle a sudden migration “crisis,” Austria’s coalition pact allows both parties to unilaterally enact ministerial decrees on migration matters — or to even seek legislative majorities with other parties. The latter arrangement could clear the way for migration-specific ÖVP/FPÖ deals, despite a standing coalition between ÖVP and the Greens.

For the Greens, it’s all about the environment now

What the Greens will focus on is the fight against global warming. They are now in charge of a “super ministry” that covers both the environment and infrastructure, headed by Leonore Gewessler, former leader of a big environmental nongovernmental organization.

In its coalition agreement, the government announced Austria’s plans to be carbon-neutral by 2040 at the latest and a commitment to the generation of electricity through 100 percent renewable energy sources by 2030. The country plans to phase out the use of fossil fuels for heating. And the government plans to implement a tax overhaul that puts a price on CO2 emissions by 2022 — although crucial details remain a matter of future negotiation between ÖVP and the Greens.

Other goals include a substantial expansion of public transport, including reduced fares. And Austria will boost taxes on short- and middle-distance flights (even though long-distance flights will be charged less than current taxes) — but the regulatory effects of such measures remain in question.

Some of these environmental measures require substantial public investment. The government will need to prove whether such plans are compatible with its parallel acceptance of “budget discipline.” Tax cuts, including a corporate tax reduction from 25 to 21 percent, will further reduce the money available for public spending on the environment.

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More continuity than change

Apart from environmental policies, the Greens also emphasize overhauls that increase transparency, including a right to freedom of information and better control of party finances. Both are measures that ÖVP has opposed in the past. But the Greens were unable to bring about a change of course on some other issues that they hold dear, such as education and the introduction of comprehensive schooling or the reintroduction of an inheritance tax.

The ÖVP holds 71 seats in parliament, compared to the Greens’ 26 seats, so it’s not surprising to see a lot of continuity in the new government’s agenda. Beyond legislation, the Greens replacing the FPÖ as junior partner comes with some important changes: Green members of government are unlikely to engage in discriminatory hate speech, embarrassing corruption affairs or verbal threats against journalists. Moreover, the majority of government ministers will now be women.

Still, whether a conservative course with some Green flavor will be enough to satisfy Green voters remains to be seen. Clearly, the pact with the ÖVP once again symbolizes the Greens’ departure from its radical origins — a development that is neither new nor unique to Austria.

Many of the policies in the coalition pact depend on their precise implementation. But some of the Greens’ aspirations may fall short, as the ÖVP has proved talented in the past at preventing changes it dislikes.

Other than Austria’s caretaker government of the past few months, the ÖVP has continuously been part of national government since 1987, a year after its leader Kurz was born. Despite the somewhat dramatic shift in coalition partners, expect to see the center-right continue to shape Austrian politics.

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Manès Weisskircher (@ManesWeissk) is a researcher at TU Dresden (MIDEM — Mercator Forum for Migration and Democracy).