Why are Germany’s Greens rejecting the Austrian coalition model?

Green party co-chairman Robert Habeck at the party congress in Bielefeld, Germany, on 17 November 2019. [EPA-EFE/DAVID HECKER]

Many have seen Austria’s new conservative-Green coalition as a model for Europe, and especially for Germany. But the German Greens quickly distanced themselves, motivated by strategic calculation, election tactics and a concern that their more idealistic electorate would not approve it. EURACTIV Germany reports.

After the government coalition was formed between the conservative ÖVP and the Greens in Austria, attention turned to Germany. That is because some observers saw it as a model for the next German government, where the two parties would give each other freedom in their areas of interest.

However, Germany’s Green Party leader Robert Habeck distanced himself from this – surprisingly quickly and sharply. There are three possible reasons for this: a concern for idealistic voters, the wish to maintain the party’s image as a new people’s party, and election tactics.

The new Austrian government’s official motto is: “live and let live”, as the two parties limit themselves to their core issues, which they can tackle quite freely, in the coalition programme.

The Greens were able to negotiate far-reaching and robust climate protection measures and a transparency package for public administration. At the same time, the ÖVP is implementing its tax cuts for businesses, and taking a hard line on migration and integration, something that completely contradicts the Austrian Greens’ previous party line and principles.

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But no model for the future

Hours after the Austrian government programme was presented, Habeck told news agency AFP it was wrong to apply the same principle to Germany as his Green party in Germany was “very different to the CDU and CSU in key policy areas”.

Green co-leader Annalena Baerbock added that, in contrast to the Austrian sister party, her Green party would not accept “any coalition agreements where we exclude topics, let alone such important issues as domestic policy”.

Not all Greens are the same

“The fierce reactions of the Germans surprised us,” Rainer Nowak, editor-in-chief of the Austrian daily newspaper Die Presse, told Austria’s national public service broadcaster ORF. Rainer belongs to those journalists who saw a future model for Europe and especially for Germany.

Birgit Marschall, German journalist at Die Rheinische Post and expert of the Greens, however, was by no means surprised. In an interview with EURACTIV, she explained that “it was clear the Greens would never leave out topics in a coalition agreement. Especially in migration policy, the Greens would ‘not let the coalition partner do’ what it wants”.

In the same ORF programme, Kurier’s chief editor Martina Salomon said the Austrian Greens had probably said something similar before the elections, but also pointed out to differences between the sister parties, which explain this intense reaction.

German idealism

According to Marschall, Germany’s Green voters are more idealistic than those in Austria, and would not accept it if their party sacrificed its principles.

A survey conducted by the magazine Profil showed that the Green voters in the Alpine Republic are astonishingly pragmatic. From a record-high 14%, the approval rating for the Greens even rose after the government’s formation to 17%.

In Germany, this would be different, according to Marschall. Besides ecology, migration policy is a crucial matter for the German Greens. If the conservative CDU/CSU Union were to be given free reins, “that would mean a considerable loss of confidence. They can’t afford that,” she said. “Austrian voters might have a different opinion,” she added.

At the same time, it is also linked to old wounds from the era of Joschka Fischer, a Green politician who served as foreign minister and vice-chancellor under Social Democrat Gerhard Schröder from 1998 to 2005.

As vice-chancellor, he had led a course of Realpolitik that many Green voters did not want to endorse, such as when he supported the Bundeswehr’s deployment in Kosovo.

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Germany’s Greens (die Grünen) want to stabilise their steep rise in popularity and formulate new basic principles. What do they want to do differently? Read a point-by-point explanation by EURACTIV Germany’s media partner Der Tagesspiegel.

From an eco-party to a people’s party

Besides, the German Greens have long worked to change from a monothematic eco-party to a people’s party. If they were to leave migration or economic issues to the conservatives now, as the Austrian Greens did, its image would be destroyed.

In concrete terms, it is a matter of filling the gap that the SPD continues to leave behind. Yet this requires a high level of competence not only in environmental protection but also in domestic, social and economic policy.

To this end, the German Greens have set up an economic advisory council and have already announced that they intend to close gaps in their programmes for domestic, social and health policy and to present concepts in this area.

And the Austrian Greens wanted that too. But such efforts now seem to have failed because, as a coalition partner, the party restricted itself to its core issues.

In the public eye, they are now, once again, a monothematic eco-party.

From the start, the German Greens’ top duo, Annalena Berdock and Robert Habeck, intended to drop the image of a purely eco-party. They have broadened the Greens’ thematic scope and are increasingly replacing the Social Democrats (SPD) as a major party in Germany. Such a success would be at risk if the party was only seen focusing on environmental topics.

And finally, election tactics could also have been at stake. Had the Greens given too much praise to the Austrian model, this could be taken as a signal to the conservative CDU/CSU union that the Greens, as coalition partners, would be prepared to stay away from specific issues.

Habeck and Baerbock probably wanted to nip in the bud any expectation that things might develop the same way in Germany after the election.

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