Austria’s new conservative-Green coalition enthusiastic about climate and Europe

"Austria will 'fully agree' to the Green Deal and will also actively support EU measures such as recycling management, eco-design and CO2 duties ('Border-Tax Adjustment')," said Austria's future climate and energy spokesperson. EPA-EFE/FLORIAN WIESER

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has formed what is now his second ruling coalition, this time between his conservative ÖVP party and the Greens, replacing the interim government of experts. Although the new government is set to make Austria a climate pioneer, there are question marks as to how long the new alliance is likely to last. EURACTIV Germany reports.

With this coalition announcement on Tuesday (7 January), Austria put an end to the political state of emergency that began eight months ago when the fallout over the so-called ‘Ibiza-gate’ scandal brought down the first Kurz government.

Following that, parliamentary elections were held on 29 September 2019, which were won by the ÖVP (37.5 %) and the Greens (13.9 %). After lengthy negotiations, at least by Austrian standards, a government programme was eventually agreed upon.

Particularly among supporters of the Greens, the programme is already causing heated debates and could provide the fuel that will threaten coalition peace in the future.

It also appears that Austria will be more active at the EU level, particularly as it seems eager to push ahead with EU climate policy.

Austrian Greens likely to join government coalition, shape priorities

Austria’s Green party is expected to join the government for the first time, with negotiations already underway. After Sebastian Kurz’s ÖVP party governed alongside the Eurosceptic far-right group FPÖ from 2017-2019, this could now prompt a change in Austria’s foreign and EU policy. EURACTIV Germany reports.

Austria could become a climate pioneer

When it comes to environmental protection, the Greens were mostly able to assert themselves.

By 2040, the country is set to become climate-neutral, which is ten years before the EU’s climate-neutral goal. And starting in 2030, Austria would only use electricity generated by green energy.

There are also plans to invest in public transport, increase the price of airline tickets by €12 and conduct a “climate check” for future legislation. And although the introduction of a national carbon tax has been postponed, the concept should be implemented by 2022.

At the EU level, Austria is now set to take a pioneering role in climate protection, Lukas Hammer, the Green’s future green climate and energy spokesperson, told EURACTIV.

“Austria will fully agree to the Green Deal and will also actively support EU measures such as recycling management, eco-design and CO2 duties (‘Border-Tax Adjustment’),” he said.

Besides, Austria should pay more into the Green Climate Fund and, in negotiations on the EU budget, ensure that there will be enough money for climate protection investments.

ÖVP and Greens during government coalition negotiations. (Source: EPA)

Hardline on migration

While the Greens were able to mostly prevail on issues related to environmental protection and improved transparency of state institutions, other topics seem to bear the ÖVP’s signature.

Especially in the areas of migration, integration and tax policy, the newly-formed government agreed to partly stick to the course adopted by Kurz’s previous conservative coalition with the far-right FPÖ party.

Again, the government will be friendly to the economy but tough on people with migration and refugee backgrounds. It plans to cut taxes for companies, ban headscarves for schoolgirls and implement a preventive detention system in the event of a threat to national security, such as in terror suspicion cases.

The final point has already caused a stir because preventive detention is unconstitutional in Austria. However, given that a two-thirds majority is needed to change the constitution, the Greens would have to play along.

For now, the Greens have only given the green-light to a “constitutionally compliant” preventive detention and have already declared that they are not available for a constitutional amendment. This is the stuff future coalition crises are made of.

Progressive forces criticise Austrian presidency over UN migration pact

The Austrian government’s refusal to sign the UN global compact for migration while holding the EU’s rotating presidency has damaged the EU institution, progressive forces in the European Parliament said during a debate with Chancellor Sebastian Kurz on Tuesday (15 January).

But the Greens’ concessions are already causing frustration among supporters of the Greens. Until now, the Greens have been sharp critics of the migration policy of ÖVP/FPÖ.

At Saturday’s party congress, which voted on the programme, many delegates spoke of the “horrors” contained in the programme, the young Greens called the programme “neo-liberal” and Kurz a “dazzler, an ice-cold swindler”.

But the programme was nevertheless accepted by more than 93% of attendees.

Migration and asylum: Yes to European solutions

On migration policy, the new government appears less clear than it was on issues pertaining to climate protection, as the new programme mixes positions from the Greens and the ÖVP. Not only did the new government commit to the Common European Asylum System (CEAS) and pledged increased support for Frontex, but it also announced increased humanitarian support for origin and transit countries.

Austria’s new government coalition wants to support Frontex more. (Source: EPA)

However, more classic ÖVP positions on migration were also kept in the programme. These include the “strengthening of the European external border protection”, as well as the proactive fight against smuggling and illegal migration, without mentioning legal escape routes.

Furthermore, the programme also stated that EU mechanisms for the distribution of migrants and asylum seekers had “failed”, and that Austria could not take any initiatives in this field. But Hammer (Greens) emphasised that “the fact that we do not take any initiatives here does not say how we will act if others take initiatives”.

A turquoise-green ‘ball of wool’

In an interview with EURACTIV, Paul Schmidt, the secretary-general of the Austrian Society for European Policy, said this is indicative of the ambivalence of this government’s programme. “We have two threads here, one green and one turquoise, which are to be brought together into one line. That does not always succeed,” Schmidt said.

Some of Austria’s typical EU priorities are completely missing, which Schmidt suspects is because no agreement could be reached. For example, Turkey’s accession, which Austria has consistently rejected up to now, or a détente policy with Russia, appeared to be obviously missing.

What is new is the demand for more effective sanctions against EU states that do not play by the rules of the rule of law. Although Austria co-sponsored the infringement proceedings against Poland and Hungary, the then Vice-Chancellor (FPÖ) had the charges examined to determine whether they were lawful.

More active in Brussels

However, pro-European rhetoric still appears to run through the whole programme. Schmidt sees this as one of the most significant differences to the last government programme, where there was still talk of preventing centralised control by Brussels, or of a commitment to White Paper scenario 4 (“less, but more efficient”).

“Austria will not only be more active in climate policy but will generally be more constructive in Brussels,” Schmidt concluded.

The division of ministries will be in line with the election results of the parties. Of the 14 ministries, the ÖVP will receive ten, including those focusing on Europe, Defence, Finance, Economy, Interior, Foreign Affairs, Agriculture, Education, Integration and Family/Work.

The Greens will get justice, sports, social affairs, and a new “super-ministry” for the environment, infrastructure and energy.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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