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In January, Austria’s first centre-right and Green coalition between Sebastian Kurz’s centre-right ÖVP and the Green Party was sworn in. Following the FPÖ’s ‘Ibiza-gate’ scandal concerning political corruption, Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz ended the previous ÖVP-FPÖ coalition with the words ‘enough is enough’. The snap elections in September increased the ÖVP’s vote share to 37%, as well as returning the Greens to parliament with 14% of the national vote. Abandoning traditional coalition-patterns with the FPÖ or the Social Democrat SPÖ, Kurz has instead decided for a novel solution by choosing to work with Werner Kogler’s Greens. Has the time for political ‘contraptions’ come by working with the predicted decline of traditional parties, and what does Austria’s example show us about the political importance of the global green agenda?

According to Austrian polls, 57% of Austrians support the ÖVP-Green government, who seek a ‘sensible mixture’ of welfare capitalism, globalisation and environmental policies. The Austrian example is not perfect, being more a division of power than an attempt to share it. Furthermore, a three-hundred-page coalition agreement sets out clear boundaries in the parties’ remits, and the Green Party enters government as the junior coalition partner which has accepted several traditionalist demands, from banning headscarves for schoolgirls to strict migration policies. However, the Austrian example shows how change may come from within the government and the novel interplay if conservative and green ideas. 

For other European countries, looking to Austria’s example presents an interesting example of what may be their political future. In Germany, the Greens are now polling as the second-largest party after the CDU/CSU, and coalitions between the two parties are already a reality in several state governments. It is certainly possible that this could be replicated at the federal level after the next election. However, how can we learn more broadly from the new green-conservative ideological coalitions?

Most importantly, the Austrian coalition shows how environmental policies do not have to be associated with any ideology but should be common ground for all parties who value protecting their world around them. There are no more ideological obstacles preventing conservatives from endorsing policies combating climate change than other political parties. In the UK, 64% of respondents want the Conservative Government to place a high or very high priority on the issue of climate change. Undoubtedly, the Government is making environmental policy an issue of greater importance, particularly with the upcoming COP26 summit. Nevertheless, there is a difference between superficial policy amendments and the fundamental shift of mindsets. Successfully responding to the climate crisis will require responses on a political, personal and business level. The environment cannot become the campaigning platform of only one part of society, but something we all think about and act on.

In the UK, the relationship between conservative and environmental politics has certainly been varied. Margret Thatcher’s period of ‘Green Thatcherism’ brought environmental issues to the fore, as she gave speeches at the Royal Society and the UN on the threat of climate change before linking it with wild conspiracy theories of ‘supra-national socialism’ in her later life. David Cameron proclaimed in 2010 that he would lead the ‘greenest government ever’ but his overall record presents a mixed picture and the May government, while enshrining a net-zero emissions target in law, had little time or political capital to expend on environmental issues. 

However, green and centre-ground politics can share a political basis supporting values of ecology, democracy and freedom. Capitalism can combat climate change. Already in the 1980s, former Austrian ÖVP leader Josef Riegler termed the expression of ‘eco-social market economy’ to incorporate sustainability and environmental protection into a regulated market economy. In this model of society, the terms market, social, and ecological should ‘chime with each other as equally essential elements in a melodious triad’. These ideas have never significantly been considered beyond academia, but the growing interest in stakeholder capitalism and social-benefit corporations certainly shows a shift as many seek a more sustainable existence.

Certainly, the UK will not be emulating the new Austrian coalition any time soon due to their differing political systems. However, we should look to Europe to see how the climate crisis can affect politics, and how novel ideas can present a new, positive plan to protect the environment. Environmental issues are not a fringe issue but at the heart of modern politics, and should be vital to the centre-right’s manifesto for change.

Nikolas is currently undertaking work experience at Bright Blue. Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue. [Image: Raul Mee]