Time is a funny thing.
There was a time there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth about Austria, the bad boy of central Europe that had not learnt from its very chequered past and where Europe’s youngest premier, Sebastian Kurz of the right of centre ÖVP, had dared to form a governing coalition with the nasty folks from the right-wing FPÖ.
How could Austria, of all countries, allow itself to be run by a coalition featuring the populist far right? Was there historical amnesia in Austria?
Time passes. A scandal, a new election and a different election result later, the no longer youngest premier in Europe (that honour now goes to Sanna Marin of Finland) has clung onto power not with the far right but with the altogether more wholesome Greens.
Surely, dear reader, such a thing could never work? A Green-Black coalition? Greens, with their Socialist, radical history with the conservative right of centre?
Of course it is a marriage of convenience brought on by forced circumstances. But for the doomsayers, I suggest just looking across the border at Germany, to the Federal State of Baden-Württemberg which shows how it can be done – and to Berlin, which is looking at how Austria will manage its Black-Green coalition with an eye to the Federal elections in Germany in 2021.
Whilst Federal Chancellors, not to say Federal ministers, often struggle with popularity in Germany, Minister-Presidents of Federal states often enjoy significant popularity, often way beyond their party’s standing nationally. In a highly localised, regionalised nation, local loyalties run deep.
The nature of the Federal system allows politicians to have glittering careers without ever touching Berlin. One such is Bodo Ramelow, the re-elected Minister-President of Thuringia, whose personal cache is way above that of his party (Die Linke) at federal level.
Another is the long-in-tooth Minister-President for Baden-Württemberg, the redoubtable Winfried Kretschmann, the Green who dared a coalition with the CDU, and nine years later remains in power and remains the leading elected Green in the country.
The reason the Black-Green coalition in Stuttgart works rather well is the reason that the Austrian federal coalition will work and the reason the putative CDU-Green federal coalition in Berlin will work rather well if the election results in 20 months are what we expect. A mixture of pragmatism and much needed forward thinking.
The Greens in Stuttgart and locally across the state are happy to attack the CDU on a daily basis, and equally happy to run the state government with them. Some of Germany’s biggest industrial players, Daimler, Bosch et al, are naturally close to the CDU with its reputation for sound economic management and unstinting support for these core enterprises.
But Germany is dealing with the need for a change in the energy model, and rather than putting its head in the sand, in Stuttgart at least, the Greens will engage with the biggest employers in the state to ensure that change happens, but happens without significant and sudden unemployment.
All fuelled by some of the world’s leading climate change and renewable energy institutes in places like the University of Freiburg, this writer’s alma mater.
We are gnashing our teeth in countries where the only way to (re)invent a radical centre seems to be to form new parties in electoral systems that make the rise of the new painful, almost impossible. A proportional representation system helps. A history of coalition-making helps. A viable, mature, realistic Green party with meaningful proposals for energy change certainly helps.
A leading party, the CDU, struggling to select a replacement for Mutti Merkel, facing up to a Green party with two highly popular and respected leaders certainly makes for an interesting scenario 20 months before the Federal election.
I will place a bet. The Austrian coalition will function well and will marry right-of- centre populism on areas such as immigration with an active Green agenda. Kurz und Kogler will argue and not infrequently attack one another – but the coalition will hold. Berlin will watch closely, and whoever wants to be the next Chancellor will ensure the CDU has an agenda going into the federal election which will not rule out a coalition with the Greens.
I venture Robert Habeck, or possibly Annalena Baerbock, will be Vice-Chancellor of Germany after that election, presiding over a cabinet with several Green ministers. Losers of course will be the SPD, but they have entirely lost their way and are handing on the mantle to the Greens.
And while the AfD will cause much consternation with about 15 per cent of the vote, it is the Greens who will dictate policy and negotiate a “green deal” into the 2020s.
We can wring our hands all we like this side of the water that separates the UK from Europe. But short of a revolution, radical politics, like its more conservative cousins, is the art of what is possible. And Austria and Germany will show what’s possible when right of centre and Green combine.