Austria’s Green-right alliance sells out migrants

Syrian refugees crossing the Austrian-Hungarian border on their way to Germany in 2015. Photo: Mstyslav Chernov/Wikipedia.

Green Left Radio’s Jacob Andrewartha interviewed climate activist and Socialist Alliance member Margarita Windisch on January 24 about the Austrian Green Party’s (Greens) deal with the conservative Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), in which the Greens have agreed to support the ÖVP’s xenophobic and Islamophobic policies in exchange for vague commitments on climate change.

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Can you give us some background on this deal and what led to it?

Since the Second World War, Austria has generally been governed by a large coalition: the conservative Austrian People’s Party and the Social Democratic Party (SDP). So, we’ve had decades of what you’d call a power-sharing deal between what [in Australia] would be represented by the Liberal Party and the Australian Labor Party.

There were open impasses and people felt quite alienated by the deal. With the general rightward shift in the past decade, we have also been seeing a growth of the far right.

The ÖVP is not the traditional far-right party. The far-right party is actually the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ).

The conservative ÖVP formed a coalition government with the FPÖ in 2017, not the first time this had happened. But that coalition collapsed last year because of a big corruption scandal within the FPÖ. A no-confidence motion in parliament was voted up and the ÖVP was ousted. That led to new elections in September.

In the past few years, there has been mass migration through Europe, via Greece, from the Middle East, especially Syria, but also Afghanistan. The right has always exploited this to try to push more and more anti-immigration policies. At the same time, we have also seen the rise and the strengthening of the climate movement. These are two very important factors that have shaped this new coalition government.

In this year’s election we saw a strengthening of the conservative ÖVP, which has a very young leader, Sebastian Kurz, now the youngest head of government in the world at 33 years old.

The FPÖ’s vote collapsed because of the corruption scandal; this was not the first time there had been a corruption scandal in the party. Very importantly, we also saw the collapse of the SDP’s vote to 21%, the lowest since it formed.

We also saw the Austrian Greens re-enter parliament. The Greens had been in parliament since 1983, but their vote collapsed to about 4% in 2017. They re-entered Parliament in 2019 with 14% of the vote, on the back of a strong climate movement.

The ÖVP has now reshaped itself from a conservative party into a more hard-right party and has taken a big slice of the vote that traditionally went to the FPÖ.

What also makes the ÖVP a bit different to the Liberal Party in Australia is that, when it comes to climate change, they are not a climate-denialist party. They often have some reasonable pro-Green politics, so that makes it quite different.

The fact that we have such a strong environmental movement that actually acknowledges the climate crisis puts the Greens into a very compromising position now.

The ÖVP won a higher vote in last year’s election — 37% — but they couldn’t govern in their own right. They didn’t want to enter into a far-right coalition and a coalition with the SPD was off the table for them, so that just left the Greens.

We know there was also immense pressure on the Greens to form a coalition government with the ÖVP in order to stop them re-entering a coalition with the far right.

So, we have an acknowledgement by the right that they have to take more action on climate change. The question is, how will they do that?

This coalition the Greens have entered now also represents, to some extent, a reaction to popular awareness of the climate crisis.

I would argue that this new conservative-Greens coalition, what they call a “Teal-Green Coalition”, is a de-radicalisation strategy towards the climate movement and a greenwashing of the neo-liberal project.

Some people are already asking whether in this coalition we are seeing the seeds of a kind of eco-fascism or climate apartheid. Are we talking about creating a green fortress Europe? These are some of the discussions happening on the political scene in Europe.

What can you tell us about the deal?

The coalition’s program is to make Austria carbon neutral by 2040, which is more advanced than the European Union’s target of 2050. The question is, however, how are they going to get there?

The devil is always in the detail. The Austrian Chancellor, who is from the ÖVP, has said: “We’re going to be strong on climate and strong on borders.”

The actual measures the government is proposing to achieve climate neutrality are very minimal and include changes in taxation to benefit the environment. At the same time, the government is talking about lowering taxes, which we know benefits capital and not necessarily working people.

Some of the reasonable measures are for Austria to have its entire electricity consumed and created from renewable energy by 2030, including heating homes and industry without oil or coal.

Other measures include higher taxes on SUVs and big cars. While this is touted as a great achievement for poorer people, who don’t have expensive cars, the people who have these expensive, carbon dioxide-emitting and fossil-fuel-guzzling cars are people who can also afford a much higher tax.

What people are criticising about the deal is that there are no real inroads into reducing the power and interest of the car and oil industries.

There is also a huge push by both the Greens and the government to incentivise green investment in the private sector.

So, this kind of environmental reform is all within the market system.

Nowhere is there any discussion about giving the state more power to increase investment in renewables and for the state to run key industries to increase that element.

While it looks good to have these carbon emission reduction schemes, what people are questioning is whether it is actually achievable with the current proposals around climate change.

There are no proposals to stop some of the big fossil-fuel-intensive infrastructure projects, like the third runway at the airport in Vienna, or another tunnel, or another freeway. The Greens are being criticised for having completely capitulated to these big projects going ahead.

What are some of the xenophobic and Islamophobic policies that have been conceded to as a result of this deal?

A lot of people are saying that the only change from the previous coalition between the conservatives and the far right has been around the climate. However, the attacks on working people and immigrants are continuing.

People are saying the Greens are trying to rescue neo-liberalism, not the planet, and have done a deal with the Devil, selling out refugees and migrants.

In Austria, authoritarianism towards reducing immigrants’ rights has intensified. There is now discussion of a preventive detention system for “potentially dangerous immigrants” or refugees who have actually committed no crimes.

The other important issue is vilification of Muslim immigrants. The Hijab has become a focal point of the policy, with a Hijab ban in schools for young Muslim women up to the age of 14.

Another important element is the “integration strategy” for migrants in schools. It is actually more like education apartheid, where entire classrooms are created for immigrant school students who don’t have German as their first language. They are now being educated in classes of only immigrant kids. This is not a positive and can create even more social marginalisation.

Most worrying is the concession by the Greens for a “coalition-free space”. In other words, if there is a particular issue the conservative ÖVP would like to implement around asylum-seeker policy, they don’t have to discuss it with the Greens and can enter into negotiations with any other party in the parliament. If they want to push an even more repressive agenda around asylum seekers, they can do that with a different partner.

People are really concerned about this “Greening of Fortress Europe” and say Austria is giving up the rights of immigrants. There will be more asylum seekers and immigrants coming from countries hardest hit by the climate crisis who will be excluded for the benefit of an elitist green politics.

What are the lessons for the climate movement, especially around the question of climate justice?

Unless the movement tackles neoliberalism and capitalism, there will be no climate justice, only climate apartheid. Any party prepared to enter into a coalition continuing a right-wing economic agenda will inevitably sell out on human rights and social justice.

When an ecological agenda becomes an elite program, it further emboldens the right. In other words, it is important for the ecological movement to be radical in its demands when it comes to reforming the economic system, and not make any concession on that.

While government is important to being able to have very strong radical movements pushing for change in the economic system, I think the only solution is a program that will guarantee climate justice.

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