THE FORMATION of Ireland’s new government on June 27th, after 140 days of haggling, brings to office a novel coalition. Not only will the old rivals of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael ally for the first time since the Irish civil war roughly a century ago, but the two parties of the centre-right will join forces with the 29-year-old Green Party. Under the new taoiseach, Micheal Martin, the coalition is promising a green new deal that would slash carbon emissions by 7% a year. Though still rare, once-improbable alliances of climate activists and conservatives are becoming increasingly fashionable in Europe. The covid-19 pandemic could well foster more such coalitions.
“Greencon” alliances are for now marriages of convenience, born of the fragmentation of European politics that is forcing parties of all stripes to contemplate new partnerships. There are areas on which greens and conservatives are unlikely ever to agree, notably defence and foreign policy. Nonetheless both sides have done a lot of evolving in recent years. And the pandemic is painting the political landscape an ever deeper shade of green, which politicians of the centre-right are as eager to exploit.
Traditionally, greens have been happier with partners to the left of centre. In Germany they joined a “red-green” government led by the Social Democratic Party (SPD) between 1998 and 2005. But in Germany and elsewhere, the greens have overtaken the old centre-left as the appeal of old-style socialism has faded and that of environmentalism has bloomed. Greens might once have been cranky idealists but have become eager to exercise power and accept the inevitable compromises that come with it.
Austria is the prime example of nascent green-conservative alliances. Since January, after months of negotiations following an inconclusive election, the country has been governed by a distinctly odd couple. The chancellor, Sebastian Kurz is the man who shifted the Austrian People’s Party from its christian-democratic centrism towards the populist right. He is a sharp-suited, unfeasibly well-groomed 33-year-old. His deputy, the crumpled Werner Kogler, leader of the Green Party, 25 years Mr Kurz’s senior, is never knowingly caught wearing a tie.
In this expedient alliance, Mr Kurz has been pursuing hardline anti-immigration policies, while Leonore Gewessler, the Greens’ “super minister” (specifically, “Minister of Climate Protection, Environment, Energy, Mobility, Innovation and Technology”) is pursuing one of Europe’s most ambitious climate-change programmes, seeking to turn Austria carbon neutral by 2040. Mr Kurz and Mr Kogler have co-operated well on controlling the spread of the coronavirus. Austria’s infection has been relatively low.
Having won 14% of the vote in September’s election, the Greens did well enough to make themselves kingmakers. In Ireland in February, the Greens under Eamon Ryan did much the same thing, taking 12 out of 160 seats in the Dáil. Though divided, the Greens ushered Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael into office—and thereby excluded the left-wing nationalists of Sinn Fein (the political wing of the Irish Republican Army that bloodied Northern Ireland for more than three decades). Their Greens’ leader, Eamon Ryan, a former cycling-shop owner who served in government in 2007-08, is minister for climate action, communications networks and transport
Austria and Ireland are minnows compared with Germany, where the most important green-conservative coalition may emerge. Ahead of the federal election next year, opinion polls place the Greens second to Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Last June, a poll briefly put the Greens ahead of the CDU, which has since drawn ahead. There is every possibility of a “black-green” coalition government.
Germany, moreover, is the place where a meaningful green-conservative ideology may yet take root. In 2011, in response to the disaster at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, Mrs Merkel ordered the closure of the country’s nuclear power stations—in effect conceding the Greens’ longest-standing demand, albeit at the cost of increased emissions from coal-fired stations. The Greens and the CDU share power at a state level; six Länder are ruled by coalitions containing the CDU and the Greens, of which two are straight black-green alliances. Robert Habeck, the Greens’ co-leader, who hails from the “realo” (realist) wing, says he would be perfectly happy to share power with the CDU in the federal government.
Importantly for any compromise with conservatives, fewer greens now argue that all economic growth is bad in itself, as long as it is sustainable. Many of the younger generation, reared in the more free-market economic climate of the post-cold-war era, are more open to private-sector solutions to climate change.
As greens have become more pragmatic, many conservatives fear greenery less than they used to. Michael Gove, the foremost green thinker in Britain’s conservative government, has surprised even hardcore activists with his enthusiasm for shifting enormous subsidies away from the mere ownership of land towards rewarding landowners for environmental stewardship, treating the countryside as a public good in a new frontline in the battle against climate change. Mark Littlewood of the Institute of Economic Affairs, a British free-market think-tank, says there is no practical reason why British Conservatives should not support a carbon tax. However, he warns that Conservatives have to be “reassured that greenery is not a Trojan horse for more socialist controls. They have to know that the end point is just an attempt to decarbonise the economy, nothing more.” Fundamentally, as one British government adviser puts it, greenery can be a right-wing issue “because it’s about conservation”. Conservatives are traditionally stewards of the countryside, whereas left-wing parties have usually been based in urban, industrial areas. Thus French conservatives regard la France profonde of small villages and agriculture as the romantic embodiment of national values.
Sara Hobolt, a professor of politics at the London School of Economics, argues that conservative parties across Europe are much more socially liberal than they used to be. This makes them more comfortable working with the former hippies and anarchists who pepper green parties.
The pandemic has served to highlight the reality of disasters long talked about, and long ignored. And the need to offset the economic damage of the pandemic has pushed centre-right governments to resort to the tools of big government to marshall medical resources, support economies and save millions of jobs. Their huge bail-outs have often carried green labels.
The French and British governments, as well as the populist Italian one, have all promised more money to make it safer and easier to walk and cycle in cities. In exchange for handing over billions of euros to bail out France’s car and aviation industries, President Emmanuel Macron has been setting targets for them to speed up electrification and cut emissions respectively. At the centre of the European Union’s eye-wateringly expensive post-covid recovery programme is the European Green Deal, which aims to cut emissions by 50%-55% by 2030, compared with 1990 levels.
For now, greencon alliances are likely to remain confined to northern Europe. Green parties barely feature in southern and eastern Europe. Many other parts of the rich world are more closely wedded to fossil fuels. Australia, for instance, is the world’s biggest exporter of coal, selling $46bn-worth of the dirty black stuff in 2019. Its conservative coalition government was notoriously reluctant to link the terrible bushfires earlier this year to global warming. But public opinion is changing. The share of Australians who think climate change is a “serious and pressing” problem has increased from about 50% to 60% in the past four years. In a new poll, three of the top five threats to the country’s “vital interests” were related to the environment. In May the government issued a road-map towards reducing Australia’s carbon emissions, with an emphasis on replacing coal with gas.
In Canada, too, conservatives have been equally in thrall to resource interests, especially in the oil-producing western provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan. But they have been forced to become more green to try to make up electoral ground conceded to Justin Trudeau. In America, meanwhile, the Republican Party and the coal-loving President Donald Trump may seem impervious to the greening of conservative politics. Yet, perhaps oddly, America’s renewable-energy boom has been strongest in Republican-controlled states like Texas (which also produces lots of oil).
Greencon politics is still in its infancy. It may never reach adulthood. Electorates may reject its disparate policies as opportunistic. But they may welcome it as a feature of modern politics that upholds campaign promises and gets things done. Its “oil and vinegar” approach could make for effective governing. It is a 21st-century fusion of value-driven politics, not contradictory so much as incoherent: vaunting the nation at the same time as valuing the Earth. The pandemic has reinforced this strange mix, forcing many politicians to be more pragmatic than they might like. Handy skills for a new kind of politics.■