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Opinion: The coalition Germans crave?

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Jens Thurau
January 2, 2020

Long pondered in Germany, Austria is about to see if a federal conservative-Green coalition can actually work. While it could be a template for Berlin, DW's Jens Thurau also warns it wouldn't be easy.

Österreich Koalitionsverhandlungen| Sebastian Kurz und Werner Kogler
Image: Imago Images/photonews.at/G- Schneider

Oh, if only politics were as easy as Austria's designated-Chancellor Sebastian Kurz makes it sound. His conservative Austrian People's Party (ÖVP) will soon join forces with the country's Green Party to deliver "the best of both worlds," making it "possible to protect the climate and borders at the same time." How hard could that be, right?

A coalition of conservatives and the ascendant Greens has long been a hot topic of discussion in Germany. Such alliances do, in fact, exist in a number of municipalities and even states, such as in Hesse and Baden-Württemberg — where Greens are in the driver's seat — but not at the federal level, yet.

Jens Thurau
DW editor Jens Thurau

Putting together a conservative-Green coalition would be trickier in Berlin than in Vienna. First of all, conservatives from the Christian Democratic Union and its Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union parties (CDU, CSU) have despised the Greens for decades.

And the Greens have been just as obstinate. When the party was founded in 1980, many of its members — hailing from the 1968 student movements so hated by conservatives — declared war on mainstream conservatism.

Years later, perceptions of the cultural gulf between the two groups are much larger than the parties' actual policy differences. Nevertheless, both camps have blocs of voters, members and leaders who continue to see the other as a perceived enemy. Yet, unlike the past, there are now few truly unbridgeable divides between them. The Greens especially, under their new party co-leaders Robert Habeck and Annalena Baerbock, have removed a number of unnecessary barriers preventing dialog with conservatives.

A question of content

While there should be no impediments to cooperation on a personal level, a potential coalition gets more complicated when it comes to party priorities. In terms of shared interests, both are in favor of balanced budgets, the European ideal and even a transatlantic orientation.

A burning globe of the world
A conservative-Green coalition would make fighting climate change a key issueImage: picture-alliance/U. Baumgarten

And when it comes to the most divisive issue on the agenda in the near future, climate protection, a coalition of conservatives and Greens could offer important new impulses. Far more than has been the case to date, such a coalition would put the fight against greenhouse gas emissions squarely in the heart of German society.

Climate protection currently looks set to divide society in a way that few other topics can, with the obvious exception of migration. Right-wing populists have long since usurped protests against what some view as intrusive climate protection proposals, and have declared the Greens their sworn enemy. If conservatives join the fight alongside Greens, it will go a long way toward defusing that ongoing culture clash in Germany as well as in Austria.

Immigration remains a problem

But there would still be plenty of hurdles to a German conservative-Green coalition. The Greens have progressed from being solely an environmental party and have dedicated significant energy to immigration policy and have a vastly different — and generous — approach to asylum, for instance, than the CDU/CSU.

The Greens have also evolved when it comes to the issue of the foreign deployment of German armed forces. While they are no longer as skeptical as they once were on the subject, consensus between the potential partners remains far off when it comes to defense.

If the latest opinion polls are anything to go by, Germany's Greens are a considerably stronger political bloc that their colleagues in Austria. Consistently polling around 20%, they would enter a coalition of equals in Berlin, much more so than in Vienna where the Green got 13.9% to the ÖVP's 37.5%.

Ultimately, the crucial aspect of such a coalition could well be its function as a symbol of change. To date, Germany's conservatives and Social Democrats have tended — for better, or more often, for worse — to come to an agreement on how to govern Germany. A conservative-Green federal coalition in Germany, as it is in Austria, would be a new approach.

Most importantly, that approach would shift the focus of politics toward the heart of society. Germany's political center, especially in the cities, has long consisted of conservative social classes with pockets of Green voters.

Perhaps then, we could finally leave behind reporting on the febrile and enraged edges of the political spectrum and once again concentrate on its center and what we have in common rather than what divides us. That's something people in Germany have desperately craved.

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Rise of Germany's Greens

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Jens Thurau Jens Thurau is a senior political correspondent covering Germany's environment and climate policies.@JensThurau