Can the centre-right cooperate with the green parties?
During the last ten years, two political forces gained ground in the European Union. One political group came as a danger for the whole European post-WW2 order. That group is the reactionary far-right. It thrived on culture wars and populist anti-elite discourse that came up in the last decade. On the other side, another political group gained ground with a relatively low profile, especially in Western Europe. That group is the group of reformed green parties.
The President of Austria is from the Green Party and they are also a junior partner to Sebastian Kurz’s centre-right ruling party. They were successful in the European Parliament elections in 2019 in Germany and France. In both countries, they were the most popular parties for voters under 30. Greens are now polling very well in Germany, and they gained ground in French local elections in large urban areas. Similar parties are showing up in Central and Eastern Europe in some protoforms.
The central question is the nature of these green parties and if they pose a danger or an opportunity for the centre-right? Can the Austrian experiment with the coalition between centre-right and the greens succeed and replicate around European Union?
Who are the greens now?
A few decades ago mentioning green parties to the general public probably raised eyebrows. These parties had an image as not that serious, associated with the hippies and the radical environmental activists. Climate change was not one of the central topics in public discourse. New green parties struggled to establish themselves as serious political contenders. It was hard to imagine radical environmentalists, hardcore pacifists, and degrowth economists as the ruling political force.
Since then, Greens in Western Europe have reformed themselves. They learned the game of politics and effective political communication. More focus on climate change and integration of ecological worldview in the public school curriculums gave them cultural and political capital. Today they are not that different than any established political party in Western Europe in their political pragmatism. In Germany, for example, they are part of the ruling majority in 11 of 16 regional Parliaments. There is no mass rebel of auto-industry or any part of the manufacturing sector because of that trend.
Reformed green parties in Germany, France, Netherlands, Austria, and other EU countries successfully eat in the urban base of social democrats. They are the most successful with highly-educated, urban, relatively well-off, and young people. Their mix of progressive social views and vague left-wing economy agenda with a noble aim of green environment successfully pandered to one part of the social democratic voter base. The postindustrial metropolitan area with the knowledge-based economy is the hub where green parties flourish.
The major challenge for centre-right parties in Europe is to predict the risks and gains if the greens continue their rise. This emerging political force will not disappear that easily, especially with the current trends in popular culture and media that implicitly embrace their major political cause.
Opportunities and risks for centre-right
Analysing the voter base of the greens and the centre-right can give an easy direct answer. Green parties are not the most significant threat for centre-right parties in the European Union. Their rise proved to be disastrous for social-democratic and other left-wing parties. In some of their more soft appearances, they can attract some centrist voters that periodically vote for centre-right parties. But, in general, their political rise benefits the established pro-European right in the short-term.
Partition of the left-wing vote gives the relative advantage to stronger Christian democratic, liberal-conservative, and conservative political parties in the European union. The major threats for centre-right parties are still right-wing populists and liberal centrist parties, because each of them eats in a different part of the traditional voter base of the centre-right.
On the other side, contemporary established Christian democratic, liberal-conservative, and conservative parties can’t just ignore the greens as an emerging political force. Electoral mathematics can naturally push these two political forces in governing coalition. Post-electoral majority mathematics in parliaments can be very unpredictable. In that scenario, the centre-right must be ready to govern with this unusual political force. The most difficult task in that circumstance can be to meet the expectations that voters of these two different party groups have.
Cooperation with the greens in government poses a few risks that have to be acknowledged. First, the green parties periodically show signs of left-wing identity politics. The obsession with grouping voters into a hierarchy of social oppression based on innate characteristics is very unpopular in the centre-right voter base. That form of rhetoric and left-wing identity-based policies can plummet the support of conservative low-income and middle-class white voters.
Another risk for cooperation between centre-right and green parties can be too much pandering to socialism by the greens. Centre-right voters are in general more akin to a market economy, low taxes, and smaller government. Greens also use a “catastrophism” in their rhetoric. They are extending their critiques of the market economy and climate policy to claims that the end is near and only a sharp turn to the left can save the world. Centre-right voters don’t respond well to that type of threat. There is a European political consensus that climate change is real and caused by human activities, but not all group of voters are ready to vote for the radical change in climate policy.
Is cooperation possible?
Green parties now are the more moderate, Pro-European, and pragmatic political force. They cannot be perceived by the centre-right as a threat to the political system and European stability. That role is still reserved for the far-right and the various populist forces. They are still an atypical pro-European political force that attracts a few more narrow groups of voters. Green parties in their moderate forms can be a political partner to established Christian democratic, liberal-conservative and conservative parties, but not the central and the most preferable one.
There are a clear set of risks that can show up when governing with them. Their worldview is still very left-wing and their vision of human nature is unconstrained, which in government naturally inclines to overregulation and big government. Electorally these two groups of parties don’t compete for a similar group of voters, but if impatient in governing coalition, they can cause disaffection in many voter blocks.
That is why the centre-right probably needs to find a most preferable partner in some other political family. Green parties can have a role in some political circumstances, especially on the European level, but the risks that this cooperation can produce may be larger than the benefits for the established Christian democratic, liberal-conservative, and conservative parties.