Powerless in the coalition: Hardliner Kurz pests the Greens

Austria’s Federal Chancellor Kurz does not want to accept a single person from Afghanistan. This drives the green coalition partner into a difficult balancing act – and some party members into despair. A prominent Green resigns, others demonstrate against their own coalition.

On Tuesday evening, Ewa Ernst-Dziedzic was again demonstrating in front of the Ministry of the Interior in Vienna, for the second time since the Taliban overran Afghanistan. She carries a poster written by an acquaintance: “Save human lives, do not secure votes”, is her appeal to the government. While other countries have set up airlifts and want to take in refugees, Federal Chancellor Sebastian Kurz refused any emergency aid with a power word: “I am against the fact that we now voluntarily take in more people. That will not happen under my chancellorship either.”

Ernst-Dziedzic and hundreds of others are calling for a change of course, and a broad alliance of government opponents organized the demonstration. But the 41-year-old Viennese is not an opponent of the government: She sits in parliament, for the Greens, the coalition partner of Sebastian Kurz’s ÖVP, as a spokeswoman for foreign policy and human rights.

On the street side by side with human rights activists and the opposition, in government side by side with asylum hardliner Kurz and his ÖVP, Ernst-Dziedzic sees “no contradiction” in this, as she tells ntv.de. “I want to stop the discourse shift to the right.” But not all of them can take the necessary balancing act. Birgit Hebein, the former head of the Wiener Grünen, announced her departure from the party a few days ago. In a statement, she accused the Greens of “passivity” and a lack of attitude. The withdrawal of the ex-top woman brings an old discussion to the boil again: Isn’t the self-declared human rights party making itself the stirrup holder for an inhuman policy? Where is the red line of the Greens?

Last hope Brussels

Ewa Ernst-Dziedzic often hears this question, she formulated a long statement on Facebook, but actually she would like to talk about something else: “I’ve been busy making lists, corresponding with the Foreign Ministry, and looking for a week and a half : Who can we get out? ” This is how the Greens see the distribution of roles in the Afghanistan crisis: We do political work, the others just PR. We save human lives, the others secure votes.

In any case, the ÖVP dominated the headlines. The Taliban had almost reached Kabul airport when Interior Minister and ex-professional soldier Karl Nehammer said he wanted to “deport as long as possible”. After the Taliban came to power, Nehammer wanted to set up deportation centers in neighboring countries. But evacuate people or even create safe escape routes, as EU Interior Commissioner Ylva Johansson suggested? Not with Nehammer, not with the ÖVP: “There is no reason why an Afghan should come to Austria now.”

Ewa Ernst-Dziedzic finds the requests to speak from the coalition partner “dubious”, a diplomatic formulation, as one can easily hear. “But that doesn’t stop me from doing my job. The fact is: Austria is part of the EU, the Geneva Refugee Convention applies here, the European Convention on Human Rights – we have to accept.” You can also read a resignation in it: Appeals are simply nothing to get from Kurz and Co., the Greens have to rely on Brussels and on the fact that the ÖVP feels bound by international law.

Not even Berlusconi likes it

How strong Austria has cemented itself in the right corner near the Hungarian Viktor Orbán and other right-wing interpreters is made clear by the reactions: Even Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party described the “total isolation” as “unacceptable” and called for more solidarity from Vienna. Migration expert Gerald Knaus, father of Merkel’s Turkey deal, said on ORF: “It is a shame that the policy of the Austrian government is the policy of the German AfD.”

On closer inspection, that’s not entirely true – parts of the AfD, including Alexander Gauland, are at least in favor of rescuing some local workers. However, Austria’s armed forces want to have dispensed with local staff.

Sebastian Kurz repeatedly associates the refusal to accept people in need of protection with a number: Austria has taken in around 40,000 Afghans since the refugee crisis in 2015, i.e. most of the people in the EU together with Sweden. His message: enough is enough. Help should only be available “on site” – but how exactly this should work with the Taliban remains unclear.

“The ÖVP is more radical than we had hoped”

It was already clear to the Greens when the coalition agreement was signed that they were entering into a difficult partnership. “The best of both worlds”, under this motto the ÖVP and the Greens tried to bridge the rifts between their parties. In government practice, this means for the Greens: In matters of climate protection and transparency, they can claim sovereignty, but they have to bend to the limit on migration issues. The party first had to convince itself of this with a story in which they take on the role of hero: If we don’t form a coalition with the ÖVP, then they will rule with the FPÖ, and that would be even worse.

But what is this reason for coalition worth when the Greens make a pact with a party whose content can hardly be distinguished from the right wing extremists of the FPÖ? In fact, the ÖVP is “more radical than we had hoped,” admitted party strategist Michel Reimon in an interview with ntv.de in October 2020. From Kurz’s point of view, a logical development: He won the 2017 election and, above all, the 2019 post-Ibiza election, mainly thanks to the votes of former FPÖ sympathizers, whom he does not want to lose. And certainly not just before an election – there are state elections in Upper Austria on September 26th.

Human rights politician Ernst-Dziedzic, however, still believes in the story and in the sense of the coalition: “We have many committed anti-fascists in the party. And it is important that we as Greens show the limits of what is feasible.” Even if it looks different for the critics of the Greens – namely as if Chancellor Kurz could do what he wants in the coalition.