As co-chair of the European Greens, Austrian MEP Thomas Waitz plays an important role in the party. Waitz spoke to the “Wiener Zeitung” about where the Greens are heading in Europe and how they want to shape the energy transition and why their government work differs in Austria and Germany.
“Vienna Newspaper”: You have become co-chair of the European Greens for the second time. In two years there will be EU elections again. How hard is the job?
Thomas Waitz: This is my second full-time job. We have over 40 member parties in Europe, also outside the EU, even in Ukraine and Georgia. After the Greens did very well in the last European elections in Central and Northern European countries, we celebrated. But the reality is: it is missing in the East, in the South. It has always been my job to support green, progressive centre-left parties and give them relevance.
At least since the Green Deal, however, one has the impression that everything in Europe is already green. Is there a lot just a facade? Or is there real progress?
From 2018 onwards, the climate movement in particular has succeeded in bringing the issue into the mainstream of society. Today, in fact, no party can afford to publish an election program without green content. There is a general understanding that the climate crisis affects us all. The Green Deal is a step forward. The question now is whether the measures do justice to what we have to do to achieve the 1.5 degree target. The answer: no. It’s not enough. On the other hand, Europe now has the most ambitious climate law in the world. Light and shadow are close together. Of course, there is also a lot of facade, every company wants to color itself green. However, this also indicates that the topic is received positively by the population.
But don’t you have to show a great willingness to compromise because of the pandemic and war? The pressure from the economy is great, see sanctions.
Government policy means finding pragmatic solutions and taking into account the legitimate interests of society, which is different from the opposition. Business interests matter, and if we don’t have tax revenues, then neither do we.
Specifically: the oil and gas embargo dispute. . .
If you look at the human suffering that’s happening in Ukraine right now, the impulse comes immediately: We’re not sending a single euro to Putin anymore. But the strength of the EU is the economy and the question of how much we harm ourselves is relevant. Billions are currently going to Ukraine, you have to be able to afford it. If we turn off the gas and next month have five percent more unemployment and a recession, then I’ll lose the support of my own people. My demand on the governments is that they do everything humanly possible to reduce the consumption of fossil fuels, especially from Russia, as much as possible. It is now clear to everyone that energy dependence is a strategic security issue. There is no difference between one or the other authoritarian regime.
When it comes to gas, Austria is an example of dependency. Do you have to take a much closer look at how this came about?
Yes. In 2008 one could have already seen the nature of Russian foreign policy. By 2014 at the latest, it should have been clear to us that Russia does not stop at independent neighboring states. At that point at the latest, a change of direction in OMV and in Austrian energy policy would have been appropriate. To strengthen the dependency after 2014, without necessity – you have to ask questions.
The war against Ukraine also has implications for domestic politics. If you now compare Austria and Germany, where the Greens are in government in both cases, a very different picture emerges.
In Germany we have a coalition with the Social Democrats, where there is common ground in many areas – such as social affairs, human rights – and therefore fewer internal tensions. In Austria we are in a coalition that we entered into for political reasons and not because we are particularly politically close. We knew that this would be difficult.
If you look from Brussels to Vienna: What shape does Austria have after Sebastian Kurz’s move to Karl Nehammer?
Under Kurz we corresponded to the image that even conservative parties can be open to the right. We’re out of the headlines now, Nehammer isn’t a stirrer, he’s a factual politician, he’s interested in dialogue, cooperation works better.
But it must be difficult with a partner who deals with issues such as migration or naturalization in such a different way.
This is difficult for us. But we were aware from day one that we were dealing with an ÖVP that was moving away from the clear pro-European line. The anti-foreigner course is being pursued in order to gain votes from the FPÖ. That is a strategic attitude of the ÖVP, that is to be regretted. We have decided to accept that to a certain extent. When it comes to concrete questions, we definitely have an influence on a certain humanity. It’s a matter of consideration.
Do you expect Ukraine to be granted candidate status at the forthcoming summit?
That is a difficult question. The EU is moving forward with accession negotiations on a concrete basis – if we stay true to them, we don’t need to think about Ukraine and Moldova. Both are far from there, but well on the way. But even when Romania and Bulgaria were admitted, the conditions were not met, there was a geostrategic reason. From today’s perspective, that was a wise decision, Bulgaria, for example, was an ally of the Soviet Union and is now 100 percent on the side of the West. It has caused us quite a bit of pain on issues of corruption or the rule of law, which we have had to work on for the last few years. We pay a price for it. But in the case of Ukraine, it’s only about candidate status, not about the start of negotiations, which would also be impossible for Moldova. But you have to give them a perspective, that’s an important political element for all the people there who risk their lives for democracy and freedom of expression – our values. But one thing has to be clear: that also applies to Bosnia, which is in a very precarious situation. We shouldn’t wait for the first bullets to fly. Russia has a solid foot in the door there.
The Greens in Europe are represented in eight governments. Where are the biggest challenges?
There is no getting around the decarbonisation of the economy. The greatest challenge will be to do this in such a way that the social consequences are contained in such a way that the citizens do not have to pay the price for the failed policies of the past few years. Especially not those who already have little. An example: We’re happy to talk about how we convert our vehicle fleets to electric vehicles. But a rural single mother who doesn’t have public transport to go with her part-time job will also need a car – and it won’t be a Tesla. We have to be aware of that, we need solutions. If I have to decide in winter whether I can eat or heat up, then we have a glaring problem. The Greens are considering this. The EU must be at the forefront of the world, it’s democracy versus autocracy. We have to work together globally.