Austrian climate minister: I only choose the rules I like

Austrian minister Leonore Gewessler not explaining how she had the power to ignore her Chancellor (Photo by Thierry Monasse/Getty Images)


Austria’s government, a coalition of the centre-right People’s Party (ÖVP) and the Green Party, has never been stable. Formed out of necessity – after the 2019 elections, there were no other feasible partners for the People’s Party – the two are now limping to September 29th’s upcoming parliamentary elections.

But last week, they almost broke up pre-emptively as the country was plunged into a crisis over a ministerial vote in Brussels on the European Union’s Nature Restoration Law.

The crisis, seemingly just an argument over technicalities, has not received much attention outside of Austria, though Brussels Signal has covered the story. It merits more attention.

The crisis represents everything wrong with the approach European establishmentarians take to governance and how they respond to potential populist-right successes.

They preach about the importance of democratic norms, about standards in the way things are done, foreseeing doom should parties which do not respect those norms (always, in their telling, the populist right) win office. But when establishmentarians are in office, they are happy to ignore democratic norms in order to enforce their preferred policies.

Austria’s Chancellor Karl Nehammer, along with most of the Austrian federal states, was opposed to the Nature Restoration Law. Nehammer told the environmental minister, Leonore Gewessler, that in Brussels she should vote against it.

But she ignored Nehammer and voted for the legislation. Her vote was decisive: ministers representing at least two-thirds of the European Union’s population needed to vote in the affirmative, and without Austria’s vote, it would not have passed.

Nehammer called her vote illegal and told the Belgian presidency of the EU Council that it did not count. Belgium responded that to them, it did, and that Austria’s concerns were an internal affair.

Within Austria, responses were predictable. Liberals and leftists cheered the move, presenting Gewessler as a bold champion of the Earth. Conservatives, both the ÖVP and the populist-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), demanded repercussions.

Nehammer ultimately decided not to terminate the coalition – saying he did not want to waste money on early elections – but he was furious.

The ÖVP had two arguments against Gewessler’s vote. The first was that all the federal states issued a unanimous statement opposing the law (which would have legally mandated Gewessler not to support the law). The second argument was that, as chancellor, Nehammer should have had the final say.

The Greens responded by pointing out that Vienna had broken from the other federal states after the statement of unanimity was made, breaking unanimity and therefore allowing Gewessler to vote in the affirmative.

As for Nehammer having the final say? The Greens argued that there is nothing in Austria’s constitution requiring ministers to heed the chancellor’s wishes.

The former question is a genuine legal puzzle, as it is uncertain if Vienna had to follow a particular procedure in order to break unanimity. But the latter question is not. The Greens are correct. There is no law requiring ministers to follow the chancellor here.

But there is a norm. There are standards. 

Governments need to have some sort of structure. Someone needs to be in charge. Karl Nehammer is the head of Austria’s government. As head of government, he needs to have ministers who will follow his orders, provided those orders are legal.

He may be restricted when it comes to things like coalition agreements, but beyond that, he is the man in charge. It is impossible to imagine that the framers of Austria’s constitution did not consider the chancellor, as the head of the cabinet, to be in charge. 

Defenders of Gewessler’s vote might simply respond to this with, “Tough.” It was a norm which needed to die so that the nature law could live.

But populist-right parties across the West have been breaking norms for the last ten years, and every time that happens it has been Code Red for establishmentarians.

When former Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Janša criticised judges in his country for being biased, Brussels was outraged. The norm of judicial independence was too sacrosanct to impugn.

When the Minister-President of Thuringia in Germany won a vote in parliament on the back of votes from the populist-right AfD (getting elected with the support of the AfD is serious case of norm-breaking in Germany), establishment parties were apoplectic – then-Chancellor Angela Merkel called it “unforgivable” – and the newly sworn in Minister-President was forced to step down.

So why was this norm breakable? It seems that it was breakable because establishmentarians wanted the law passed.

The problem here is that actions like this do two things. Firstly, they destroy trust in the system. And secondly, they make it more likely that more norms will be broken.

Think about it this way. Average Austrians, who are non-political, likely imagine that the chancellor oversees his government. It makes sense. A Green minister going off the reservation seems inherently norm-breaking, and it damages the notion that the system is working as it should.

After all, taken to its logical conclusion, Austria’s government would essentially be a free-for-all of ministers doing whatever they like.

So, during the upcoming election, when the Greens inevitably warn about how voting for the populist-right Freedom Party will lead to all sorts of norm-breaking, those warnings will likely fall on deaf ears. 

The results are not difficult to imagine. Consider a hypothetical. Fast-forward to a year from now, to mid-2025. The People’s Party and the Freedom Party did well in the elections, and they are governing together in a coalition.

There is a vote of defence ministers in Brussels on whether to create a permanent funding mechanism for Ukraine. The vote, like the vote on the nature law, depends on the Austrians. Chancellor Nehammer wants the defence minister, a Freedom Party member, to vote yes.

Instead, he votes no.

This would be front page news across the entire European Union, and in the West. The headlines are easy to imagine: “Far-right minister disobeys chancellor and votes against permanent Ukraine aid.” The breaking of this norm would be portrayed as evil, outrageous. Establishmentarians would be mortified and stupefied.

Now this is a hypothetical. But Gewessler’s action make it more likely that such norms will be broken in the future. Why on earth would populist-right figures restrict themselves to establishment norms if the establishmentarians themselves do not follow them?

This is not just an Austrian problem. Across the Union, establishmentarians are breaking norms to do the things they want to do. In the East, Poland’s new government, under Prime Minister and ultra-establishmentarian Donald Tusk, has broken a shocking number of norms in an attempt to go after his political enemies, from ignoring court rulings to arresting members of the opposition.

And in the West? The European Commission has for years turned a blind eye to France openly flouting European spending rules. Up until now, France has got away with breaking the spending rules more than most countries might.

But now the European Commission has launched Excessive Deficit Procedures against seven member states — including France. The suspicion is that this is a Commission move against the populist-right National Rally which may take power in France’s upcoming parliamentary elections.

Which would of course fuel the righteous populist-fire. It would weaken French voters’ trust in the system and would likely give the National Rally a boost going into the 2027 presidential elections – and could result in President Marine Le Pen, which would then threaten even more of the establishment’s precious norms.