Green Power

Green Power

The Green Party fell from power in recent German elections, but Greens continue to be the party to watch, a progressive influence on the world’s third-largest economy.


Last fall’s elections in Germany knocked the Green Party out of the government but not, it seems, out of power. From 1998 to 2005, the Greens had helped govern Germany as the junior partner in a red-green coalition led by the Social Democratic Party. Following inconclusive elections this past September, the red-green government was replaced by a so-called grand coalition between the SPD and an alliance of two conservative parties, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Christian Social Union, headed by Angela Merkel. The Greens were left out. Yet their influence on public policy persists, as illustrated by one of the first actions Merkel took as Chancellor.

Embracing a green jobs program the Greens had long championed, Merkel decreed that from now on 5 percent of all pre-1978 German housing would be made energy efficient every year. Toward that end, the government will spend 1.5 billion euros a year subsidizing the installation of more efficient insulation, heating and electricity systems in houses and apartment buildings across the nation. That is a major outlay of money, especially considering widespread calls to trim Germany’s budget deficit, but the program is seen as a win-win-win. The 1.5 billion euros will be recouped through lower energy bills. Lower energy use will mean less air pollution and lower greenhouse gas emissions. And, most important of all for a nation fighting double-digit rates of unemployment, the efficiency upgrades will create thousands of jobs that cannot be outsourced overseas. Because efficiency renovations are highly labor-intensive and by their nature localized, the program will provide jobs for countless German carpenters, electricians and other construction workers. Since much of Germany’s pre-1978 housing is located in the former East Germany, most of the new jobs will be created there, where unemployment and the social tensions it fosters are greatest.

“The new government is clearly following our lead,” says Reinhard Bütikofer, Green Party chair. “This will not only strengthen climate policy but create many new jobs. We in fact started that program while in the [red-green] government, and we had to defend it a couple of times against the SPD finance minister.”

Twenty-five years after their founding, the German Greens remain without question the most influential environmentally based party ever. They have exercised decisive effect not only on government policy but on the underlying terrain of social values and beliefs that shape policy, and they have done so both at home and abroad. During the 2005 election campaign, recalls Patrik Schwarz of the German weekly Die Zeit, who has written extensively about the party, “the Greens would say, half-jokingly, that if they had not helped to usher in changes in German politics and society over the past twenty years, you never would have seen a woman [Merkel] heading the CDU ticket or an openly gay man [Guido Westerwelle] leading the [business-based] Free Democratic Party.” One month after Merkel’s announcement, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development also copied the Greens when its president, Jean Lemierre, announced that Eastern European countries would have to improve their energy efficiency in order to continue receiving loans.

During their years governing the world’s third-biggest economy, the Greens also showed they could be trusted with the reins of power without losing their edge. They demanded and won an internationally unprecedented phaseout of nuclear power–nineteen reactors, which supply 30 percent of Germany’s electricity, are scheduled to close by 2020–and made up the shortfall by sponsoring a renewable energy sources law that has already doubled German production of solar, wind and other renewable energies and is projected to raise their share of German energy consumption to 65 percent by 2050. Under the leadership of the party’s most popular figure, Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, the Greens transformed Germany’s foreign policy and global image, leaving behind their own historical pacifism and the nation’s historically reflexive pro-Americanism. Fischer enraged both the Greens’ left wing, by supporting international peacekeeping missions in the Balkans and Afghanistan, and the Bush Administration, by leading European resistance to the Iraq War.

But if the Greens are so clever, why were they voted out last September? Bütikofer insists the defeat wasn’t the Greens’ fault, and the data support him. Since joining the government in 1998, the Greens have increased their share of the vote in national elections from 6.7 percent to 8.1 percent. It was the decline of former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s SPD, whose support fell from 40.9 to 34.2 percent over the past seven years thanks to a failure to conquer Germany’s unemployment crisis, that doomed the red-green government. In the lead-up to the election, polls showed the SPD trailing the CDU by as much as twenty points. Thus, says Schwarz, “The Greens didn’t have the functional argument going for them this election. They couldn’t campaign saying, ‘Vote Green and you’ll get a red-green government.'”

Looking forward, the Greens face the challenge of replacing Fischer (who announced his retirement from the party leadership) and, above all, sharpening their appeal on economic issues. “Ask Germans which party is the most competent on consumer or energy or especially environmental issues, and it’s the Greens,” says party chair Bütikofer. “But on the economy we’re not respected a lot, so that’s where we have to do the most work.”

The Greens are, after all, implicated in the economic shortcomings of the red-green government, whose reform of Germany’s social welfare state went too far for many on the left but not far enough for business and others on the right. (The new Left Party capitalized on workers’ dissatisfactions with the red-green reforms to win 8.7 percent of the 2005 vote, nosing ahead of the Greens.) Arguing that wealth cannot be distributed unless it is first created, the Greens now present themselves as the party of market-friendly modernizations. “We must find answers to globalization, to independence from oil, to integration of foreigners” into German society, says Renate Künast, the new co-leader of the party’s parliamentary faction. “We don’t want to leave this up to the market alone, because the market follows and rewards only the interests of shareholders. The government must set rules…so that a worker is not just a pawn in the game of economic interests. That is modern left politics.”

The green jobs program that Chancellor Merkel borrowed from the Greens is a key example of the larger argument the Greens will continue to push, says Bütikofer–that “what has traditionally been called ‘industrial policy’ should instead be renamed and pursued as ‘environmental policy.'” The Greens’ Renewable Energy Sources law likewise “sent the message that ecological innovation and jobs go together,” Bütikofer adds. The renewable energy industry now employs 130,000 workers in Germany. Because parts of the law on renewables have since been copied by forty-one other nations, including China, German exports of renewable energy technology should grow, yielding even more jobs in the future.

At age twenty-five the Greens have left behind their militant past to become a center-left party; Green leaders speak as critically of the alleged “demagoguery” of the Left Party as they do of the “market radicalism” of the right-wing Free Democratic Party. Much of what the party has accomplished at home is not transferable to countries with nonparliamentary electoral systems; in the winner-take-all United States, getting 8 percent of the vote is a ticket to nowhere. But Germany is rich and powerful enough that its actions have a global effect. In the past seven years the Greens seeded a worldwide renewable energy revolution while helping to weaken the Bush Administration’s drive to war in Iraq. Those are impressive achievements, and if the party can further find its voice on economic matters, they could be just the beginning.

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