The supposition is so widespread that it seems almost a done deal: 2019 will be the year that right-wing populists overrun the European Parliament and rack up high vote tallies in Denmark, Switzerland, and Greece too—all of which have elections coming up. Apparently Steve Bannon, currently agitating for a nationalist international in Europe, and Hungary’s strongman Viktor Orbán have it all worked out.
But despair may be premature. The nationalist momentum has subsided a tick, polls indicate, the result in part of another force climbing out of the ruins of Europe’s traditional political landscape—the Greens.
Europe’s Green parties recorded best-ever showings in regional votes last year in Germany, Luxembourg, Belgium, and the Netherlands, and they are today, according to polls, flying higher than usual in other countries where the party is much weaker. The emergence of the environmentally minded, left-liberal Greens as a decisive political factor—above all, but not exclusively, in northern Europe—is a rebuke to the national populists and cautious reason for hope. More than any other force, the Green parties stand uncompromisingly against the national populists, challenging the hard right’s race-based, fact-bereft stances on migration, Islam, human rights, identity, the European Union, and, of course, climate change. The Greens have succeeded because they have dared to attack the far rightists’ assumptions rather than—as all of their rivals, including socialists, have—creep onto the far right’s turf with panicked calls to clamp down on “illegal” refugees and other migrants.
This heady revival in the fortunes of the Greens comes after their having been knocked out of many governments and legislatures a decade or so ago. It comes after their having digested the bitter lessons from those defeats, which have enabled them to make unprecedented inroads into the mainstream. It has come at a price, though: The Greens have abandoned much of their countercultural, in-your-face radicalism in the concerted effort to lure more traditionally minded voters.
There’s probably no better example than the German Greens, Europe’s premier Green party, who are currently polling around 20 percent, second only to the Christian Democrats (CDU). This is more than double the Greens’ showing in the 2017 national election. In state elections last fall in traditionally conservative Bavaria as well as in Hesse, home of the financial center Frankfurt, the Greens proved they can sustain their jump in the surveys when they garnered 18 percent and 20 percent, respectively. In the well-heeled southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg, the Greens head up the government, for a second term in a row, now with the CDU as their deputy coalition partner (a humbling place for the once-invincible conservatives there, but, alas, they had no choice other than to languish in opposition). The Greens are in governments in half of Germany’s 16 federal states, in a colorful pastiche of coalitions, including four with conservatives, two with the Social Democrats (SPD), and two all-leftist “red-red-green” governments, with the SPD and Die Linke, Germany’s democratic socialists.
Elsewhere, too, Greens have flung off their old role of being a small opposition party, particularly in urban centers populated by their core constituency of young, well-off, well-educated cosmopolitans. In municipal elections in the Netherlands last year, GroenLinks, an amalgam of environmental and former socialist parties, won outright in Amsterdam and Utrecht, and ran neck-and-neck just about everywhere else. For the first time ever, Amsterdam’s mayor, Femke Halsema, is from GroenLinks; she is also the city’s first female burgemeester. The GroenLinks campaign underscored what localities can do to cut greenhouse-gas emissions (a third of carbon emissions in the Netherlands can be addressed at the local level) and improve health care and housing.
In Luxembourg’s national elections last fall, the Greens increased their winnings by half, enabling them to leverage their clout in a government coalition they’ve been in since 2013. Among the Greens’ portfolios are environment, climate, and sustainable development, as well as housing, culture, and energy. In Belgium’s local ballot in October, Greens ramped up their presence in city halls in both Wallonia and Flanders, winning additional seats in dozens of cities and towns. (Not all, though, was roses for the Greens last year: Sweden’s Greens suffered painful losses in the national vote, but they still maintain a foothold in the governing center-left coalition.)
Although Europe’s Green parties vary, it’s fair to say that all of them have undergone a moderating makeover since their early years, when they were brought to life by a grab bag of progressive social movements and leftist splinter parties. In Germany, the Greens have profited enormously, in electoral terms, from ditching their against-the-grain leftism. In 2013, they tried—and failed—to bolster their leftist cred by putting their pledge to raise taxes front and center in the campaign. This came on the heels of a proposal to introduce a “veggie day” (one vegetarian meal a month in schools and public-sector lunch halls), which backfired spectacularly. Opponents cried that politically correct, sanctimonious environmentalists were trying to dictate how ordinary people live and eat. The Greens nosedived in the polls and wound up with a sorry 8 percent on election day, after having soared beyond the 20 percent mark in the aftermath of the 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima, Japan. Never again, the Greens vowed.
The Greens’ greatest conquest to date, in Baden-Württemberg, is significantly due to the party head and state premier since 2011 there, Winfried Kretschmann, a 70-year-old, gravelly voiced former schoolteacher whose shtick is so grandfatherly that even the state’s powerful car manufacturers, which include Audi, Mercedes-Benz, and Porsche, gladly hobnob with him. Though Kretschmann’s success is the object of envy, he locks horns with left-wing Greens who, unlike Kretschmann, would rather quit the party than apply the label “conservative” to it. Indeed, leftist Greens never imagined that they would govern with the CDU, their arch-enemy from way back.
In fact, coalitions with other parties are central to the German Greens’ successes. When the party was born, at the tail end of the 1970s, it was divided between Fundis, or fundamentalists who saw the party as an opposition-based “anti-party party”—a spokesperson for the social movements in the legislatures—and Realos, or realists, who wanted the Greens to participate in governance, help write laws, and implement green-tinged policies.
The fundamentalists’ defeat saw the Greens shoot into regional legislatures as the SPD’s junior sidekick, and then finally share in government at the federal level with the Social Democrats from 1998 to 2005, which was the Greens’ first and last tenure in national government. In retrospect, though, the realist strategy paid off: During the seven red-green years, the administration—represented most prominently by SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and Green Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer—set in motion Germany’s transition to renewable energy (the Energiewende), the exit from nuclear energy, a civic-citizenship law, a gay-partnership statute, and other trademark Green priorities that confirmed the republic’s modern identity. Never since then has the environment had a forceful advocate in the chancellor’s cabinet. In the aftermath of the 2017 vote, a three-way coalition with the CDU and the free-market liberals was derailed at the last minute—but not because of the Greens.
There’s more than one explanation for the German Greens’ newfound popularity, including the flexibility that party leaders showed in the 2017 coalition negotiations by compromising on their headline campaign planks, such as settling for the closure of about seven rather than 20 of the oldest coal-fired power plants by 2020. Of course, the weakness of the big-tent parties that had long dominated postwar German politics, the CDU and the SPD, has fed the Greens’ ascent. Surveys clearly show an exodus from the SPD to the Greens, though many conservatives and new voters, too, have climbed aboard. Moreover, the party now has a dazzling twosome at its head in Robert Habeck and Annalena Baerbock. Habeck is a soft-spoken northerner who wrote his doctorate on philosophy and has published novels, volumes of translated poetry, and children’s books, many together with his wife. The charismatic, 38-year-old Baerbock, an expert on international law, the EU, and climate protection, is a moderate, like Habeck, but has won over Green leftists with her competence and conviviality. The duo pack halls everywhere they go.
Two other key factors account for the Greens’ changed fortunes. The first is climate and energy policy, their bread and butter. In Germany, none of the other parties consider either issue among their top priorities. In the Greens’ 10-Point Program for the 2017 campaign, point one was climate protection, followed by electric mobility and then sustainable agriculture. Point four was European integration, which included the “environmental modernization” of the continent as a whole. The program called for making Germany’s power supply 100 percent renewable and all new cars emission-free by 2030.
As little as a year ago, this agenda had limited resonance beyond the party’s standard clientele. That changed last summer, Germany’s hottest and driest in recorded history, which revealed more pointedly than ever that the global-warming crisis is upon us now. On top of Europe’s extreme weather came the urgent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change last fall on the calamity that would ensue if the planet’s temperature rise is not checked at 1.5 degrees Celsius, and the small window of time we have left to fend off much worse.
These events jarred at least some of a populace that has long been convinced of climate change and has overwhelmingly backed the Energiewende, despite its cost to consumers. “They’re either naive or lying to themselves,” one leading figure in the Greens told me in 2017 during the election campaign, frustrated that the topic was getting no traction. “There’s been a very fundamental change of perception,” says Reinhard Bütikofer, a Green member of the European Parliament. “Climate change is a material concern now. It doesn’t mean that people will automatically vote Green, but if the party presents itself the right way—adequately radical, but not extreme or elitist—Germans who never voted Green before could feel at home.”
The second factor is that the Greens today stand out as the party most firmly committed to left-liberal principles and a politics rooted in human rights, tolerance, and civic values. The Greens are the one party that doesn’t play the “blame Brussels” game, using the EU as a whipping boy and then wondering why popular faith in the EU ebbs. In the face of the recent migration hysteria, the Greens refused to bash Chancellor Angela Merkel and scream “invasion,” countering instead with rational arguments that underscored, for example, the small number of migrants entering the EU, the value of immigrants for German culture and the economy, Germany’s need for a modern immigration statute, and the right to political asylum. At the same time, the Greens aren’t for open borders and unlimited migration, as some in Die Linke are.
At first the Greens appeared to be drowned out amid the hullabaloo at the height of the refugee crisis, as the far right’s numbers swelled from week to week, with the centrist parties fanning the flames for them. The election results last fall in Bavaria and Hesse, however, marked a turning point. The anti-immigrant Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) gained dramatically, as expected, but so did the Greens, while the conservatives and the SPD (the flame-fanners) lost big. Since then, “the tone has changed in the Bundestag and the media,” says Bütikofer. “The AfD is no longer setting the agenda.” Indeed, the far right has dropped nearly five points in the polls.
And now the Greens are finally being recognized in eastern Germany too, where three closely watched state elections take place this year. The Greens still trail the AfD there by quite a bit, but they now place in the low double digits in townships that seemed not to know them before. Notably, the party’s overture to the east is economic, not environmental: a hardship fund for laid-off coal workers, minimum social-security payouts for the elderly poor, and financial support for civil society.
In France, Austria, and Ireland too, where Greens had been nearly eradicated, they’re back in play, according to surveys, though below 10 percent. In Finland, where an election is coming up in April, they now outpace the hard-right True Finns instead of the other way around. And as far away as the United States, the Green New Deal, the European Greens’ program for ecological modernization, is being discussed seriously, with a big push from newly elected New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.
The Greens’ difficulty in making sustainable headway outside of northern Europe, though, remains cause for concern in party circles. “There’s a danger that the Greens’ success in its strongholds will make the northern European political tones all the more dominant,” says German historian Christoph Becker-Schaum, who researches Europe’s Green movements. “There’s been heavy pressure on the southerners to take on the explicitly leftist line of the north’s Green parties, which they say won’t convince their potential constituencies.”
With the party in Germany flying so high, the griping of Green left-wingers who are unhappy with leaders like Kretschmann, Habeck, and Baerbock has dwindled to a whisper. Today’s Greens are a left-center party that is trying to replace the hapless Social Democrats as Germany’s major left party. They may not stop the far right from scoring big in the May vote for the European Parliament, but they pose a clear alternative and, at the very least, should be able to put a greener stamp on the class of 2019.