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.