Europe’s Greens wilt in the spotlight

The youthful environmental force that burst onto the scene in the anti-nuclear 1980s is now being shoved aside by major parties adopting Green-lite policies.


Europe’s Greens have got the blues. The anti-nuclear environmentalist movement that burst into politics in the 1980s as a youthful third force has suffered a string of setbacks in Germany and France, rais­ing questions over its future.

Germany’s Greens, trailblazers of political ecology, lost ground in this month's general election, finishing fourth on 8.4 per cent behind the radical Left party, and failing to se­cure the coalition they wanted with the centre-left Social Democrats. The party’s senior leaders resigned.

The Greens are now agonising over whether to enter a coalition with Chancellor Merkel’s conservatives, while their French cousins are feuding over whether to stay in government with President Francois Hollande’s Socialists.

One of the French party’s former presidential candi­dates, Noel Mamere, walked out in disgust last week, saying the Greens had sold their souls for power, stopped producing innovative ideas and become a “trade union of elected officials”.

“The ecologists spend their time accepting things that don’t correspond to the platform they are supposed to stand for,” Mamere said in an interview with Le Monde.

Another icon of the movement, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, distanced himself from the party and won’t run again for EU Parliament next year, while the current party leader, Pascal Durand, said he would step down in 2014.

The French Greens’ candidate for president, Eva Joly, polled a humiliating 2.3 per cent last year, a far cry from the party’s record 16.7 per cent score in the 2009 Euro­pean elections.

To a degree, the Greens have become victims of their own success. We are all green now.

Many of the issues they forced onto Europe’s policy agenda – from renewable energy to sustainable develop­ment or gay rights – have been embraced by the main­stream parties, at least in part. Fighting climate change, reducing emissions and recycling waste are standard policies for EU governments nowadays, albeit pursued with less zeal than the Greens demand.

US President Barack Obama and the European Com­mission both espouse “green growth” as the way to revive industrialised Western economies.

Merkel’s centre-right government robbed the ecologists of probably their most potent issue when she decided to phase out nuclear power plants in Germany after the Fukushima reactor disaster in Japan in 2011.

In France, the Greens lost credibility with many sup­porters because they failed to make Hollande significantly reduce the country’s dependency on atomic energy. The government plans to shut down just one of 58 reactors in its 5-year term, and even that will take years to dismantle. Likewise, Finland’s Greens have been damaged by staying in a coalition that decided to build new nuclear power stations.

Battles against new airports or rail hubs or against the use of hydraulic fracking to search for shale gas have mobilised local support for Green causes, often in alliance with middle-class “not in my back yard” campaigners. But barring another Fukushima nearer to home or the threat of a war involving nuclear weapons, it is hard to see what would prompt a major revival of the Green movement.

In the few places like Austria where Greens are still on the rise, it is because they have stayed in opposition to left-right “grand coalitions” and look clean amid others’ sleaze scandals.

Generation change has also caught up with the Greens. The activists in jeans and T-shirts whose playful insolence blew a gust of fresh air into parliaments and local assemblies across Europe in the 80s and 90s have become pillars of the establishment in many countries.

Green ministers have held cabinet seats in Paris, Berlin and half a dozen other EU capitals on-and-off since the late 1990s – and not just for the environment.

Joschka Fischer, once an anarchist firebrand, was a widely admired German foreign minister in 1998-2005, who justified his country’s first participation in military action since World War II in NATO’s campaign in Kosovo in 1999.

Ecologists sit on regional executives and city councils around continental western Europe. One large, prosper­ous German state, Baden-Wuerttemberg, even has a Green premier. But there is a flipside to such success. Green members and voters have aged with their lead­ers and become more bourgeois and reconciled with the market economy. Surveys show they have a higher than average education level and income.

The German Greens alienated some of that electorate by campaigning for higher taxes, prompting Fischer to observe that the party leadership had “gotten older but not yet grown up”.

Drawing lessons from defeat, new parliamentary floor leader Katrin Goering-Eckardt said: “Our task is to make ourselves more able to connect with the middle ground in society.” That, however, makes the party less attractive to young people seeking a radical alternative in a period of economic crisis and mass youth unemployment.

From Greece to Italy, and Ireland to Spain, disaffected youngsters have either turned apolitical or preferred radical anti-austerity parties of the far left or hard right. In Italy, the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement that surged to prominence in this year’s election includes some former Greens.

Single-issue groups such as the Pirates, who campaign for internet freedom, and eurosceptical parties have drawn some first-time voters away from the Greens, who are strongly pro-European at a time when EU institutions have been tarnished. The Greens’ failure to capitalise on the global financial crisis or the eurozone’s debt woes suggests they are seen as a “fair weather” party, advocating policies that seem a luxury in tough economic times.

Despite scientific reports on the devastating march of man-made global warming, the public appetite for carbon taxes, wind turbines and recycling biomass has diminished.

In the seesaw between industrial efficiency and envi­ronmental sustainability, the balance has swung for now towards short-term economic interests.

Originally published by Reuter's Point Carbon. Republished with permission.

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