Greens' growth in Germany spurs deputy chancellor's departure
Guido Westerwelle announced he is resigning as deputy chancellor to Angela Merkel after their parties received stunning losses to Greens in last month's state elections.
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"It felt like taking over a fortress," remembers Frank Baum. For many nights he traveled 15 miles from his hometown of Freiburg after work to sleep at the site. The protesters won the battle when the government canceled the facility, but they lost the war with the construction of 17 nuclear plants elsewhere in the nation. The event laid the foundation for the Green Party's March 27 win, turning Freiburg into the cradle of Germany's anti-nuclear movement and a model for environmental living. The city made its medieval center more pedestrian-friendly, laying down a lattice of bike paths and introducing a flat fee for tramways and buses. The city and region invested in alternative energy: Environmental research became a backbone of the region's economy, which today boasts Germany's largest solar-research center and an international center for renewable energy. In 2002, Freiburg became the first large German city to elect a Green mayor (nearby Tübingen also elected a Green in 2008), forming a counterweight in the conservative region that Merkel's party ruled for 58 years.Skip to next paragraph
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"This Green model based on renewable energy and quality of life, and not only on GDP [gross domestic product] growth, is moving beyond the city to the regional level," says Miranda Schreurs, head of the European Environmental and Sustainable Development Advisory Councils, a Berlin-based network of advisers appointed by 16 European countries. "It has become mainstream."
The party's win in Baden Württemberg does not necessarily foretell Merkel's downfall in the 2013 federal election. The Green Party remains weak in east Germany, and its liberal stance on gay rights and immigration prevent it from appealing to conservative voters.
Merkel shifts on nuclear
Merkel is already backtracking on her pro-nuclear push. In early March, she called for a review of a plan she announced last fall to let Germany's nuclear reactors run for another decade. The plan, part of an ambitious road map for renewables to provide 80 percent of the nation's energy by 2050, would see a new nuclear fuel tax of ¤2.3 billion ($3.3 billion) annually.
"By international standards, the plan was very far-reaching," says Ms. Schreurs, who also heads the Environmental Policy Research Center at the Free University of Berlin. "Germany has pushed renewables harder than any country. But the fact that it pushed nuclear at the cost of a more rapid growth of renewable energy made the party not environmental enough."
Merkel's next test is in June with the end of the temporary shutdown of Germany's seven oldest nuclear reactors, begun after the Japan quake. Taking the plants off-line permanently could be a gesture toward the Greens.
"People are going to watch closely to see if actions now follow our words," said Horst Seehofer, a CDU leader.
Courts may have a say in the matter. Nuclear plant operators have threatened to sue the government for damages.
Unlike France, which maintains that nuclear energy will remain part of its energy future, Germany never disputed that it would end nuclear energy. The message of the election was clear: Do that faster.
Eyes now turn to Berlin, where Green coleader Renate Künast could capitalize on the party's rising popularity in September's mayoral vote.
"The issues always associated with the Greens – climate change, nuclear threat – are going to be on the agenda for years, decades to come," says Gerd Mielke, a political researcher at the University of Mainz. "It's not going to be a once-in-a-while issue. It's going to provide a steady boost for the Greens."