Green politics comes surging into the mainstream in EU elections

Why We Wrote This

After years of treating the environment as a secondary concern when it comes to politics, many Europeans are now bringing their worries about climate change into the voting booth.

Kay Nietfeld/dpa/AP
Green party chairwoman Annalena Baerbock and EU Parliament member Sven Giegold celebrate after the first results in Berlin on May 26.

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 5 Min. )

The success of the Green parties in the weekend’s European parliamentary elections came as a surprise to most. But it came as the environment weighs heavily on voters’ minds in the prosperous northwestern European countries where the Greens did best.

The recent impetus has come partly from two alarming reports on the potentially catastrophic future mankind faces if global temperatures continue to rise. Last October, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that the world has just 12 years in which to take radical action if temperature rises are to be held to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). Earlier this month, a U.N. study spelled out how seriously humans are destroying nature, predicting that 1 million species of wildlife are at risk of becoming extinct within decades.

If the Greens surfed a wave of renewed climate activism, they also profited at the European elections from a marked falloff in support for traditional centrist parties. “Voters don’t feel so tribally attached to left- or right-wing parties anymore,” says Christopher Rootes, an expert on the international environmental movement. “When centrist parties become discredited, the Greens are well placed to take advantage of that.”

Amid the many uncertainties that cloud the future of the fragmented new European Parliament, one thing is clear: The Greens will enjoy unprecedented leverage to put the planet’s climate front and center on the political scene.

Their unexpected success in weekend elections gives the Greens a key voice on environmental policy in the world’s largest trading bloc. “Today is about a Green Wave cascading through Europe,” tweeted an exultant Magid Magid, a successful British Green candidate. “We’re going to turn the tide of history!”

Mr. Magid may be exaggerating. But never has the environment – particularly the climate emergency – weighed as heavily on voters’ minds as it did in the prosperous northwestern European countries where the Greens did best in the elections.

The Greens boosted their presence from 51 to 70 of Parliament’s 751 seats. “The results were … a reflection of what has been happening with the climate movement over the last year,” says Jean-François Julliard, head of Greenpeace in France, where the Greens came third in the polls.

Across the continent, tens of thousands of high school students are going on weekly strike in “FridaysforFuture,” a campaign led by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg to prod adult politicians into taking the action needed to slow global warming.

Other European protesters have joined “Extinction Rebellion,” whose activists have staged eye-catching stunts such as stripping off in the public gallery of the British Parliament and gathering enough demonstrators to bring central London’s shopping district to a grinding halt.

The changing mood is clear, says Mr. Julliard. “Greenpeace has never had so many volunteers showing up spontaneously,” he says. “And we just got 2 million signatures on a petition; that was an online record” in France. “I have the impression that we [environmental activists] have reached a milestone we had never managed before.”

Time to do something

The recent impetus has come partly from two alarming reports on the potentially catastrophic future mankind faces if global temperatures continue to rise. Last October, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that the world has just 12 years in which to take radical action if temperature rises are to be held to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit).

Earlier this month, a U.N. study spelled out how seriously humans are destroying nature, predicting that 1 million species of wildlife are at risk of becoming extinct within decades.

“There seems to have been an endless parade of bad news on the environment front and a general feeling that not enough is being done while time goes marching on,” says Christopher Rootes, an expert on the international environmental movement who teaches at the University of Kent in Canterbury, England.

Susana Vera/Reuters
A Greenpeace banner is displayed on a European Commission building ahead of a European Union leaders summit to discuss Brexit in Brussels on April 10.

If the Greens surfed a wave of renewed climate activism, they also profited at the European elections from a marked fall-off in support for the traditionally dominant center-left and center-right parties.

“Voters don’t feel so tribally attached to left- or right-wing parties anymore,” says Professor Rootes. “When centrist parties become discredited, the Greens are well placed to take advantage of that.”

This was especially clear in Germany, where the Greens doubled their vote from the last European Parliament elections by taking a million voters from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and another million from the moderate-left Social Democratic Party (SPD). That made them the second-largest party in the country.

As traditional parties that were built on class and economic interests fade, new parties expressing more cultural outlooks are on the rise. The Greens’ surge has mirrored that of the right-wing, nationalist-populist Alternative for Germany, says political analyst Yascha Mounk.

When the electorate polarizes between national-minded populists and globally minded internationalists, Mr. Mounk says, using criteria such as national identity or the environment, “the Greens present the clearest alternative … counter-steering against the populist vision.”

That has projected the party’s message beyond environmental issues, appealing more broadly to liberals in countries such as Germany, France, Ireland, Britain, Finland, Luxembourg, and Denmark – places where the Greens did particularly well in the elections.

Voters tempted by the Greens are also reassured by their record in office. Green parties have joined national governments in Germany, France, Sweden, and other countries, and are currently in nine regional coalition governments in Germany. “The Greens have shown that they are capable of governing, not just of protesting,” says Mr. Julliard.

‘Something of a luxury problem’?

But Mr. Magid’s “Green Wave” was by no means a continent-wide affair. The Greens have scant appeal in Mediterranean countries or in central and eastern Europe, and never stood a chance there.

In Spain, Greece, and Portugal, civilian governments emerging from military dictatorship in the 1980s were intent on modernizing through industrialization, says Andrew Dowling, an expert on Spanish politics at Cardiff University in Wales. “This remained the priority.”

In Central Europe, voters often have more pressing concerns than the environment, such as their standard of living, or corruption. “Green politics tend to be strong in ‘post-materialist’ sectors of society,” Dr. Dowling says, in countries where enough voters are comfortably enough off to sacrifice their consumption levels in order to save the planet.

In southern European countries, where youth unemployment can run as high as 50%, “there is a belief that environmental concerns are something of a luxury problem,” says Jonathan Polk, who teaches European politics at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden.

Green parties may not be strong in southern Europe, but their message is gaining strength. Portugal elected its first Green member of the European Parliament in these elections. In Spain, the ruling Socialist party has adopted an environmental mantle, offering a Green New Deal in snap national elections last month and stressing a just and sustainable economy in the European campaign.

Green issues are gaining political traction elsewhere. In Sweden, for example, though the Green party may have lost seats, “most of the major parties made climate change and environmental issues a fairly prominent component of their European Parliament campaign,” says Mr. Polk.

The head of the CDU in Germany acknowledged it had been “a mistake” not to have paid more attention to climate issues during the campaign. And in France, President Emmanuel Macron is trying hard to convince voters that there is substance behind his “Make Our Planet Great Again” rhetoric.

France, though, offers the starkest illustration of the risks that can be involved in “going green.” The continuing, often violent protests by the Yellow Vests (“gilets jaunes”) were sparked by the imposition of a carbon tax on fuel, which was later revoked.

In Germany earlier this month, national TV station ARD published an opinion poll that found 81% of respondents agreed global warming was a problem that needed addressing. Only 34%, however, thought that a carbon tax should be imposed.

“The minority of voters who see the climate as a salient priority is growing in numbers and in conviction,” says Professor Rootes. “But the economic concerns that the bulk of the electorate face remain compelling. They will need reassurance that policy measures to deal with climate change will not make them worse off.”

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.