Germany’s Green earthquake

A Green-led government in Berlin will be a crucial test for the party. Can it avoid being co-opted by Germany’s conservative elite?

May 19, 2021
Leader of Germany's Green Party Annalena Baerbock. Photo: REUTERS/Leon Kuegeler
Leader of Germany's Green Party Annalena Baerbock. Photo: REUTERS/Leon Kuegeler

Germany might be in for a Green earthquake in this September’s election. It could be Europe’s first big post-Covid change of power—although less radical than it seems, since the Greens have long been a pillar of Germany’s political establishment and already rule parts of the country with Angela Merkel’s CDU conservative party, their most likely coalition partner in Berlin.

Part of the significance of a Green triumph would be who they are not. They are no longer an extreme populist party, as they were when Petra Kelly and her anti-nuclear eco-warriors erupted into German politics in the 1980s. A vote for the Greens is a rejection not just of the far-right AfD, but of extremism right and left.

But nor are the Greens the SPD—the party of Willy Brandt, Gerhard Schroeder and the democratic resistance to Hitler, rooted in the long struggle for German democracy and working-class emancipation. Today’s Greens are more akin to the centrist Free Democrats, coalition partners of left and right in previous decades, but with an environmental rather than a free-market conscience. For this reason, there is continuing space in Germany’s political market for a party with a class-conscious view of political priorities and change, particularly if the Greens go into government with the right. This could be the opportunity to recreate the SPD as a party of radical campaigning change, and a moment to throw off their uncomfortable status in flabby grand coalitions.

The CDU has been in power too long. It could still come top in September through fears that the Greens and their inexperienced if inoffensive 40 year-old leader Annalena Baerbock are a leap too far—but the party is doing its best to avoid this. The Christian Democrat’s chancellor candidate Armin Laschet, a classic CDU regional chief in the mould of Helmut Kohl, is outclassed telegenically, not just by Baerbock but also by Markus Söder, leader of the CDU’s more conservative Bavarian sister party. However, even if Laschet becomes chancellor, a “Black-Green” coalition with the Greens appears likely. Rarely has a party better represented an idea whose time has come than the Greens. They are on the rise across Europe, including in Britain where they advanced substantially in this month’s local elections. Climate change reversal is the zeitgeist, although the German love of the car and Kraftwerk’s autobahn is not remotely over. “Electric and renewable everything” is becoming Germany’s “have cake and eat it,” and a Green-led government in Berlin will be a seminal test of whether this is a credible diet for western democracies.

The Greens are also new-model democratic mobilisers. While conventional left parties have been outmanoeuvred by the likes of Farage, Orban and Salvini, the Greens now rule 11 of Germany’s 16 federal states as the party of concerned, competent local government. Think Lib Dem focus leaflets about cracked paving stones and recycling—nationwide.

The poster boy for this new politics is Winfried Kretschmann, Green minister-president of Baden-Württemberg for a decade, leading a “Green-Black” coalition with the CDU for the last five years. Socially conservative on immigration and pro-business, Kretschmann’s reputation is for honesty, pragmatism and conservation—without an unacceptable price in taxes or personal restrictions. A lingering fear that the Greens are out to ban the good life could still, however, do for the party nationally. Baerbock’s statement this week that she is against cheap short-haul flights won’t delight Germans desperate to decamp to their famous sun loungers in Mallorca and Italy.

Baerbock can probably finesse these personal liberty issues. Her bigger danger is that she goes the way of Nick Clegg in his coalition with David Cameron in 2010: bright, fresh and liberal at the outset but soon destroyed by a conventional right-wing party whose prisoner she becomes, intellectually as much as politically. Ireland’s Greens suffered precisely this fate when in coalition with the centre-right Fianna Fáil a decade ago. It seems obvious to me that the natural coalition partner for Germany’s Greens is the SPD, not the CDU, if they are to be a party of economic change not consensus. For this they need to be clearly located on the centre-left, not the centre-right.

Therein lies Baerbock’s defining political choice. If she is co-opted by Germany’s conservative elite, a giant sun lounger next to Clegg in California may beckon just a few years later.