Is Europe's "Green Wave" Here to Stay?

If there is one word that best describes Green Party successes, it would be “anomalous.”

Green is the color of the moment. Election after election, European green parties are rising amid a heightened sense of urgency and student-led climate strikes spearheaded by Greta Thunberg. It is not the first time that green parties in Europe have had the wind at their backs, and it is likely not the last. However, it should be asked: are these gains sustainable? If history is anything to go by, then the answer appears to be “no.” Yet, even if the upwelling in green parties’ support is only temporary, the growing influence of climate activism may still presage greater influence and a higher floor for their support. Moreover, climate activists’ efforts may guarantee the place of green politics alongside traditional social and economic issues as a cause in and of itself.

The origins of European green parties can be traced to the amalgamation of “new social movements,” often ecological and feminist in nature, which emerged in the years following the student protests of 1968. While these began to coalesce electorally as green parties in the 1980s, they did not see major success until recently. If there is one word that best describes Green Party successes, it would be “anomalous.” Nowhere has this been better illustrated than in Germany, where pre-election support for the Greens in the last decade has been characterized by spatial and temporal proximity to ecological concerns. As a major party opposed to the Stuttgart 21 railway megaproject, the Greens carried the city for the first time in the 2009 municipal elections. Two years later, elections in the state just weeks after the Fukushima nuclear accident saw Winfried Kretschmann form the nation’s first-ever Green-led state government in Baden-Württemberg. Yet, with the Greens polling second at the federal level, it is important to highlight their history of pre-election collapses. In 2013, public debate over the Greens’ history with pro-pedophilia activism in the 1980s involving Daniel Cohn-Bendit and the debacle of the “Veggie Day” proposal for meatless days at school canteens brought the Greens’ polling numbers back to Earth.

Similarly, specific circumstances have permitted only short-lived successes in other countries. The unexpected near-second result of the French Greens in the 2009 European Parliament elections was in part attributed to a testy debate exchange and a strong slate of candidates. However, perhaps more important was the coincidental airing of environmentalist Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s documentary Home, seen by nearly 10 million viewers on the national public television channel France 2, the day before the vote. Even outside Europe, idiosyncratic circumstances contribute to Greens’ success: in the recent Canadian elections, Jenica Atwin’s surprise win in Fredericton came just months after flooding engulfed the area.

Understanding the threats to the Greens’ rise requires analyzing its development. Indeed, the recent rise of green parties has been relatively limited. Though climate activists hoped to influence the European Parliament elections with their protests’ timing, the parties’ gains did not affect the balance of power. What differs now is the transnational nature of their success, consistently gaining in countries where they are already established. Still, green parties remain far from overtaking the traditional parties of the left and right in most countries.

Despite this, one country in which the Greens have overtaken both established parties at the national level is France. Their unexpected success in May’s European Parliament elections (in which seats are allocated roughly proportionally) under Yannick Jadot demonstrates that green parties’ electorate cannot be characterized by ideology alone, but instead are more closely tied to sociocultural factors. Political analyst Jérôme Fourquet concluded that the French Greens’ strength was linked to higher urbanicity and socio-professional class, exemplified by the gentrifying “bobo” arrondissements of Paris, while there was virtually no relationship with local environmental controversies and an inverse relationship with support for the far-right National Rally.

That the Greens’ support is the inverse of the far-right reflects the anti-reactionary nature of their voters against right-wing populism. As traditional social democratic and conservative parties in Western Europe weaken, new societal cleavages emerge not along the lines of left and right but “open” and “closed.” Fourquet’s analysis revealed little change in the composition of Green voters over time; rather, their rise was broadly-based, drawing from multiple political strands. By opposing populist forces and rhetorically embracing both the left and right, as Jadot did, green parties have become increasingly acceptable to socially-tolerant affluent voters. This embrace proved most successful in Germany where the Realos (“realists”) became the predominant wing of the party. There, the Greens have participated in 29 state and federal coalitions since the first red-green government in Hesse in 1985.

Unfortunately for the Greens, the same elements which proved conducive to their success are also what make these gains especially fragile. Ideological broadening threatens to renew internal left-liberal divisions, and greater success also forces upon them the responsibilities of governance: the Dutch GreenLeft was well-positioned in coalition negotiations in 2017, but ultimately preferred to remain in the opposition. The recent Swiss federal elections illustrated both issues: while the Greens and Green Liberals made substantial gains, the division between them, redistribution of votes, and political norms limited the effective change in power. Greens also face geographic barriers, as they perform well among affluent voters for whom fiscal and personal financial issues are secondary, while they are weaker in Southern and Eastern Europe, where politics remains focused on more practical concerns. Environmental activism finds success only when tied to anti-corruption, and environmentalists’ work remains confined to civil society.

Yet, for all of the impediments to the persistence of the “green wave,” there are still signs that this time might be different. Even if recent gains have been relatively limited, the efforts of climate activists like Greta Thunberg to enshrine climate issues as a top political priority may still raise the floor for and expand the base of European green parties. If her efforts mean that climate change becomes a political raison d'être of equal importance to traditional social and economic issues, then regardless of their electoral success, the Greens’ influence is stronger than ever and may be here to stay.

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