Around Europe, green parties are experiencing electoral results that would, only 5 years ago, seemed unimaginable. In Germany, Angela Merkel may well be replaced as Chancellor by Annalena Baerbock the Green party leader with personal poll numbers 15 points higher than her closest competitor. In France and the Netherlands the Greens can make valid claim to have replaced traditional left wing social democrat parties. In Austria, Finland and Sweden, Green parties are in governing coalitions, setting radical carbon cutting agendas. In Switzerland the two Green parties have taken a combined 21% of the vote while in the Republic of Ireland, the Green party was the powerbroker in coalition talks after an inconclusive 2020 election. European politics has also experienced a ‘Green wave’ with 10% of European parliament seats won by Green candidates and Green MEPs overrepresented in agenda setting according to Sophie Pornschlegel at the European Policy Centre.
While these trends have been visible for several years a number of factors have propelled the Greens to these dizzy heights. Young voters lean Green in levels far higher than their parents, a factor that has only been enhanced by the visibility and success of activists such as Greta Thunberg who have specifically targeted young people. In the UK, 18-24 year olds rank the environment as one of their major concerns at almost double the rate of the wider population. Green support will only grow as more children gain the ability to vote. On top of this, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown many people the power of the natural world while traditional parties on the left and right have bled voters to insurgent parties such as the Greens, as well as more extreme parties. As Sven Giegold, a leading German Green MEP puts it “People were already starting to flirt with us. Now they have had a one-night stand. Whether this is a permanent relationship is totally unclear,”.
In France and the Netherlands the Greens can make valid claim to have replaced traditional left wing social democrat parties
However, this fails to acknowledge a fundamental aspect of the triumph of Green parties across Europe. Green no longer means what it once did. European Green politicians have shifted right on a massive scale. Once a redoubt for sandal wearing pacifists Green politics has seen major changes. In Austria, the Greens came into power by replacing the far right Freedom party as junior coalition partner to Sebastian Kurz’s conservative Austrian People’s party. They have not been uncomfortable bed partners. The Greens supported Kurz’s tightening of asylum and immigration rules and cuts in corporation tax. In exchange they secured a commitment that Austria would be carbon neutral by 2040, ten years ahead of Britain. In Germany as well, the Greens have adopted a hawkish stance on Russia, challenging the building on the Nord Strom 2 pipeline both on ecological grounds as well as geopolitical ones. They have also, notably, shown more enthusiasm for NATO than Merkel has, calling for a stricter adherence to NATO’s 2% defence spending requirement as well as advocating for a more confident European foreign policy. In both cases, this pragmatism has been rewarded by voters.
So far, the success of European Green parties has been limited to the north-west. Countries such Poland still rely hugely on coal for their energy supply while in Italy, the Federazione dei Verdi has barely polled 1%. One notable exception to this pattern has been Britain. The British Greens have been unsuccessful in comparison to their peers over the Channel. This is despite a similar collapse in the traditional British left that would seem to have left a space for a pragmatic Green party in the European model. However, no such party is on the horizon.
One explanation for this is that the first-past-the-post voting system has prevented Green support for showing up. Another is that the extreme concentration of power in Westminster has prevented the UK Greens from proving their governing capability as the German, Austrian and Swiss Greens have in regional governments. The hundreds of Green local councillors does not support this. Local politics should be the perfect sphere for Green politicians to prove themselves by delivering policies that are popular with voters such as recycling and public transport. Unfortunately, the party’s single MP is proof of their continued fringe appeal. Unfortunately, with left wing Scottish politics dominated by the SNP, the party’s route to power is through right wing England. The Greens have a once in a generation chance to gain seats. Whether they will be willing to engage in the dirty horse trading of winning an election or if they prefer to remain pure in opposition remains to be seen.