How German Greens compromise for liberal capitalists
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How German Greens compromise for liberal capitalists

The German Green party scored a major hit at the European elections, winning all the major cities, and a third of first-time voters. But its environmental radicalism has been well toned down.

Read it in the New Statesman

The euphoria that erupted at Green party HQ after the European elections on 26 May will echo for a while. A political force that emerged in 1980 from a disparate collection of counter-culture groups, Germany’s Greens surged to second place behind Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), narrowing the gap between them from 24 percentage points at the 2017 general election to just over eight.

The Greens won all of Germany’s major cities (including Leipzig, in the supposedly far-right stronghold of Saxony), secured a third of first-time voters and hoovered up the young vote, as more 18- to 24-year-olds voted for the Greens than the CDU, centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) and the Free Democrats combined. Even more remarkable were the opinions polls a week later: for the first time ever the Greens polled first with over 27 per cent of the electorate.

But if they sustain that popularity, the Greens face a practical problem: choosing one of their two leaders to be chancellor candidate at the next general election. Who should it be? The smooth and garrulous Robert Habeck, or the cool and unruffled Annalena Baerbock?

Habeck is a 49-year-old who wandered into stardom after a career co-authoring novels with his wife. Baerbock is 38 years old and has been politically engaged since her teenage years, when she was a keen trampolinist with ambitions to be a war reporter. Both are suspicious of ideology, and both have presented themselves as being independent from the prejudice that has long hampered the Greens – this is supposed to be the party that wants to ban things, including the things Germans like best: cars, grilled sausages and going on holiday.

For Europe’s liberals, the Green’s recent success must look fantastical. Here is a party seizing voters’ imaginations and being elected to do something about climate change, a decisive issue in the EU election (one survey found that 48 per cent of Germans named the climate as their most important concern when deciding their vote).

The Greens also benefited from the ongoing erosion of both the traditional centrist heavyweights – the CDU and SPD – that encompassed nearly 70 per cent of the German electorate when Merkel was first elected in 2005.

The local elections in Bavaria last autumn had already provided the blueprint for this: while the conservative CSU (the CDU’s Bavarian affiliate) edged further to the right in an attempt to block the Alternative for Germany (AfD), it was the Greens, not the SPD, who picked up the votes they dropped in the middle.

For all their roots in 1970s West German environmentalism, the modern German Greens have never been entirely comfortable with their leftist side, and the statists and radicals among them have been noticeably quiet during the party’s resurgence. Though that is not to say the Greens have simply become the CDU’s natural bedfellows at every level of politics: in the small city-state of Bremen, the Greens recently joined a coalition with the SPD and the Left party. And Ska Keller, the German co-leader of the Greens-EFA group in the European Parliament, announced in July that her group would not be supporting the CDU’s Ursula von der Leyen to be European Commission President.

And yet, in recent months, the Greens have been careful not to connect their climate policies to any direct criticism of capitalism. Indeed, when Kevin Kühnert, head of the SPD’s youth organisation, suggested Germany should think about collectivising its auto industry and ban real-estate speculation, the Greens reacted as if such proposals were irrelevant to the environmentalist agenda.

It’s always good to talk about capitalism,” Sven Giegold, the Greens’ leading candidate in the EU election, told Die Zeit. “But at the moment it’s about whether in future we can give our children the possibility of even talking about different economic systems on this planet.” Instead, he said, we need to talk about “how to make this market economy social and ecological”.

These were welcome words for those business leaders the Green party has been courting. Last year, the party started a “business council” to foster dialogue with Germany’s corporate giants. Martin Brudermüller, CEO of chemical giant BASF, and Christian Knell of HeidelbergCement were among the speakers at the first meeting. Only with the support of companies, the Green party’s Kerstin Andreae told reporters, could policy adhere to “economic realities”.

This new “pragmatism” has filtered through to Green policy: its current proposal is for a carbon tax of €40 per ton, which is modest enough for carmakers to live with. Meanwhile, Fridays for Future (FFF) – a protest movement established by the teenage Thunberg – is demanding €180 a ton, a figure based on German government estimates of what climate breakdown will cost to future generations. Giegold has called FFF’s demand “anti-social”, by which he meant it would price swathes of society out of plane tickets and car ownership. It would cause a massive economic disruption, and the Green party is not willing to pay that price.

On that delirious night in May, Annalena Baerbock acknowledged that “we achieved this because many, many people took to the streets for climate protection”, and Giegold pledged to carry the concerns of FFF “into the parliaments”. As things stand, they might need a push.

Meanwhile, for Merkel’s CDU, the Green surge creates a political headache. The received wisdom is that populist forces have stretched the German political landscape out, dragging voters towards two poles: the nationalist AfD in the provinces and the globalist Greens in the cities. In between them, the FDP, the CDU and the SPD are elbowing for space by mixing their messages. But in fact, the Greens have found a way to appeal to Germans’ innate conservatism while retaining the educated middle classes that comprise their base.

So what coalition will most likely make the next government? At the moment, the Greens are looking more and more like the CDU’s natural partners: a little eco-friendly, but also resolutely sensible, non-socialist and politically palatable.