For Germany’s Greens, Mainstream Means Losing Radical Edge
(Bloomberg) -- A Green-led government in Europe’s largest economy is within sight come September elections though activists expecting far-reaching climate reforms may be disappointed.
While Germany’s Greens propose to overhaul the industrial powerhouse and accelerate the European Union’s environmental goals, the party knows it will have to compromise.
It will likely need to scale back its ambition on banning combustion-engine cars by 2030, as well as spending aggressively on climate-neutral infrastructure and phasing out coal eight years earlier than planned.
That’s because in the most probable scenario, the Greens will be in a coalition with Angela Merkel’s heirs in the conservative bloc. The party’s political journey has dragged it from a fringe movement and toward the center. Along the way it’s lost some of its zeal and moved past a single issue.
In a radio interview on Thursday, the Greens’ chancellor candidate sought to calm industry’s fears, using the quest to produce “climate-neutral steel” as an example.
“That’s essential for protecting jobs in Germany and in Europe, and if we’re not taking the lead there then others will,” Annalena Baerbock told Deutschlandfunk. “It’s about reducing global warming while leading European manufacturers into the future,” she said, adding that she wants to prevent the risk of factories closing because of cheaper imports from China.
Their environmental policies now are flanked by plans to tax the rich, reform the European Central Bank and abandon NATO spending targets. The spotlight is on the Greens, and what they think, after a shock poll saw them overtake Merkel’s center-right party to become the biggest political force in the country.
Greens in power will test Europe’s resolve to enact unprecedented policies that aim to make every corner of the economy more sustainable. For example, the party wants to install solar panels on every new roof and make companies pay a steeper price for emitting planet-warming greenhouse gases.
Is that really feasible? Voters may broadly support the goals but few want to shoulder the extra costs those measures will bring, according to surveys.
“It will be a reality check,” said Ralph Harthan, senior researcher at the Institute for Applied Ecology in Berlin. They “will have to overcome the barriers that exist in society,” such as convincing people to swap out boilers that burn fossil fuels.
How much they will be able to deliver on their manifesto will depend on converting positive polling into votes. The Nord Stream 2 gas project, which brings the fuel from Russia to Germany, has been a persistent source of transatlantic friction. The Greens want to ditch it, but that might be hard if they are ruling with the Christian Democrats, who under Merkel have stood by it.
Sven Giegold, a Green lawmaker in European parliament, is clear-sighted about the balancing act. With strong voter support, “we will then have the legitimacy for a fundamental change in German climate policy.”
But “of course, it won’t be possible to implement the Green program line by line,” he said. The political target will be to make the car, energy and agriculture industries more accountable for their pollution.
The Greens’ track record -- including 10 years running Baden-Wuerttemberg, an industrial powerhouse in southwest Germany -- has shown it will be pragmatic. What’s more, the country’s political structure promotes stability by forcing broad-based coalitions like the current alliance between Merkel’s CDU/CSU bloc and the pro-labor Social Democrats.
Green politicians are currently involved in 11 state governments and the party was junior partner in the ruling coalition under former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. The Greens appear to have more partnership options than the CDU/CSU alliance, which can’t seem to find its feet after two decades of Merkel’s leadership.
While countries such as the U.K. are pursuing similarly ambitious carbon-reduction targets, the path ahead is arguably more challenging for Germany because of the economy’s much larger industrial base. Implementing the Greens’ proposed policies will potentially mean greater disruption for companies and workers.
The country’s economic backbone already faces a cluster of headaches from the fallout of the coronavirus crisis to intensifying competition from China and rising pension liabilities. More environmental costs would undermine Germany’s export champions as they compete against international firms with less burdensome regulations.
The surge in support for the Greens comes against the backdrop of an EU pact to reduce net greenhouse emissions by at least 55% by 2030 compared to 1990 levels and eliminate them completely by 2050. EU lawmakers and governments reached a deal in principal this week to make the goals legally binding.
The agreement paves the way for the bloc to propose more than a dozen regulations to boost sustainability. The measures will require support from national governments to come into effect, which would put the new German government in the spotlight.
The question is whether the Greens, which have been calling for even more ambitious targets, would be able to muster the necessary cross-party determination to translate ambition into reality at home and then lead the EU by example.
Baerbock will be the chief architect of the Greens’ response to these challenges. The 40-year-old candidate, who lacks government experience, could become the world’s most powerful climate leader. She attended anti-nuclear demonstrations as a child, studied law at the London School of Economics and worked in the European Parliament. She also hails from the pragmatic wing of the party.
“The Green Party has become more professional and also more conservative than they used to be, which has changed the way Germans see them,” said Sonja Peterson, a senior researcher at Institut für Weltwirtschaft Kiel, an economic institute in Germany.
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