The Greens Once Took On Germany, But Now They’re Taking It Over

When Gerhard Schroeder formed a German government with the Greens in 1998, he made it clear that his Social Democratic Party was the “cook” and the junior partner the “waiter.” Well, not any more.

Polls show the Greens with all the momentum going into September’s election and the odds-on favorites for a return to coalition government. What’s more, they’re on the up just as the other main parties fade, giving Annalena Baerbock a realistic shot at capturing the chancellery for the Greens for the first time in history.

“I stand for renewal,” Baerbock, 40, said in Berlin on Monday as her candidacy was announced. “Others represent the status quo.”

If Germany is on the verge of delivering such a shock, it’s come about through a combination of circumstances. The first is that Angela Merkel is standing down—16 years after beating Schroeder—and, for someone who became the epitome of stability, she leaves in her wake a sea of electoral unpredictability.

The Greens Once Took On Germany, But Now They’re Taking It Over

The truth is that after so long calling the shots, her Christian Democratic Union, the party of Konrad Adenauer and Helmut Kohl, has an air of exhaustion. So does its Social Democratic partner, with whom Merkel will have governed for 12 of those 16 years. Polls show Merkel’s conservative bloc of the CDU and its CSU Bavarian sister party floundering under her would-be successor, Armin Laschet, with the Social Democrats a distant third.

It’s the end of a period when “ultimately the tried and tested methods were no longer sufficient to cope with the new challenges,” said Jana Puglierin, head of the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

The Greens, with their youthful image and impeccable environmental credentials that capture the Zeitgeist of climate summits and Fridays for Future demonstrations, are the clear beneficiaries. Their rise to become contenders represents an extraordinary journey from protest movement to mainstream respectability over the course of two generations.

The Greens Once Took On Germany, But Now They’re Taking It Over

Until now, the Greens’ biggest achievement was serving as junior partner in the Schroeder government’s two terms. That was after taking just 6.7% of the vote in 1998; now it’s polling at 21-23%, as little as one percentage point behind Laschet’s bloc. One shock poll this week even showed the Greens surging into the lead.

There is long campaign ahead, however, and whether Germany’s risk-averse voters actually embrace the party on Sept. 26 will depend on whether they look beyond the radicalism of its early years.

Germany in the late 1970s was in a volatile mood. The postwar economic miracle had long since sputtered out as surging oil prices pushed the Federal Republic into the worst economic crisis of its three-decade history. Acid rain fell on the streets, and the political debate was dominated by NATO plans to station U.S. nuclear weapons in Western Europe.

The Green movement grew out of the myriad protests of the day. Armed with the conviction “that natural resources are limited and of the need for an economic and societal rethink, we stood pretty much alone back then,” the party records on its website.

Not for long. In 1983, three years after the party was founded, 29 lawmakers entered the federal parliament, then in the West German capital of Bonn. Members including Petra Kelly and Joschka Fischer, a 1968-generation student militant who had fought with police on the streets, brought a provocative new political style that challenged the establishment.

The Greens Once Took On Germany, But Now They’re Taking It Over

Fifteen years later, they were the establishment, as Fischer became vice chancellor and foreign minister in Schroeder’s coalition. It was a difficult transition. In government, the party reached a landmark deal to shutter Germany’s nuclear plants within two decades, a policy that would later be at the heart of one of Merkel’s most spectacular U-turns.

Yet the Greens — with just three ministers at the cabinet table — struggled to balance the expectations of the party membership with the reality of governing. It almost split over Berlin’s agreement to take part in NATO air strikes against Serbian targets in 1999, the first time that Germany had joined a combat mission since World War II.

Germany opposed the war in Iraq, creating a damaging rift with Washington. In 2003, during the build up to the U.S.-led invasion, Fischer delivered a slapdown to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who had just made a speech in Munich making the case for war. “Excuse me, I am not convinced,” he said. It would became the title of Fischer’s memoirs.

The thread of Green preoccupation with foreign and security policy continues today. The party opposes the Nord Stream II gas pipeline from Russia, and demands a tougher response to President Vladimir Putin. A Green member of the European Parliament, Reinhard Buetikofer, is a leading opponent of the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment, and was sanctioned by Beijing last month for his stance.

The Greens Once Took On Germany, But Now They’re Taking It Over

Another European lawmaker, Sven Giegold, helped bolster the party’s competence in finance and economic matters during the euro-area debt crisis. A survey of managers for Wirtschaftswoche magazine this week showed Baerbock with the most support among the prospective chancellor candidates.

Victory for the Greens, or even just a strong share in governing, would raise the prospect of Europe’s reluctant hegemon becoming a more dynamic international presence, willing to flex its muscles on human rights from China to Russia, engaging wholeheartedly with the European Union and ushering in a low-carbon economy at home and across the EU.

“The Greens have matured in many ways,” said Jacob Kirkegaard, senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. Even a government led by the conservative CDU/CSU with the Greens instead of the Social Democrats would represent “a sea change” in policy, he said.

The Greens of today appear more professional than in the past: their display of discipline when Baerbock was nominated without fuss to run as chancellor over her co-leader Robert Habeck was a marked contrast to the chaotic scenes in the ruling bloc.

The Greens Once Took On Germany, But Now They’re Taking It Over

Baerbock, a mother of two who studied law at the London School of Economics, also showed a determination in securing the role that made it conceivable to see her as the first Green chancellor.

Still, the Greens have been on the cusp of great things before.

The party enjoyed a surge in popularity in 2011 amid nationwide protests against government plans to extend the lifespan of nuclear plants. Then came Fukushima, and Merkel reversed her position overnight, but too late to stop the Greens winning a regional election in Baden-Wuerttemberg and installing the first Green state premier.

Nationally, the Greens soared in the polls for six months, reaching a record 28% backing, but sank back to single digits at the 2013 election. The party has since built its presence in Germany’s state governments, and Winfried Kretschmann still holds Baden-Wuerttemberg for the Greens, governing the wealthy southwestern state with the CDU as his junior partner.

The relationship between the two parties, once unthinkable, developed under Merkel. She tried to form a three-way coalition with the Greens and the Free Democratic Party after the 2017 election, but the FDP liberals crashed the alliance at the last minute in a bid to bring her down.

This time, assuming the Greens perform as well as polls project, they will have several options. For Holger Schmieding, chief economist at Berenberg, “the tail risk to watch” is not whether the Greens are in government but with whom they form a coalition. A government with the SPD and the Left, and without either the CDU/CSU or the liberals, could see a significant tilt toward more regulation, hurting Germany’s long-term growth outlook, he said in a Bloomberg Television interview.

Either way, the party is serious about governing. 

“We want to enter government to change things,” Claudia Roth, a former party chair who is now vice-president of the Bundestag, told the foreign press association in Berlin on Friday. “We’re ready to assume responsibility.” 

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