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Green Parties Are Gaining Power—and Problems

Jun 23, 2023 2:00 AM

Green Parties Are Gaining Power—and Problems

Environment-focused politicians are winning elections across Europe. Their idealism is crashing into reality, but pragmatism risks alienating supporters.

activists in front of Green Party Headquarters

Photograph: Roberto Pfeil/Getty Images

In January 2023, the German hamlet of Lützerath fell prey to a ravenous beast. A giant excavator clawed at the ground, gouging free great chunks of earth as a line of riot police held back horrified protesters. For weeks, environmental groups had tried to stop the abandoned village of Lützerath from being bulldozed to make way for a new coal mine: They marched, they glued themselves to fences, two activists known as Pinky and Brain even spent days hiding in a self-built underground tunnel system. Eventually, though, the police dragged all of them out of the mud to make way for the machines of RWE, Germany’s biggest power company.

It’s not unusual for environmental activists to clash with the police. It’s not particularly unusual for RWE to build a lignite mine—it has three in Germany already. What made this case stand out was the fact the mine had been approved by Germany’s Green Party.

When the Green Party entered coalition government in 2021, it was hailed as a landmark moment for the environment—supporters hoped the party would follow through on its promises to take a hard line on fossil fuels. But since Lützerath, climate activists have turned against the Greens—seeing the mine as emblematic of the compromises Green politicians have been willing to make to climb the political ladder.

As protesters faced off with police in front of RWE diggers, Green Party premises around the country were vandalized. In Leipzig and Aachen, Green Party office windows were smashed. In Flensburg, activists forced their way into the constituency office of Green politician Robert Habeck, refusing to leave. In Dusseldorf, 250 kilos of lignite—the type of coal RWE plans to extract from Lützerath—was dumped in the street in front of the regional Green Party headquarters. A protester brought a wooden cross to symbolically bury green ideals. Luisa Neubauer, head of campaign group Fridays for Future’s German chapter, described the government as missing “ecological backbone.” The link between the Green Party and the environmental movement that birthed it was officially severed.

The backlash to the Lützerath mine crystallizes a delicate balance that Green parties across the world must find as they take power, an equilibrium between idealism and pragmatism, their environmentalist base and the wider electorate.

“The environmental movement was very close to the Greens before they entered government,” says David Dresen, an activist with the group All Villages Must Stay, which campaigned to save the villages near the mine. But after Lützerath, that relationship is now broken, he says. Dresen, who lives 600 meters from the mine, voted for The Greens in 2021. But he says he would not vote Green again—at least while the party’s current leaders are in charge. “Even a lot of NGOs that are not that radical are now saying they can’t trust them.”

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The Lützerath coal mine deal was personally announced by Habeck, one of the most successful Green Party politicians of his generation, who now sits in the top levels of German government as deputy chancellor. Habeck might be the subject of distrust among activists, but within the country at large, he’s popular. He’s helped the Greens appeal to a much broader electorate than its environmental base, says Peter Matuschek, CEO of German pollster Forsa. This is a shift for a party that has its roots in Germany’s anti-nuclear protests of the 1980s. “But this more pragmatic style the party has adopted in the past two or three years has helped them strengthen their position,” Matuschek adds.

That pragmatism has been on full display during Europe’s energy crisis, as Habeck has been forced to embrace uncomfortable compromises. When Russia slashed gas supplies flowing into Germany, Habeck ordered the country’s coal stations back into service. When utility company RWE requested to extract coal from underneath the western German village of Lützerath, arguing this was necessary to keep Germany's lights on, Habeck agreed. In return, RWE would have to end coal use eight years earlier than planned, by 2030.

Activists did not consider this a worthy compromise. “I was shocked,” says Theo Schnarr, a PhD student and environmental activist based in the city of Greifswald. “The coal that is lying in that area is enough on its own to burn through our whole CO2budget.” Watching the videos of Lützerath, Schnarr said he understood their frustration. He also felt deeply sad. But mostly Lützerath clarified how disillusioned he felt with mainstream politics—whatever party is in charge. “Lützerath demonstrated so many points so clearly,” he says. “Policymakers are not making decisions for people, but for industry.”

The 32-year-old is one of the growing number of activists gluing themselves to roads across the country—causing controversy and miles of traffic jams. He’s only been an environmental activist for a year and has already spent 10 days in jail for blocking roads. “We’re pointing out with our protests that our government is not capable of dealing with this crisis,” says Schnarr, who belongs to the environmental group Last Generation, a group that formed in Germany around the same time the Green Party entered government. “Scientists tell us we have around three years to put in place effective actions,” says Schnarr. That means he considers the government in power right now as the country’s last chance for action.

When Green parties enter government, it’s common to see environmental groups radicalizing in response, says Daniel Saldivia Gonzatti, a protest researcher at the Berlin Social Science Centre, a research institute. “The Last Generation [protest group] formed as a by-product of Green Party success entering government, because now only a radical environmental movement such as them was actually able to push a radical pro-environmental agenda further.”

Since the Finnish Green Party became the first European Green Party to enter a European government in 1995, green parties have been transformed from radical outsiders to mainstays of government. They are now in coalition in six EU countries: Austria, Belgium, Finland, Germany, the Republic of Ireland, and Luxembourg.

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“Greens as significant coalition partners has been a seemingly increasingly prevalent story in European politics,” says Mitya Pearson, who researches environmental politics at King’s College London. Germany’s Green politicians are not the only ones who have been forced to make decisions that alienate environmentalists. Austria’s Green energy minister Leonore Gewessler also proposed replacing Russian gas with coal to get through winter—a suggestion rejected by parliament at large. In January, traffic in Vienna was also brought to a halt as activists blocked roads for two weeks—threatening more protests if the government did not do more to combat the climate crisis.

Tensions between green parties and activists are likely to continue as a feature of green party coalitions across Europe, says Pearson. “The question will be how pragmatic [activists] are willing to be,” he says. “Would they tolerate some pragmatic decisions on energy policy if greens can show they are accelerating climate policy in other ways?”

Dresen, the activist, says he’s not against compromises—but he is against the party striking backroom deals with fossil fuel companies. “The main problem is we don’t have a green opposition,” he says. Without it, activists are fulfilling that role themselves, meaning under Green governments climate protests are likely to intensify—not decrease. It's the protester's role to keep pushing, says Gonzatti. “The environmental movement will never say, okay, great, this is enough.”

This article first appeared in the May/June 2023 edition of WIRED UK

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Morgan Meaker is a senior writer at WIRED covering European business. Before that, she was a technology reporter at The Telegraph and also worked for Dutch magazine De Correspondent. In 2019 she won Technology Journalist of the Year at the Words by Women Awards. She was born in Scotland, lives… Read more
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