he Manifesto of the European Green Party, an alliance representing national green parties in the European Parliament, begins “A vote for the Greens is a vote for change. It is a vote to not let go of Europe.” This message evidently resonated with voters in the most recent European election, which had the highest turnout since 1994, and saw significant gains not only for the Greens, but also for Renew Europe (a pro-European liberal-centrist party). As Euroscepticism gains traction on the right, the European Green Party is uniquely situated to offer a strong argument for a united Europe, if they can move beyond their image as a single-issue bloc.
The Green movement in Europe is in some ways inextricably linked with the institution of the European Union, with both the German Bündnis 90/Die Grünen and French Les Verts (The Greens) emerging in the eighties and nineties as the decline and fall of the Soviet Union increased hopes for European unity. Both parties positioned themselves as alternatives to the traditional left/right spectrum, organizing around specific issues like opposition to nuclear power, promotion of European integration, and, beginning in the nineties, combatting global warming.
This Green momentum has, at least in Germany, not been limited to the European arena. The most recent poll aggregates in Germany show that Bündnis 90/Die Grünen (Alliance 90/The Greens) have leapfrogged the SPD, Germany’s leading center-left party, and are now more or less tied for the lead with Angela Merkel’s center-right CDU. This radical shift, in the Union’s most populous member state, may reflect a growing concern with climate change, especially among young voters, which has led not only to a resurgence of the European Greens, but also to the founding of activist groups like the Sunrise Movement in the United States, where the two-party system makes green electoral politics difficult.
The international scope of this movement is embodied by Bündnis 90/Die Grünen, whose Washington chapter was the first outpost of a German political party in the United States, founded by German expatriates interested in green politics. Nora Löhle, a board member of the DC chapter, emphasized the role of youth turnout in recent green successes, pointing to the fact that Bündnis 90/Die Grünen won a plurality among voters under 45, confirmed by Infratest-dimap and Tagesschau polls.
However, green parties in Europe are sometimes criticized as single-issue parties, such as in a Zeit Online article titled “Das Grün sucht seinen Weg [The Greens search for their Way]” which questioned whether the Green party could build broad appeal with a focus on green politics. Gregor Schwerhoff, another board member, pushed back against this criticism, saying “The Green Party is not a one issue party,” and bringing up the party’s leadership on issues such as LGBT rights and refugee policy.
Renewed enthusiasm for European integration—whether or not it leads to a reversal of Brexit—is good news for the European Greens, who have staked much of their identity on the idea that worsening anthropogenic climate change requires international cooperation on reducing carbon emissions.
In the UK the Green Party has become increasingly identified with the remain movement, calling, in conjunction with the Liberal Democrats, for a second referendum on Brexit. In the most recent European elections, the Green Party outperformed the ruling Conservative party, and, in alliance with the Scottish National Party, polled even with Labour, which has been criticized for not opposing Brexit strongly enough.
However, unlike in Germany, the UK’s first-past-the-post system all but ensures that the Greens will not supplant Labour in domestic politics. Like Les Verts in France, the Green Party remains a marginal domestic force, but an important player in the realigned European parliament, suggesting that voters may be approaching European elections with very different priorities than their domestic elections.
The rise to prominence of Green and Liberal-centrist parties in Europe has been accompanied by a decline of the center-left/center-right bloc, which has collectively controlled a majority in the European Parliament since its founding, losing it for the first time in this election. With Eurosceptic nationalist parties exerting pressure from the right flank, the Greens and Liberal-centrists could revitalize pro-European sentiment from the left and center, respectively. Polls back up this analysis: the Eurobarometer, a poll of opinions towards the European Union, found that in the wake of Brexit, support for the European Union is at its highest in 35 years.
Renewed enthusiasm for European integration—whether or not it leads to a reversal of Brexit—is good news for the European Greens, who have staked much of their identity on the idea that worsening anthropogenic climate change requires international cooperation on reducing carbon emissions. Broadening their platform to establish strong positions on issues that may not be as clearly identified with green politics will be key for the continuing relevance of the European Green Party.
Though pro-European forces have, for now, triumphed on the international stage, it remains to be seen whether the green wave will continue to drive a sea change in European politics, or if it is on the verge of breaking. It’s likely that the next key test will be Germany’s federal election, which is scheduled for 2021, but may occur earlier if the current ruling coalition falls apart.