A centrist, progressive force: The German Green Party after the 2021 election

The German Green Party Bündnis 90/Die Grünen has opened up yet another new chapter in its fourth decade. Entering the so-called traffic-light coalition with the Social Democrats and the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) marks a watershed. After a first stint from 1998 to 2005, the Greens are governing at the federal level only for the second time. The new coalition, which has put the slogan dare progress at the heart of its agenda, offers good chances for an overdue modernization after 16 years of conservative governments under Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The Greens have worked hard for this chance. Despite being in opposition on the federal level for more than a decade, they have gained experience by governing at the state level for many years in a variety of coalitions. As of early 2022, the Greens co-govern in 10 of the 16 German Länder and lead the government in the state of Baden-Württemberg. Through this governing practice, the Greens have established themselves as a flexible hinge party in the German party system, forming both center-right and center-left coalitions. Over the past decade the Greens have built up credentials that their approach is pragmatic while remaining firmly committed to their core issues. They are considered as stewards of the environment, as pro-European and refugee friendly, and are seen as the democratic antidote to the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD).

The election: a political earthquake and a mixed green bag

The 2021 election was a political earthquake for German politics. The time of big-tent parties reaching 35 or 40 percent on the national level is over, and most likely for good. Germany’s party system is now much more fragmentated than it used to be. For the Greens, the election result was a mixed bag. They obviously did not meet the high expectations they raised to lead the next coalition. Yet their result of 14.8 percent is their best showing in history. Among all parties, it was the Greens which gained most (plus 5.9 percent). They attracted voters from across the political spectrum: from conservatives, Social Democrats, and the Left. Their strongholds are mainly urban constituencies, in which the Greens won 16 seats directly. With 118 members in the Deutscher Bundestag, the Greens are in third place in parliament and have consolidated their status as a centrist, progressive force.

With such result, the parties faced a complex starting point to form a new government. Three different coalitions were technically possible: a continued coalition of Social Democrats (SPD) and Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU), a Jamaica-coalition with CDU/CSU, Greens, and Liberal Democrats (FDP), and the traffic-light coalition between the SPD, the Greens Party, and the FDP. Given the victory of the Social Democrats and the bad shape of the Conservatives and its leadership, very quickly only the traffic-light coalition turned out to be the only political feasible option. Such a coalition was unprecedented at the national level. There was no playbook for the parties. The negotiations went remarkably quiet and were concluded after only 65 days. The traffic-light coalition is the first three-way alliance on a national level in decades.

Following the presentation of the coalition treaty, the Greens had been on the defensive. The party faced recrimination from activists for not getting firmer climate commitments, and criticism from media pundits who suggested that the party had surrendered too much government power to the FDP, especially by losing the powerful Finance Ministry, which the FDP insisted on as a condition to enter such a coalition at all, as well as the Transport Ministry. The latter did not seem a top priority for the Greens’ top negotiators, which caused unrest within the party because it also eliminated the co-leader of the parliamentary group, Anton Hofreiter, as a possible minister.  The coalition parties divided ministry responsibility according to their relative strength. The SPD secured eight positions, the Greens five and the FDP four. The Greens took the newly-shaped “super ministry” of Economy and Climate Protection, the Foreign Office, the Ministry for Environment, the Ministry for Food and Agriculture, and the Ministry for Family Affairs. This selection reflects a priority for green issues, the (attributed and actual) core competence of the Greens. As the party of environmentalism, the ecological question has long been the strength of the Green Party’s government work also on the Länder level.

Greens in Government: a priority on ecological issues

As Economy and Climate Minister, it will be up to Robert Habeck to drive the coalition’s agenda to make Germany carbon-neutral by 2045. Since the Greens have been taking over responsibility for Environment and Agriculture as well, one can expect a more comprehensive, robust approach to climate neutrality. This is also backed by an improved climate governance: Every new law will have to qualify and justify its climate impact (‘climate check’).

For the overall goal of climate neutrality, Robert Habeck’s central mission is to accelerate the coal exit from 2038 to 2030, to double the country’s green power output to 80% renewable electricity by 2030 and to bring at least 15 million electric vehicles on Germany’s roads by the end of the decade. The super minister already announced a climate urgency program for this year. Compared to its predecessor, the new plan is a giant leap forward. In addition to his role as a minister, Habeck will formally serve as a vice-chancellor. It is not a separate ministerial post but, in effect, an extra title.

Few cabinet appointments have caused as much excitement as the appointment of Cem Özdemir as the new Minister of Agriculture. Many farmers were downright horrified; after all, the “Anatolian Swabian,” as Özdemir likes to call himself with a wink, is a self-confessed vegetarian. And the criticism was that he did not bring any real expertise with him. In his first public appearances, Özdemir revealed his plans to make the country’s agriculture sector more sustainable. His intention is to turn organic farming into the leading sustainable agriculture model. He also highlights plans for the agricultural sector to join the fight against the climate crisis by protecting moorland, replenish forests and for farmers to store more biomass carbon in the soil.

Steffi Lemke, an agriculture scientist by training, will serve as Minister for Environment, Nature Conservation, Nuclear Safety and Consumer Protection. Lemke has identified the species crisis and the plastic waste pollution as the next big battles. In conjunction with Özdemir, she has already announced plans to reform the country’s farming policies in order to ensure the inclusion of both nature conservation and climate protection. In the coalition talks, her ministry lost its climate unit to Habeck’s. In return, however, consumer protection is now under Lemke’s roof. In addition, Lemke is responsible for nuclear safety. By the end of 2022, the last of what used to be two dozen nuclear power plants will be shut down for good. Nuclear energy will be history, at least in Germany. In Brussels, Lemke will work against the inclusion of nuclear in the EU taxonomy on sustainable investments. At home, she will move forward the process for a final repository for the toxic legacy of nuclear waste.

As Minister for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth, Anne Spiegel will play a crucial role for the Greens’ domestic agenda. Next to vice chancellor Robert Habeck it will be Spiegel who will be the Green voice at the cabinet table and on TV news to push for social reforms, higher wages for nurses, a strong priority for children when it comes to regulations fighting the pandemic and a new sexual self-determination law. Spiegel already announced an immediate child allowance for children from low-income families. Some 2.7 million children in Germany could benefit from it. In addition, equality and the diversity of families are Spiegel’s central themes.

Annalena Baerbock has taken on the Foreign Ministry, as the first woman to ever serve as Germany’s top diplomat. She can be considered a transatlanticist with much greater evidence than her Green predecessor Joschka Fischer or even Angela Merkel. An international law expert, from day one she signaled a more assertive stance on Russia and China as well as opposition to the Nord Stream II gas pipeline — an issue yet to be fully resolved by the coalition partners, even as the crisis at the Ukrainian border continues to unfold. Baerbock stands for a foreign policy that is value-based, pro-European, multilateral, and feminist. She hopes to use her new role to promote international co-operation on climate change. Germany holds the G7 presidency this year, and the coalition wants to use this opportunity to push for an international “climate club” and a unified global carbon price.

Changing intra-party power balance

The traffic-light coalition is off to a good start. How stable this constellation will be depends much on the leadership of Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD), but also on the relationship between Robert Habeck and FDP-leader and Minister of Finance Christian Lindner. Such a coalition can only work if all partners achieve wins for their respective parties. We may expect that its progressive reform agenda in particular – allowing multiple citizenship, strengthening reproductive rights, lowering the voting age to 16, and legalize the sale of cannabis – could be the glue that could keep this alliance together against a conservative opposition. After all, these goals are an overdue expression of a strong liberal attitude which a majority of Germans has come to support after 16 years of conservative government. The coalition’s biggest stumbling blocks are probably tax policy and government spending, transport and car regulation as well as the speed of the transformation to climate neutrality. In the end, the traffic light coalition is no love marriage, but a marriage of reason.

This time around, the Greens seem much better prepared to govern than they were in 1998. They are more experienced, they are stronger in the Bundestag, they come with broad electoral support. Yet of course, they face several challenges. For them to be successful it will be crucial not only to bet on parliamentary majorities, but to activate the majority in society for their reform plans. Second, they will have to make clear to their constituents and partners that governing will come with compromises. This will be extremely relevant in the relationship to Germany’s strong climate movement. For the new government to implement its ambitious climate agenda, pressure from groups like Fridays for Future is needed.

With entering a coalition, the intra-party power balance will change fundamentally. The Greens in government office and the parliamentary leadership will be at the center of Green politics in the coming years. They will most likely get the lion’s share of the public spotlight, they have vast human and financial resources, they have a strong information advantage, and they have a say at the cabinet table and in the Bundestag. Compared to that the party leadership and its headquarters is in an objectively structural weaker position. But if the Green project were narrowed down to the executive perspective, that would not be good. The strategic integration of all dimensions of Green effectiveness, from the federal cabinet to state governments, local politics, and Green presence in and cooperation with diverse social movements, is the central task for the party leadership. The new party leaders – former Greens Youths leader Ricarda Lang and foreign policy expert Omid Nouripour – will have to position themselves in this patchwork of power. In addition, they are facing the task of an organizational realignment. Tthe German Green Party has grown rapidly over the last years to more than 125,000 members. In fact, among all of Germany’s major parties, the Greens have the youngest members and the fastest growing membership. Lang and Nouripour will have to improve the federal party’s office finance structure to prepare for the next Chancellor campaign. And they will have to convince the party’s base that the mammoth task of negotiating an election program with more than 3,500 amendments may not be suitable for a party that is aiming for the Chancellery in the next federal election, which is most likely to come in 2025.

The German Greens as a centrist, progressive force

As party leaders Baerbock and Habeck brought a new sound to the party and the public. They moved the party away from the image of the lecturing, self-righteously, know-it-all and prohibitionist party, and toward a party that openly addresses the problems of the country. They banned the ideological sledgehammer. Their course came with a pragmatic attitude that is nevertheless committed to the future. Baerbock and Habeck coined the term Bündnispartei – in this sense Bündnis (alliance) serves as a means to drive change by forming majorities beyond core green partners; majorities through entering alliances with people who do not all have exactly the same ideas and goals as oneself. This approach confronts the heterogeneity of society with what it has in common rather than what divides it. It seeks to build bridges between different life worlds and milieus.

The survival of the planet and the people living on it through the protection of ecosystems is the overarching theme of humanity. The ecological paradigm has been part of the Greens’ DNA since their founding. Ecology is their core competence. This legitimizes the claim to be more than a minor milieu party for groups programmed for individual self-realization. At the same time, the ecological paradigm is more than just environmental policy. All major societal challenges we face – domestic and global justice, protection of democracy, sustainable economic activity and digital participation – can ultimately only be addressed from the perspective of the socio-ecological transformation of society. All of this and increasing support among the electorate has shaped the German Greens to become a centrist, progressive force.

This article was initially published in a slightly edited version on March 14, 2022 for the Wetenschappelijk Bureau GroenLinks in Dutch and can be accessed here.

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