“German Greens are flying high.”

Europe’s strongest environmental party may for the first time aspire to the Chancellorship in Germany’s federal election. Interview with the Italian magazine Extraterrestre / Il Manifesto.

How do you explain the success of the Green party in Germany and that they are polling at around 20-24%?

The Greens have been in existence for 40 years and have grown through three distinct phases. Initially they were a protest party in the 1970s and 1980s that was challenging traditional parties and state authorities. In the 1990s, they have developed into a project party and started governing in Red-Green coalitions with the SPD, giving itself the new role as an agent of reform, putting the transition away from nuclear at the center of the debate. The third phase began in 2006, when it slowly became clear that Greens and SPD wouldn’t be able to form a majority. In the following years the Greens decided on a strategy of independence: to pursue their interests within any majority of the center-right or center-left. Today the Greens are perceived in the center of society and as a centrist progressive force.

Five years ago, could anyone have believed that the Green party would have a real chance at positioning for the Office of the Chancellor?

Back then it was difficult to imagine. The success of this last phase explains the fact that today, the Greens govern in 11 out of 16 federal states and they’ve put climate change and the environmental crisis at the center of their agenda. The political positioning as a center-leaning party that can partner with any other party in the democratic spectrum was a winning strategy.  Research shows that coalitions that include the Greens are more ambitious and most qualified to address urgent environmental problems. Furthermore, the Greens were smart to build up strong internal organization for effective coordination across the Länder, where states are governing in diverse coalitions. We shouldn’t forget that within the Bundesrat, the federal council of states, the Greens are indispensable for Angela Merkel’s Grand Coalition in order to win a majority. Over the past four years Germany has been governed by the Grand Coalition and the Green Party.

There is a new generation of climate activism and environmentalism in Germany, including the Fridays for Future movement, who consider the Greens to be too moderate, a belief that the Italian left also share here. The critique is that the Greens are only interested in technological investments in clean energy and carbon reduction without considering or changing the social impacts.

The critique from the climate movement that governments with Greens are not delivering ambitious enough climate action is somewhat justified. After all, they are governing in coalitions with other parties who often put the brakes on climate action. Yet it’s important that the Greens receive this kind of political pressure. Despite the criticism from the climate movement, voters across parties see the Greens as the key political force and most competent to tackle the climate crisis.

As it relates to leadership, what kind of generational shift has taken place in the last 40 years?

With the end of Red-Green, the first coalition government on the federal level, Joschka Fisher and others slowly passed leadership onto others. The years 2005 to 2007 was a dire opposition time. From then on, the party starting to govern again in many states. Today’s leadership is moderate, not dogmatic and very popular. The co-speakers Robert Habeck and Annalena Baerbock harmonize well together. Today, previous tensions between the wings of the party (previously Realos and Fundis, today called Reformers and Leftists) are a thing of the past. These two wings still exist, but for other purposes. In parallel, the party grew in recent years significantly, in contrast to other parties in Germany which have a declining membership. Today the Greens have about 100,000 members. Many say that people have joined because they are attracted to this type of leadership. So we see several underlying factors that make the current success of the Greens look like a lasting development, not a temporary trend.

How will it be chosen who is the candidate between the two co-Presidents?

The party board, made up of six people including Habeck and Baerbock themselves, will make a suggestion on April 19, which the party convention will formally likely confirm in mid-June. In essence, Habeck and Baerbock mutually decide between them. It’s an unusual model. Years ago the process would have been more formal, perhaps an open fight. I think it’s the sign of strong and cohesive leadership of Baerbock and Habeck.

Who votes for the Greens?

The electorate is diverse, but women, young people, and residents in progressive urban areas is a strong base for the Greens.

The Green Party in Austria governs with the center-right where Kurz has boasted about protecting the environment and the borders at the same time. Is that a model for the German greens?

The German Greens are closely following what’s happening in Austria and decline too many parallels. They do so in response to a popular view among German conservatives who paint the Austrian Greens in a weak position and somewhat stuck with Chancellor Kurz and his restrictive course on migration. But I doubt the German Greens will end up in a similar situation. They are stronger in polls and have a long experience in governing, whereas the Austrian Greens joined the coalition as the smaller partner immediately after returning to parliament. If the Greens in Germany were to enter a coalition with the Conservatives, it would be an alliance on eye level; with two equal partners. 

From the opposition, have the Greens influenced the politics of the other major parties? Have they raised the bar for climate ambition?

Certainly, in recent years we have seen an increasing competition across the parties on the theme of the climate crisis. Before the pandemic, the climate crisis was a primary issue for a majority of voters across parties. Polls also show that voters attribute the Greens the highest credentials on the climate issue. This is a challenge for other parties to which they need to respond. The SPD has set fighting the climate crisis has the central priority in its election platform. On the political right, however, the narrative is more muted or vague on climate. The Conservatives’ two possible candidates for Chancellor use different tactics. While Armin Laschet (CDU) is very cautious in his language and is looking to cater to the economic wing of his party that is anti-environment, Markus Söder (CSU) has become a tree-hugging environmentalist over the last two years, at least in rhetoric. For the CSU in Bavaria, the Greens not the right extreme AfD, are the big rival.

The Heinrich Böll Foundation is a think tank affiliated with the green party. What role does it play?

All established German parties have a political foundation. They operate on public funds, depending on the election results of their respective party. The foundations are not allowed to do party work or campaigning. They play a function of political education as well as serving as a place to develop new ideas. The Heinrich-Boell-Foundation for instance is known for bringing visibility to the climate crisis and other green issues, such as democracy, minority rights, and international cooperation. Overall, the foundations open space for a wider political debate. They provide room for public discourse on relevant questions for a society. So it is worthwhile to have them in a democracy.

Interview by Daniela Passeri. Click here for the original version. Translation by Maria Catoline (grazie, Maria!). The text of the English version was edited for clarity.

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