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Sudden Success: Germany’s Green Party Faces Serious Growing Pains

  • June 19, 2019

As she is wont to do, German Green Party Chairwoman Annalena Baerbock opted for a bit of self-deprecatory directness. Giving the keynote address at a recent gathering of the Federation of German Industries (BDI), she said that it wasn’t all that long ago that her party was still expending significant energy on “raising carp and trout in a fishpond.” Now though? “The world moves fast,” she said.

Her audience laughed and applauded, both encouragingly and full of curiosity. Such self-effacing irony is well-received by those who don’t yet quite know how to deal with this up-and-coming political party and with its growing self-confidence.

And the world does, indeed, move quickly. A 38-year-old Green Party chairwoman, roughly as old as her party, closed a BDI event that Chancellor Angela Merkel had opened just a few hours earlier. Surrounded by the industrial chic of old factory walls in eastern Berlin, executives and managers were packed into the tight rows, with men in suits making up the clear majority. It was not exactly the kind of event where Baerbock feels most comfortable.

What was her impression of the event? Baerbock inhales through her teeth and says she finds it odd how much attention was paid to her speech at the event this year. After all, she notes, she spoke at the BDI last year as well. Perhaps, she says, people are just listening a bit more closely now.

You could say so. The perception of the Green Party has changed dramatically. As the party has risen in the polls, more and more people — from all different walks of life – are paying closer attention. The week before last, support for the party reached 27 percent in the latest public opinion polls, higher even than Merkel’s conservatives. It was just the latest high point in a slow-but-steady rise in recent months. Even last fall, a survey found that half of all voters could imagine casting their ballot for the Greens.

The biggest challenge now for the party is that of dealing with its newfound status as Germany’s leading political force despite having entered this legislative period as the smallest group in parliament, with just 8.9 percent of the votes in the 2017 general election. As the Greens climb toward 30 percent in the polls, they must deal with a flood of new members despite limited personnel and a lack of space at party headquarters and in its chapter offices around the country. It’s not unlike a child after a big growth spurt: All its clothes are suddenly too small.

But there are also policy questions for which the party must now find convincing answers. It is solid when it comes to climate change and the environment, but what about those issues that haven’t generally been considered classic Green Party concerns? Things like foreign and defense policy and social questions, for example, along with domestic security.

The Greens have to prepare themselves to potentially be part of government following the next parliamentary elections. That vote is currently scheduled for 2021, but it could come quicker than that. Even the idea of a chancellor from the Green Party is no longer as ridiculous as it seemed just a short time ago — even if no one in the party is willing to talk openly about it.

Still, isn’t it hard to believe how good things are currently going for the party? “Ha,” responds Baerbock. It’s a recent Tuesday evening and she is sitting in the stuffy party headquarters together with Green Party co-chair Robert Habeck. She slaps the table with her hands and looks over at Habeck, who grins back with the wan smile that has become something of a trademark. “At least you can’t say that things are going poorly,” she says.

‘Excellent Chances’

Nobody, though, is willing to get too carried away. The party is intent on showing humility and would prefer to speak of “excellent chances.” They are being careful, almost skeptical in the approach to their current success. After all, if the current survey results were ultimately to be short-lived and illusory, it wouldn’t be the first time.

Immediately after the Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan in early 2011, for example, the Green Party candidate Winfried Kretschmann became governor of the state of Baden-Württemberg, leading everyone to believe that the Greens were in for an excellent showing in the 2013 general election. But it was not to be and the party won just 8.4 percent of the vote that year.

Still, the mistakes the party made that election season were obvious in hindsight and the run the party has been on in recent months feels different. It seems as though its solid polling results have become more stable.

In the European Parliament elections at the end of May, at least, the Greens didn’t just emerge on top among first-time voters. The party nosed out the conservatives all the way into the age group of voters under 60. And with 20.5 percent of the vote, the Greens almost doubled its result relative to the 2014 European elections. For the first time, more unemployed voters cast their ballots for the Greens than for the center-left Social Democrats (SPD).

In the local elections held the same day in some parts of Germany, the Greens led the way in several cities.

There are several explanations for why the Greens are doing so well at the moment. The most important of those, though, is the fact that Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its coalition partners from the SPD have been in power together for 10 of the last 14 years and exhaustion is setting in. As those two parties have started to look older and older, the Greens have been happy to work on their image in the comfort of the opposition. The Greens, for example, are the only party in the German political spectrum with a curated Instagram profile worth mentioning and they used it extensively in the European election campaign.

But there are other reasons for the party’s recent success, such as the fact that its primary focus, the environment, has suddenly gone mainstream. And that has meant that it is almost impossible for the Greens to do wrong at the moment. Back in spring 2017, parliamentary group leader Katrin Göring-Eckardt said that Green Party issues were “hot shit in the country.” If that comment was slightly premature at the time, it is absolutely the case now.

Last summer’s drought, the disastrous recent reports on biodiversity, the attention currently being paid to plastic waste in our oceans and the “Fridays for Future” student demonstrations have all boosted the Green Party’s relevance. In a survey ahead of the European elections, 57 percent of respondents agreed with the statement: “The Greens defend values that are personally important to me.”

Avoiding Schadenfreude

And there is something else that the country likes about the Greens: the party’s rather different approach to politics. Just after the recent resignation of SPD party head Andrea Nahles, Habeck and Baerbock sent out a press release in which they underlined their respect for the outgoing party chief and expressed “hope that the SPD can quickly settle its personnel issues and return with renewed focus to the task at hand.”

It is a tactic that the two had discussed beforehand, that of avoiding schadenfreude and opting for a conciliatory and constructive approach instead. And it has been successful. Markus Söder of the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party of Merkel’s CDU, even identified the Greens recently as his party’s primary adversary. The right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) likewise considers the environmental party to be its main opponent.

Still, the party’s success isn’t just a function of favorable circumstances, but also because the Greens have worked hard to get where they are. When Baerbock, a parliamentarian from the eastern state of Brandenburg, and Habeck, state environment minister from Schleswig-Holstein, took over the reins of the party in January 2018, they introduced fundamental reforms, including combining their staffs into a single leadership team and establishing a policy department at headquarters.

One of the most important cornerstones for current success, however, were the difficult coalition negotiations following 2017 German parliamentary elections. Initially, Merkel sought to assemble a coalition with the Greens and the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP), and in those talks, the Greens clearly demonstrated their willingness to take on significant political responsibility. Ultimately, the negotiations would collapse, but it was the FDP that pulled out, only strengthening the positive image of the Greens.

Furthermore, the two party leaders have managed to do something that no leadership duo before them has been able to do: tamp down intra-party rivalries and ego battles. Habeck says they have profited from an “incredible cohesion” within the party.

They’ve also been preparing for greater political responsibility over the last year-and-a-half by establishing expertise in a broader array of issues. The Greens have always been known as a party full of experts in their field and nobody doubts their credentials when it comes to the environment and climate protection. They have since added several more areas that may come as a surprise to some — such as social welfare policy and business.

One year ago, Green parliamentarian Kerstin Andreae established an advisory committee to work more closely with the business community. It holds meetings three times a year, with around 60 business leaders meeting with parliamentarians from the party, including party chair Baerbock. Andreae is quick to note that the Greens have always had an “intense exchange” with the business community, but it had generally been on an issue-by-issue basis. The new council has institutionalized the relationship. When assembling the committee, Andreae spent virtually an entire summer on the phone, ultimately managing to recruit such luminaries as the CEOs of BASF and the pharmaceutical concern Roche.

Cooperating with Industry

When choosing her targets, Andreae considered whether they were the kind of people the Greens could work with, people who didn’t think just about the next quarterly earnings call but about the economy as a whole. She says the response was more than she could have hoped for, with only two executives declining to participate. The reason? Berlin was too far away for them. At the first conference one year ago, Andreae opened with the question: What would you do if you were the Greens? What would your economic policy look like? She says the primary focus of the advisory committee is not the climate but on how to make Germany and Europe a more attractive place to do business.

The most recent gathering of the body took place just a few days ago in a hotel in the Friedrichshain neighborhood of Berlin. Afterward, they all went to the party’s summer reception where Claudia Roth, a prominent member of the party’s left wing, greeted BASF CEO Martin Brudermüller, who introduced himself as “the guy from the evil chemicals industry.” Christian Knell from HeidelbergCement, a company that is apparently involved in controversial projects on the West Bank, was also there. Pragmatism seems to have become a dominant feature of the Greens.

Following the example of the economic advisory committee, an additional panel took up its work in mid-May, the so-called union and social welfare committee. It includes Green parliamentarians working with works councils, labor unions, consumer protection groups and environmental organizations. “If we want to remake society both ecologically and from a social welfare perspective, we need strategic partnerships,” says Anton Hofreiter, who initiated the committee from his position as Green Party parliamentary group leader. Like the economic committee, the group meets around three times each year.

One of the side-effects of the new committee is the fact that it helps the Greens win over union members, who have for decades been core SPD supporters. It used to be that nobody in the party was particularly thrilled about meeting with union representatives, but these days, Hofreiter is enthusiastic about the “readiness for change” he sees within the milieu. They are, he says, “good partners” for the Greens because they too plan far into the future.

The newfound cooperation between unions and the Greens is exemplified in the person of Ralph Obermauer. The 52-year-old spent many years working in the offices of Green Party parliamentarians, but was hired away in March 2018 by IG Metall, where he is responsible for the union’s political strategy.

More than anything, though, Obermauer’s job is communication, essentially “translating” between the Greens and IG Metall. Obermauer says that the party recognized that it wouldn’t be able to push through its environmental policies if it ignored issues pertaining to labor and social policy. “Climate protection and industry cannot be allowed to work in opposition to each other,” he says. The party seems to have realized as much: The Greens’ plans for a tax on CO2 emissions, for example, have been offset by a mechanism that would more fairly distribute the burden across society.

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