The Rise of Green Politics in Europe

The unexpected success of the Green parties in this year’s European Parliament elections triggered a discussion about a Green wave that swept over the continent, while some even referred to this emerging political movement as “a quiet revolution”. However, proponents of a Green agenda will encounter a mix of enthusiasm and resistance, both within EU institutions and at the national level.

At first glance, the Green victory signals a wider change in European politics, both from the perspective of voters and policymakers. Climate change seems to be one of the most important election issues of 2019, and Green parties are reaping the benefits of the widespread climate activism and global social-media phenomena such as the student protest movement popularised by Greta Thunberg. This caused a loss of support for mainstream centre-left and right parties in favour of green and left-leaning liberal counterparts in several European countries. This was especially the case in Germany, Ireland and the UK, where the Greens gained from 25 to 75 seats and the Liberal Democrats went from having 40 to 139 seats in the European Parliament.

Voters demographics and mobilisation are among the main factors that led to this victory. Young voters have been especially active in this election and voter turnout has been the highest in twenty years. This suggests that many voters that previously felt apathetic to the EU electoral process or no longer identified with the classical Christian democratic- socialist political divide finally may have found a party that represents their views. As a result, climate policy seems to have entered the mainstream political debate like never before.

However, a closer look at the Green movement in Europe reveals a more complex reality, which raises the question of whether these parties will be able to enforce effective climate policies at the European level. Firstly, the surge in popularity of Green parties and the subsequent loss of support for mainstream ones is in part a response to widespread discontent over specific domestic policies, rather than a sudden rise in environmental consciousness among voters. This is especially clear in the UK, wherein the context of a particularly controversial Brexit process, the Green Party and the Liberal Democrats experienced a surge in popularity largely because of their pro-remain stance.

Another challenge for the Greens is to win enough support across the European Parliament’s spectrum. One of the more obvious disparities is that while Green parties performed very well in EU’s core countries such as the UK, Germany, France and the Benelux, they enjoyed a much more modest success among the Union’s newer members. In Hungary and Austria, for example, Green parties lost seats in the European election. This gap is exacerbated by the size and power that green MEPs enjoy in their respective countries; in Italy, the Green party did not even reach the minimum threshold to win seats in the European Parliament.

This discrepancy is significant for two reasons; firstly, a Green agenda must enjoy widespread support among European voters to gain legitimacy and, as a result, bargaining power at the European Parliament. Secondly, it shows that voters’ priorities have the potential of being volatile, and support for the Green parties may decline once seemingly more pressing, material issues come to the forefront. Lower minimum wages and dependency on fossil fuels for energy immediately come to mind as obstacles in less affluent European countries and Central Europe, while in Western European countries such as Italy, unemployment and weak economic growth trump environmental concerns.

Moreover, mainstream centre-left and -right parties still have a strong grip on the European Commission, although centrist camps have begun to rely on Green parties to form alliances in the European Parliament to have a working majority. Potentially, this could give the Greens the power to demand significant policy concessions, for instance by bringing to the table stricter emissions reduction proposals and targets.

While this is an important step forward for the Green agenda, there is some justified scepticism about the extent to which centrist parties will be willing and able to adopt stricter climate policies. The growing support of climate policies by both the European Peoples Party (EPP) and the European Alliance of Economic Liberals (ALDE) raises legitimate doubts on these parties’ willingness to commit to policies that favour climate action.

On the other hand, the widespread popularity of environmental activism and a growing sense of urgency about the possibly catastrophic effects of climate change makes sustainability a difficult issue to ignore, even among the most conservative parties. In the UK, Labour committed to net zero emissions by 2030, and other European parties are quickly following suit.

These contrasting realities are mirrored inside the European Union institutions, too. The European Green Deal promoted by European Commission President-elect Ursula von der Leyenincludes goals that are in line with the Green agenda, such as higher emission reduction targets and climate neutrality by 2050. Former Dutch foreign minister Frans Timmermans, who was appointed as the EU’s Executive Vice-President for the European Green Deal, will have decision-making power over crucial policy areas such as investment, taxes and food standards, as well as Europe’s transition to clean energy.

It will be Timmermans’ job to coincide these goals with the realities of coordinating with other commissioners that might be less enthusiastic about swift change, such as Economy Commissioners Paolo Gentiloni and Trade Commissioner Phil Hogan. His ability to promote the Green Deal goals while facing significant resistance within the EU policymaking apparatus will be representative of the challenges faced by Green parties across Europe.

It is clear that the European Union and its Member States have long neglected pressing sustainability and environment issues, and an increasingly climate-sensitive public is starting to realise it. However, time will tell whether the Green wave constitutes a real change in the EU or is merely a green-washing attempt by established political parties, which are struggling with declining support, a changing political landscape and the consolidation of nationalist parties across the continent.