Compared with the coming environmental shocks likely to be caused by climate change, a shift in the composition of the European Parliament may seem less than urgent. But last week’s election results suggest a quiet yet possibly monumental political transformation. For all the attention focused on the rise of far-right parties in European politics, observers have been slower to pick up on what may be an equally consequential trend: the rise of the Greens. These parties are not only posing a challenge to Europe’s established political parties—they may also represent an answer to the populist threat that has plagued the continents’ political institutions.
The Greens picked up 10 seats in Germany, coming in second, behind Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union and beating the center-left Social Democratic Party. In France, the Greens picked up seven seats to come in third, ahead of the traditional center-right and center-left parties. In Britain, they beat Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservatives and came in just behind Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour. In Ireland, they came in third, ahead of Sinn Fein.
Continentwide, where parties sit in cross-national alliances with their ideological counterparts, the European Greens picked up 17 seats, becoming the fourth-largest bloc in the Parliament for the first time. This will make them potential kingmakers in the forthcoming horse-trading over the EU’s most powerful jobs and bolster their policy goals of ambitious emissions-reduction targets, support for continued EU integration, and a more liberal and humane refugee policy.
The simplest explanation for the Greens’ success is widespread anxiety over the state of the planet. The months leading up to the election saw the release of two devastatingly grim U.N. reports—October’s warning about the urgent and immediate steps that will be required to prevent 1.5 degrees Celsius of global warming, and May’s biodiversity report warning that 1 million species are at risk of extinction—as well as widespread public protests in several countries, the emergence of Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg as a galvanizing protest leader, and the spread of school strikes demanding action on the climate crisis.
“The climate worry became extremely widespread. There is a sense of urgency in the public. This worry was able to be channeled in the Green Party,” says Monica Frassoni, co-chair of the European Green Party.
But as grave as the situation is, climate change isn’t the whole story. “There was also a sense that the two main parties just weren’t giving answers anymore, and that that wasn’t where the European future was going to lie,” says Sophia Besch, a fellow at the Centre for European Reform, referring to the center-right and center-left parties that have traditionally dominated postwar European politics at the national and pan-European level. At a time when a surge of populism is threatening the very foundations of the European project, the Greens may have benefited from their staunch and unambiguous support for more European integration.
Frassoni sees the Greens’ rise as connected to “certain terrible evolutions in some countries, and the victory of extreme right in some countries, which are due to the fact that the European Union made wrong decisions in terms of austerity and was not rigorous in terms of defense of rights and the rule of law.”
Sven Giegold, a newly reelected German Green MEP, agrees. “The coalition partners that were traditionally the guardians of a stronger Europe have lost courage to the extreme right,” he says. “People are not reassured that the parties that originally were the fathers and mothers of Europe are still committed enough to Europe.”
Nowhere was this more true than in the Brexit-wracked United Kingdom, where the staunchly pro-Remain Greens capitalized on public frustration with the Labour Party’s ambiguous Brexit stance as well as momentum from London’s recent Extinction Rebellion protests to take 11.8 percent of the vote. EU elections tend to be more favorable for smaller British parties like the Greens, thanks to lower voter turnout and results based on proportional representation. But the Greens also performed well in recent local elections in the U.K., picking up 87 seats and suggesting they can compete in a first-past-the-post vote.
“There is a lot of disillusionment with Labour not having a clear position on remaining in Europe, but also recognizing the climate emergency,” says Jonathan Bartley, co-leader of the Green Party of England and Wales. “Particularly among the 18–25 age group, the school strikes and Extinction Rebellion has pushed climate right up the agenda among young people.”
As in the U.K., the Greens’ gains in most countries came at the expense of the traditional center-left, social democratic parties. “There is a sense all over Europe of social democrats being seen as no longer having the answers, of no longer being able to stand up to the right, and in this election of not being able to pick up on the environmental concerns that many voters brought to the polling stations,” says Besch.
But Bartley insists this isn’t just a story about the left. “People will tend to place the Green Party on the left because of our emphasis on redistributing wealth away from the 1 percent,” he says. “But we had a lot of people coming over from the Conservatives as well as Labour. Increasingly, those terms—left and right—refer to a system that just isn’t working any longer. The old dichotomy is breaking down.”
The Greens weren’t the only parties to benefit from this breakdown. The blocs representing liberal parties—in the centrist, free market European sense—and right-wing euroskeptic nationalists also picked up seats in the European Parliament last week. The Greens’ rise has come at the same time that some far-right populist parties are embracing an agenda of opposition to action on the environment. The far-right True Finns party came in second in Finnish national elections in April on a platform of opposing “climate hysteria.” The politically amorphous Yellow Vest (Gilets Jaunes) movement shut down parts of Paris in mass demonstrations last year, partly in response to fuel taxes instituted by President Emmanuel Macron’s government.
But there are also some indications that Green politics can be an effective way to combat the far right. Bartley notes that Magid Magid, the Somali-born mayor of Sheffield, won the EU Parliament race on the Green ticket in Yorkshire and the Humber, a region that in 2009 went for a candidate from the neo-fascist British National Party.
Giegold argues that climate concerns are peeling votes away from the far-right Alternative for Germany party. “The AfD scored much worse than they thought, in particular among young people who are really shaped by the climate protest,” he said. “Two years ago, they had a lot of success, particularly among young men. Now we destroyed them, basically.” Indeed, the youth wing of the AfD last week called on the national party to rethink its climate skepticism and defense of the coal industry, for fear of losing the youth vote going forward.
France’s far-right National Rally, perhaps seeing the writing on the wall, adopted a “localist” pro-environment message in its platform this year.
The Greens benefited from a political environment where traditional party loyalties are breaking down throughout Europe and the electorate is highly polarized. But this environment also means that political gains can be short-lived.
“People were already starting to flirt with us. Now they have had a one-night stand. Whether this is a permanent relationship is totally unclear,” says Giegold.
To take the analogy further, for German voters, the Greens are less of an attractive stranger they picked up one night than they are an old fling. The party, formally known as Alliance 90/The Greens has had success in national elections in Germany before. Joschka Fischer, who served as Germany’s vice chancellor and foreign minister from 1998–2005, was a Green. It’s certainly not out of the question that current momentum for the Greens could also be short-lived.
“I do think there is a broader momentum among younger voters. I’d be surprised if these voters who went out on the streets [for climate change] forgot about this quickly,” says Besch. “But obviously the hope of the more-established parties is that they will be able to green-wash their own policies and make themselves more credible in having the answers on climate change.”
To some extent, this is already happening. After months of resistance, Merkel last month joined with France and seven other countries to call on the EU to bring carbon emissions down to zero by 2050. Merkel cited Greta Thunberg’s protests in making her announcement, but she clearly was also trying to head off gains by the Greens and differentiate herself from the climate-denying AfD.
There’s a risk that in co-opting the Greens’ signature priorities, the major parties could water them down, something the world can ill-afford when it comes to climate change. But for now, the Greens appear to be outpacing the center-right and center-left when it comes to both responding to the most serious crisis of our era and responding to the challenge of the far right.