Europe’s green wave hasn’t crested yet, with ecologically minded parties continuing to rack up impressive election performances in recent weeks.
When Green parties throughout Europe saw unprecedented success in European Parliament elections last year, it was clear that voters were responding to concerns about the climate crisis as well as a loss of confidence in the big mainstream parties that have dominated politics for decades. But EU elections are often favorable for protest votes and fringe parties, and there were questions about whether the enthusiasm would last. “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,” Sven Giegold, a leading German Green MEP told me last June. Judging from recent election results, the infatuation hasn’t faded. In fact, in several countries the greens appear on the verge of eclipsing old-school socialist or social-democratic parties as the main electoral voice of the left.
Local elections in France last week featured what Le Monde described as a “green wave,” with the country’s Green Party, officially known as Europe Écologie Les Verts, winning in Lyon, France’s third largest city, as well as in Bordeaux, Strasbourg, and several other major cities, while President Emanuel Macron’s centrist En Marche party failed to make much of a dent. As the BBC noted, France’s once dominant Socialist party has been “all but wiped out at a national level”, but one bright spot for the party was the reelection of Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo who ran with the support of the Greens and has made fighting climate change a centerpiece of her tenure.
In Ireland, the Green Party was key in bringing about a coalition deal reached on June 26, bringing an end to months of political deadlock since an inconclusive election in February. The country’s two historic rival center-right parties, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, will govern together for the first time. They reached a majority only with the support of the Greens, who signed on after winning concessions including a government target of 7 percent annual average carbon emissions cuts.
Germany has one of the world’s oldest and strongest Green parties—it’s celebrating its 40th anniversary this year and has been a part of national-level coalitions in the past—looks set for a return to power. With elections for the Bundestag looming next year, the Greens in second place behind the ruling CDU with 20 percent of the vote. As Deutsche Welle puts it, Die Grünen are “replacing the Social Democrats as Germany’s second party, and a likely partner for the next government coalition.”
The Greens’ recent gains come at a time of increased political fragmentation that has benefited smaller parties, and have mostly come at the expense of center-left stalwarts like the French Socialists or Germany’s SPD. But recent developments in Austria show that perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to assume the Greens will be the new voice of the left.
At the beginning of this year, the Austrian Greens struck a coalition deal with Conservative Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s Austrian People’s Party. The 33-year-old Kurz had previously been in coalition with the Freedom Party, a far-right party founded by ex-Nazis, until that government fell apart as a result of an extremely sloppy scandal involving a drunken night in Ibiza and Russian influence peddling. Kurz’s new partnership marks a shift to the left, but not as dramatic a shift as you might think. His government continues to stand against “political Islam,” and for lower taxes and reduced immigration. He has vowed to “protect the climate and the borders.”
The coalition deal was approved by an overwhelming 93 percent of the Green Party’s membership. Writing in the American socialist magazine Jacobin, activist Teresa Petrik suggests we shouldn’t be surprised by this. “Some Green voters might identify as left-wing,” she writes, “Yet most of the party’s base are highly educated and financially well off. They are not the people who will suffer from continued welfare cuts and the neoliberal policies the new government is pushing forward.”
Austria’s strange new government is more troubling evidence of just how easily environmental concerns can be wedded to a hard-line anti-immigration agenda. But on the other hand, it’s also a sign that the climate issue has become so mainstream in Europe that even the bona fide right-wingers are embracing it. The U.S. is not quite there yet.