The century plant, native to Mexico, is a large leafy rosette that stays dormant for ten to 30 years, until it finally blossoms with a stalk that can reach 8m to 9m in height, adorned with striking yellow flowers. Then it dies.
The German Green party is the century plant of European politics. Formed in 1979, the party lurked in the background for a long time before it quietly began setting the political agenda. But it has only bloomed fully in the past two years, as part of Olaf Scholz’s three-party governing coalition. The Greens – formally known as “Alliance 90/The Greens”, following a merger between former West and East German parties in 1993 – have pulled the plug on nuclear power, and are driving the transition to renewable energy.
In the past few weeks, the Green flower has started to wilt. Two consecutive events have triggered the backlash against the Greens. The first was an old-fashioned nepotism scandal in the Green-led economics ministry. It played out like so many political scandals do: it started with a denial, followed by declarations of loyalty, and progressed to the inevitable sacking of the culprit, the civil servant Patrick Graichen. It was a reminder that Green politicians are not so different after all.
The other, and more important, event has been a proposed law to force homeowners to switch their heating systems from oil and gas to heat pumps, starting next January. The costs to households are potentially devastating. The estimated cost is £15,000 to £40,000, depending on the size of the house. In poorer regions, such as eastern Germany and some pockets in the west, house prices often do not exceed £80,000. The effect of this legislation would be to halve the value of some people’s assets.
The government is considering ways to compensate the losers. But this is not going to be easy when budgets are tight. Poorer homeowners are mostly lower-middle-class, the part of the electorate that is most open to the far right.
The Netherlands is a good example of what can happen when angry voters get together. At provincial elections in March, the Farmer-Citizen Movement (BBB) swept to victory on an agenda to oppose nitrogen emissions cuts. At a recent election in the German state of Bremen a new party called Citizens in Anger came from nowhere to win 10 per cent of the vote, capitalising on what is largely an anti-Green mood.
The backlash has also reached Brussels. The centre-right European People’s Party has called for a regulatory pause on all things green; it has also shifted position on the European Commission’s flagship environmental protection legislation. The centre right fears it stands to lose rural communities, its traditional power base.
What’s happening in Europe is a seminal shift. The Christian Democrats (CDU) and other parties of the centre right previously courted the Greens as potential coalition partners. Now they see them as their main political opponents. A return to the politics of confrontation makes political sense for the centre right. At the same time, it dramatically reduces coalition options.
Excluding the Greens would leave the CDU with two possibilities: the first is a grand coalition with the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD); the second a coalition with the far right. There is little appetite for the former. Many of Germany’s problems today – underinvestment, over-reliance on Russia and China, and an ill-equipped military – are the results of compromises reached by coalitions under Angela Merkel.
A coalition with the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) is taboo for the CDU – for now. But I expect that to change when it becomes the only real option left for power. Elsewhere in Europe, this is already starting to happen. In Stockholm, the far-right Sweden Democrats have a confidence-and-supply agreement with a three-party centre-right minority government. In Finland, a new government is being formed right now, where the far-right Finns Party could end up as a junior coalition partner.
In Germany, we are not there yet. The AfD is polling at 17 per cent. I would put its potential at around 30 per cent. Once it polls at 20 per cent or more, it will become progressively harder for the centrist parties to form coalitions.
The result is political fragmentation. Politics in the UK and US is no less fractious, but there the conflicts are playing out within the main parties, which are protected by the first-past-the-post voting system. The shift of the Republicans to the right finds its mirror image in Europe in coalitions between centre- and far-right parties.
The far-right groups are not all the same. Giorgia Meloni, the Italian prime minister, has surprised many with her compliance with EU rules and her support for Nato and Ukraine. Marine Le Pen is more radical. The German AfD is more extreme than both, spanning the entire far-right spectrum from democratic nationalists to neo-Nazis.
My assessment is that European politics is moving in the same direction as politics in the US. It will fragment into two groups. One will be dominated by green issues, though not necessarily by green parties. The other will define itself in radical opposition to the politics of climate change.
My image of the Greens in Germany as a wilting flower is therefore not quite complete. When those long-dormant plants die, they often leave behind bulbs. Whatever the future of the Green party itself, its policies will remain – and split the centre down the middle.
This article appears in the 31 May 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Rise of Greedflation