Why the German urban middle class is going Green

In the European Parliament elections, the Greens won all of Germany’s major cities, secured a third of first-time voters and scooped up the young vote. 

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The euphoria that erupted at Green party HQ after the European Parliament elections on 26 May will echo for a while. A political force that emerged in 1980 from a disparate collection of counter-culture groups, Germany’s Greens surged to second place behind Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), narrowing the gap between them from 24 percentage points at the 2017 general election to just over eight.

The Greens won all of Germany’s major cities (including Leipzig, in the supposedly far-right stronghold of Saxony), secured a third of first-time voters and scooped up the young vote, as more 18- to 24-year-olds voted for the Greens than the CDU, centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) and the Free Democrats (FDP) combined. Even more remarkable were the opinion polls a week later: for the first time ever the Greens polled first with more than 27 per cent of the electorate.

If they sustain that popularity, however, the Greens face a practical problem: choosing one of their two leaders to be candidate for chancellor at the next general election. Who should it be? The smooth and garrulous Robert Habeck, or the cool and unruffled Annalena Baerbock?

Habeck, 49, wandered into stardom after a career co-authoring novels with his wife. Baerbock is 38 and has been politically engaged since her teenage years, when she was a keen trampolinist with ambitions to be a war reporter. Both are suspicious of ideology, and both have presented themselves as independent from the prejudice that has long hampered the Greens – this is supposed to be the party that wants to ban things, including the things Germans like best: cars, grilled sausages and going on holiday.

For Europe’s liberals, the Green’s recent success must look fantastical. Here is a party seizing voters’ imaginations and being elected to do something about the climate crisis, a decisive issue in the EU election (one survey found that 48 per cent of Germans named the climate as their most important concern).

The Greens also benefited from the ongoing erosion of both the traditional centrist heavyweights – the CDU and SPD – that encompassed nearly 70 per cent of the German electorate when Merkel was first elected in 2005.

The state election in Bavaria last autumn provided the blueprint: while the conservative CSU (the CDU’s Bavarian affiliate) edged further right in an attempt to block the Alternative for Germany (AfD), the Greens, not the SPD, picked up the votes the CSU dropped in the middle.

For all their roots in 1970s West German environmentalism, the modern German Greens have never been entirely comfortable with their leftist side, and their statists and radicals have been quiet during the party’s resurgence. That is not to say the Greens have become the CDU’s natural bedfellows at every level: in the small city-state of Bremen they recently joined a coalition with the SPD and the Left party. And Ska Keller, German co-leader of the Greens-EFA group in the European Parliament, said in July her group would not support the CDU’s Ursula von der Leyen for European Commission president.

In recent months, the Greens have been careful not to connect their climate policies to any direct criticism of capitalism. Indeed, when Kevin Kühnert, head of the SPD’s youth organisation, suggested Germany should consider collectivising its auto industry and ban real-estate speculation, the Greens reacted as if such proposals were irrelevant to the environmentalist agenda.

“It’s always good to talk about capitalism,” Sven Giegold, the Greens’ leading candidate in the EU election, told German weekly Die Zeit. “But at the moment it’s about whether in future we can give our children the possibility of even talking about different economic systems on this planet.” Instead, he said, we need to talk about “how to make this market economy social and ecological”.

These were welcome words for the business leaders the Green party has been courting. Last year, the party started a “business council” to foster dialogue with Germany’s corporate giants. Martin Brudermüller, CEO of chemical firm BASF, and Christian Knell of HeidelbergCement were among the speakers at the first meeting. Only with the support of companies, the Green party’s Kerstin Andreae told reporters, could policy adhere to “economic realities”.

This new “pragmatism” has filtered through to Green policy: its current proposal is for a carbon tax of €40 per ton – modest enough for carmakers to live with. Meanwhile, Fridays for Future (FFF) – the protest movement established by the Swedish teenage activist Greta Thunberg – is demanding €180 a ton, a figure based on German government estimates of what climate breakdown will cost future generations. Giegold has called FFF’s demand “anti-social”, by which he meant it would price swathes of society out of plane tickets and car ownership. It would cause huge economic disruption, and the Green party is not willing to pay that price.

On that delirious night in May, Annalena Baerbock acknowledged that “we achieved this because many, many people took to the streets for climate protection”, and Giegold pledged to carry the concerns of FFF “into the parliaments”. As things stand, the Greens might need a push.

Meanwhile, for Merkel’s CDU, the Green surge creates a political headache. The received wisdom is that populist forces have stretched the German political landscape out, dragging voters towards two poles: the nationalist AfD in the provinces and the globalist Greens in the cities.

In between them, the FDP, the CDU and the SPD are jostling for space by mixing their messages. But in fact, the Greens have found a way to appeal to Germans’ innate conservatism while retaining the educated middle classes that comprise their base.

What coalition will make Germany’s next government? At present, the Greens are looking more and more like the CDU’s natural coalition partners: a little eco-friendly, but also sensible, non-socialist and politically palatable.

This article appears in the 19 July 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Facebook fixer