“The Green Wave has really spread all over Europe.” This was the victorious announcement of Ska Keller, a co-convenor of the Green group in the European Parliament, when May 23 saw the dawn of a radical shift in the European Union’s political climate. Seventy-five Green Members of the European Parliament (MEPs), running on a strict environmentalist, pro-EU agenda, were elected across Europe, forming the fourth-largest bloc in the legislative body. Whether it was Die Grunen surging into second place in Germany, Les Verts coming from the political wilderness to take third place in France, or the UK’s Green Party gaining more seats than the incumbent Conservatives, voters had clearly made a statement.
The extent of the Green’s progress should not be understated. The Green and European Free Alliance grouping in the EU parliament, founded in 1990, increased its MEP share by twenty-three, reaching its highest ever figures. Changes were most prominent in Western Europe, and particularly Germany and France, with MEP gains of twelve and six respectively. Many of these advances came from primarily young and urban voters leaving the center-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) bloc of the EU as part of a wider protest against Europe’s historical ruling elite, causing it to lose forty-six MEPs and seeing its lowest voter share of the twenty-first century. The influence of the Greens was evident in that, even in countries where they did not make significant gains, leftist parties adopted a powerful climate action message to compensate. In Spain, for example, the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party vowed to reach a thirty-five percent renewable mix by 2030. They made strides in the election as a result, gaining six MEPs.
This Green’s success across Europe has a number of explanations, beginning first and foremost with the matter of climate change. Under the terms of the 2015 Paris Peace Accord, the twenty-eight nations of the European Union pledged to cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least forty percent below 1990 levels, in an attempt to keep global warming below two percent. Yet recent reports indicate the current cuts are insufficient, with the UN Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change’s publishing an October report suggesting that warming is on track to reach up to four percent. Meanwhile, the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), Europe’s attempt to effectively force a carbon tax on companies, has sputtered in recent years, with overallocation of permits keeping the price of carbon too low for a real dent to be put on carbon emissions.
In response to this, the Greens campaigned across Europe on a platform of putting climate change policy front and centre, aiming for ‘carbon neutrality’ by 2050 and setting a minimum price for carbon emissions.
This campaign was driven forward by a concerted effort to use social media to spread the message of climate change to the youth. In Germany, for example, seventy influential YouTubers convened mere days before the election to criticise Germany’s leading parties about their lack of action regarding the impending ‘climate crisis’. The effect was significant; thirty-three percent of youths in Germany voted Green, and the Greens brought in a similar percentage of the youth vote across Europe.
If we want to delve deeper into why the Greens truly had so much success, this YouTube protest is a good place to start. While the issue of climate change was the spark to the flame that became electoral success, the consequences would have registered significantly less without the resentment towards the ruling elite flying across Europe. In previous elections, the center-right European People’s Party and center-left Socialists and Democrats regularly held over half the seats in Parliament. After May, combined, the groups held less than forty-five percent of all seats.
Much of this stems from the technocratic agenda increasingly pursued by the EU, pushing decision-making further and further from the voters themselves. Cesar Baena and Michael Neubert, two LSE professors, compared the European Union’s growth to that of a Leviathan, ever hungry for more power and willing to slowly remove democracy for this purpose. What is interesting about the Green blocs’ success is that while its parties have largely operated on a pro-EU platform—in Britain, the Green Party’s election motto was “Yes to Europe, no to Climate Change”—they have been able to harness this increasing frustration with the Union by acknowledging that European politics is in paralysis and needs a reboot of sorts, allowing something new to be brought to the table.
Indeed, for all the talk of the EU’s integration pushing the bloc forward, there is much to suggest it has grown increasingly stagnant. The European Commission, the executive branch of the EU that acts effectively as an independent supranational authority, has come under escalating criticism for its lack of public elections and accountability, while the presence of the European Central Bank has reduced the economic independence of many major states. This became abundantly clear in the aftermath of the 2008 Recession. The Central Bank operates on a ‘one size fits all’ economic strategy. This means that, in an effort to maintain price stability across the EU, the Bank uses both a common currency in the Euro (used by nineteen of the twenty-eight member states) and a monetary union, meaning that individual member states cannot control their own monetary policy. The latter hit the hardest following 2008, with many of the most affected nations unable to implement their preferred monetary strategy to respond to the crisis.
The recent European election indicated that Britain’s Brexit vote, initially disregarded in some academic circles as a mere ‘flash in the pan’, was only the tip of the iceberg regarding increasing dissatisfaction with the ‘ever closer union’ wanted by much of the EU’s top dogs. The Greens have had success in presenting themselves as an alternative that can progress the Union while maintaining its intrinsic qualities.
It is important that the Greens are not just categorised as a one-track climate party. They have long campaigned on manifestos centering on human rights and social justice, and this was only ramped up in the last campaign, with the build-up to the elections dominated by talks of tackling the backsliding of civil rights across many Eastern EU states. For example, despite ultimately banning him from the group, the European People’s Party came under strong criticism for not opposing Hungary’s authoritarian prime minister Viktor Orban more severely. The Greens have also actively pursued relaxing immigrant quotas into Europe, a very contentious topic in recent years due to the migrant crisis.
Inevitably, though, on the other side of the coin, the decline of Europe’s traditional powers has also spurred a surge for Europe’s far-right nationalists. This significantly counterbalances the Greens’ progress. It is important to note this shift was not as large as initially expected, with Germany’s AFD worsening its voter share from the 2017 general election and both the Netherlands and Spain seeing its populist support decline. Yet the fact remains that Britain, France and Italy, three of the four biggest economies in Europe, saw the most seats for a single party go to the nationalist right, whether that be Italy’s League party, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally movement and, most infamously, Nigel Farage’s new Brexit Party. Combined, Europe’s populist right actually holds slightly more seats than the Green bloc.
What is so intriguing about the populist group is that, while these parties were, along with the Greens, the ones that benefited most from the decline of the traditional powers, much of their policies are diametrically opposite to that of the “Green Wave”. Not only is this bloc staunchly anti-EU, promising to push for referendums posing the question of whether to leave the Union, but it is rife with climate change deniers. Germany’s AfD has raised concerns of “increasingly religious climate-related hysteria” threatening the German economy, while Italy’s nationalist Lega party, a subset of the governing coalition, has long made alliances with climate skeptics. Thus the European Parliament results offer something of a double-edged sword regarding climate change—while it is certainly true that overall support for action has increased, this has been met by a significant pushback by Europe’s far right.
So, what does this mean for Europe’s future? What is clear is that the Greens hold more power than ever before at the big table. In the immediate aftermath of the election, Manfred Weber, the European People’s Party’s primary candidate for commission president, stated that the Greens were evidently “a possible partner.” Many more centrist and center-left blocks are likely to follow Spain’s example in adopting climate-friendly policies, and a stronger alliance with them seems likely considering much of the support the Greens gained in the recent election came from these blocs. Indeed, Bas Eickhout, the Green’s co-lead candidate for commission president, already claimed that few agreements will be made if the main European blocs do not focus legislation on reducing inequality and improving social cohesion, while other Green MEPs have insisted on the need to tackle the decline of civil rights in the increasingly authoritarian eastern bloc of the Union. The influence of the Greens was made abundantly clear in the recent EU Commission nominations. While neither of their preferred choices of President, Bas Eickhout and Dutch socialist Frans Zimmerman, were able to secure the top job, both Charles Michel and Josep Borrell, the European Council President and Foreign Policy Chief respectively, have strong leftist and environmentalist credentials.
Now, it is important to take this momentum with a pinch of salt. While Western Europe saw substantial advancements, the Greens actually lost seats in Central Europe and gained virtually none in the East. And for every push forward that the Greens make regarding the environment, economy and state of the European Union, they will receive a substantial kick back from the growing nationalist bloc of the EU.
What the Greens do hold over the nationalists, though, is significantly more unity. Outside of general anti-EU sentiments, the policy positions of members of Europe’s populist right often vary wildly, whether they be regarding Vladimir Putin or LGBT rights. Priority is also given to different matters, depending on the country. In contrast, the Greens maintain much more consistent policies across Europe. They also hold a significantly more stable voter base, given that their primary message of climate change will always hold relevance in the public debate, particularly amongst the urban youth.
What is ultimately the most important thing to take out of the Green surge in the European Parliament is that it marks the first true transition of the bloc from one filled with fringe idealists to a force to be politically reckoned with, gaining genuine credibility. The parties have capitalized on a combination of climate change inaction, stagnation of Europe’s ruling elite, and the sharp radicalization of the political spectrum to make their mark. Indeed, with a horizon of a thirty-two percent EU renewables target by 2030 and the recent passage of the Clean Energy For All Europeans legislation, the Green agenda looks like it’s on the right track.
One must remember that their success is far from comprehensive, dealing with the counterbalance of the nationalist right and the still-overwhelming domination of Europe’s center-leaning blocs. Whether bold assertions of change can continue to translate to significant new legislation is another matter entirely. Still, the 2019 European Parliament elections were the first major steps. The Greens look like they’re here to stay.