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  • Marlene Jacobsen

The green wave: A sustainable political shift in Europe?

Never before have European Green parties been as popular as they are today. In this year’s European elections, the grouping of Green parties increased the number of their MEPs by almost 40 percent. As unstoppable as the Green surge might seem – will it last?

The contemporary zeitgeist of sustainability is clearly noticeable: in a public opinion survey conducted by the European Commission, the citizens of seven EU member states identify the combat of climate change as their top priority. The consequence is an increased popularity for Green parties across Europe. For instance, they recorded large gains in elections in the Netherlands and Finland this year. In Germany, the Greens have celebrated a remarkable success: they reached 20.5 percent in the European elections, which is the best result in the party’s history. Consequently, it does not seem far-fetched that many people see the German Green party transforming into a mainstream, potentially governing force.

Is this hype for the Greens the new benchmark in all of Europe? Not by a long stretch. Poland and Romania, as well as Greece and Italy – to name a few – have not had a single seat won by the Greens in European elections. This demonstrates the generally low political prominence of Green parties in such countries, suggesting that most of Eastern and Southern Europe are not yet ripe for demanding Green politics. This might be due to predominant issues other than the environment, such as economic growth and youth unemployment. Western and Northern Europe’s blooming of Green parties shows that they best flourish in countries with fewer economic problems. This confirms the widespread belief that only wealthy countries can afford the luxury of environment-centric policies. Just like their parties’ success across Europe, Green voters are distributed unevenly within societies. The average Green voter is young and highly educated, belongs to the middle-class and lives in cities. So, whilst they are hegemonic among a certain demographic group, the Greens are still far away from constituting a new, holistic pan-European, societal mainstream.

Instead, the Greens only seem to appeal to the cosmopolitan side of the sharply divided European societies, with fierce rebukes by the increasingly consolidated nationalist parties. Between the two extremes the major, established parties struggle to perform such an acrobatic balancing act of attempting to regain former voters at the ends of each political wing, leaving them in an existential crisis. By attempting such lures, the traditional people’s parties seem little trustworthy and end up barely pleasing anyone, paving the way for further Green popularity.

The Greens in Europe have long been more than polarising niche parties, and are currently established in four EU member states as part of national governing coalitions. Furthermore, they form part of a range of subnational governments, for instance in Germany and Belgium. So, Green parties in various European countries are able to take responsibility and willing to compromise for practical politics – qualities which enhance the Greens’ chances to transform their political role in Europe.

However, this will only be the case if Green parties manage to keep owning the issues they generate the most support from. Environmental topics have already moved from the exclusive realm of Green parties to the forefront of public debate, meaning that they become more mainstream in the political discourse. The newly elected President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, pledges to zero out the EU’s greenhouse gases by 2050. If truly effective measures are implemented on the way to this ambitious goal, it could seem less relevant to future voters to decide to vote Green.

Whilst the current exceptional Green wave may ebb away sooner or later, one thing is certain: environmental concerns remain the big challenge of our times. Record-breaking heat waves and numerous wildfires in Europe have turned the previously rather abstract climate change into a very real threat. Consequently, hundreds of thousands of young people demand radical change at the ongoing Fridays for Future protests. For them, Europe’s Green parties constitute the most credible choice. As large parts of those protesters will only get the right to vote within the next few years, Green parties may yet see a promising and sustainable political future.

Image - Flickr (Marcus Metropolis)

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