BRUSSELS INSIDER #1 - December 7, 2018
Clean energy and climate policies do well when the economy and public opinion allow. Still, governments must demonstrate tangible short term benefits if ‘green’ campaign promises are to be kept and to avoid the type of angry backlash witnessed in France. But with a stable economy (Brexit aside) and public opinion right behind the EUs over-arching climate strategy, 2019 should go down as a landmark year for implementation across the continent. Political commentator Joe Mitton explains why.
Green parties have had a very good year in Northern Europe by increasing their vote shares significantly in some key elections. Moreover, they have demonstrated the ability to convert minority support into political power, affecting real policy changes. As 2019 approaches, the Greens are poised to influence energy policies at the regional, national and EU levels, particularly if they do well in the European Parliament elections in May.
How Green parties work
The Greens are purposefully pan-European in character. There is a level of coordination between national Green parties not seen in any other political movement. The European Greens is an organisation representing 34 national parties with an important role in setting the agenda for Green politics across the movement, so their election of two new “leading candidates”, Bas Eickhout of Groenlinks and Ska Keller of Alliance 90, last week is significant.
The European Greens’ “Leading Candidates”
Ska Keller began her political career in 2002 by campaigning for a referendum in the state of Brandenburg to ban new coal mines. She has been a Member of the European Parliament since 2009, working on development of anti-corruption issues.
Bas Eickhout has been a member of the European Parliament since 2009. He is a member of the Dutch GreenLeft (GroenLinks) party, one of Europe’s most electorally successful parties of the movement. He was formerly the spokesperson on biofuels at the Netherlands National Institute for Public Health and the Environment.
Energy policy is central
Of the current key political figures in the movement, almost all have backgrounds in renewable energy activism. Many of the continent’s Green parties were established in the early 1980s to voice opposition to nuclear power. The West German party was arguably the leading organisation of its kind in Europe, providing the model for Green parties established across the continent. Today the “Alliance ’90 / The Greens” is the successor of that party and it is more relevant to German and European politics than ever.
Influence demonstrated in Germany
There was a time when Green parties were dismissed as a fringe distraction. That changed in 1998 when they joined the ruling coalition in Germany and exercised real influence by forcing the government to adopt a policy of gradual denuclearisation of the German power grid starting in the year 2000.
Even out of office, the Greens have shown the ability to generate and utilise political capital effectively. After the Fukushima nuclear plant accident in Japan in March 2011, the Greens skilfully presented that event as relevant for German audiences, pushing for an accelerated denuclearisation of German energy. In regional elections two weeks later, they made major gains in Rhineland-Palatinate and Baden-Württemberg. Widespread protests against nuclear power followed and Chancellor Merkel announced that all German nuclear power plants would close by 2022.
Perhaps the Greens’ strongest influence on policymaking has been indirect, through introducing new ideas and applying pressure on larger parties’ policies. The UK’s only Green MP Caroline Lucas admitted as much in the 2015 election when she said her party would “put forward some radical ideas which this political system needs so badly … [and] push Labour to be far more progressive”.
In the European Parliament, the Green movement has struck an effective partnership with the European Free Alliance, effectively binding popular separatist parties such as the Scottish National Party and the Republican Left of Catalonia as well as Basque separatists into the Green movement’s agenda. Even prominent centre-right parties have flirted with the concept of “green conservatism” from time to time.
This fact that the Greens’ policies are co-opted by the mainstream parties when, as now, the conditions suit them, is a reality they have learned to live with. Jenny Jones, the UK Green politician (now Baroness Jones), once told me “You can achieve a lot in politics if you are prepared not to take the credit for it”. In any case, a recent study carried out by the London School of Economics and Oxford University found that, in general terms, Greens actually improve their support when mainstream parties attempt to emulate the positions of the Greens on their core issues.
Yet, even as Green movement policies influence larger parties’ agendas, selling those policies to the wider electorate becomes the next challenge. In France, President Macron presented his new fuel tax as an important step towards promoting a renewable energy economy. Effectively, this is a long-standing Green movement policy gone mainstream. But the backlash against the policy has been astounding, with so-called “Yellow Vests” protests gripping France and forcing the government to suspend the proposed tax earlier this month.
Similarly in Italy, the Cinque Stelle (Five Star) movement went mainstream in part with Green-ish energy policies, such as opposing a new gas pipeline across the Adriatic Sea and aiming to close energy-intensive steel plants. Now in power and faced with the costs and compromises of coalition government, the party has been forced to backtrack on many of these environmental promises.
Remaining popular when the bills come
The LSE / Oxford study (Grant and Bailey) tracked Green parties’ successes over 40 years across 32 countries, and found the parties do best electorally when economies are strong and there are tangible environmental disputes to campaign on. With this in mind, 2019 should be a very good year for the movement. Brexit could upset things but Young Europeans in particular now view climate change as a threat as tangible and urgent as nuclear proliferation a generation earlier.
Under these conditions mainstream parties look set to continue co-opting Green environmental policies so the EUs climate agenda will be easier to implement. For example, Ms. Merkel’s government can retain its commitment to have 65 percent of German energy coming from renewable sources by 2030 with decent support.
So I believe 2019 will be good for the Greens, directly and indirectly – especially if governments heed the lesson from France in the last month that these policies need to demonstrate tangible shorter-term benefits and offset the costs of change for voters if they are to be accepted and succeed.
Joe Mitton is a European political commentator, formerly a diplomat and adviser to the Mayor of London.