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02 June 2023

Not so Green anymore

The Century plant, native to Mexico, is a flower that can reach 30 feet high, stays dormant for 10 to 30 years until it blossoms with a two metre wide rosette in green colours. 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. Over time, it quietly started to set the political agenda in the country. But it properly bloomed only in the last two years in its role as the unstoppable force in the three-party governing coalition of Olaf Scholz. They pulled the plug on nuclear power, and drove the transition to renewable energy. 

In the last few weeks, the Green flower has started to wilt. Voters are starting to count the cost of Green policies. 

Two consecutive events triggered the anti-Green backlash. 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, through declarations of loyalty to the inevitable sacking of the culprit. It was a reminder that Green politicians are not so different after all.

The other, and more important event has been a law to force house owners to switch their heating systems from oil and gas to heat pumps, starting next January. The costs to households are potentially crippling. The estimated cost is £15000 - £40000, depending on the size of the house. In poorer regions, like east Germany, and some pockets in the west, house prices often do not exceed £80,000. The effect of that legislation would be to halve the value of some people's assets.

The government is currently considering ways to compensate the losers. But this is not going to be easy when budgets are tight. Poorer house owners 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 city state of Bremen, a new party that called itself Angry Citizens, came out of nowhere and got 10 per cent, capitalising on what is largely an anti-Green mood.

The backlashed has also reached Brussels. The European People's Party, which represents the centre-right, has called for a regulatory pause on all things green. The party 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 is happening in Europe is a seminal shift with important consequences. The CDU and other parties of the centre-right previously courted the Greens as potential future 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. 

Germany's CDU would be left with exactly two possibilities once you exclude any constellations with the Greens: the first is a grand coalition with the SPD. The other is a coalition with the far right. There is little appetite for the former. Many of the problems Germany has today - over-reliance on Russia and China, underinvestment, and an ill-equipped military - were the result of foul compromises reached by grand coalitions under the leadership of Angela Merkel. 

A coalition with the AfD, the far right, is a taboo for the CDU - for now. But I expect that to change when that becomes the only real power option left. Elsewhere in Europe, this is already starting to happen. The far-right Sweden Democrats have a confidence and supply agreement with a three-party centre-right minority government of Ulf Kristersson. In neighbouring Finland, a new government is being formed right now, where the far-right Finns could end up as a junior coalition partner. 

In Germany, we are not there yet. The far-right Alternative for Germany is polling at 17%. I would put its potential at around 30%. Once it polls at around 20% or more, it will become progressively hard for the centrist parties to form coalitions.

The result is political fragmentation. Politics in the UK or the US are no less fractious, but the conflict is playing out inside the main parties, who are protected by the first-past-the-pole voting system. The shift of the Republicans to the right finds its mirror image in Europe in a coalition 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 European rules, and her support for Nato and Ukraine. Marine Le Pen is more radical. The German AfD is more extreme than both. The party covers the entire far-right spectrum, from democratic nationalists to Neo-Nazis. It was founded by a group of economics professors in opposition to Germany's membership of the euro. They wanted to create a German version of the Tory party, but ended up being pushed out by far right groups that infiltrated the party.

My expectation is that European politics is moving in the same direction as US politics, with the usual delays. It will fragment into two groups. One will be dominated by Green issues, though not necessarily the Green party. The other will define itself in radical opposition to the politics of climate change.

My image of the Greens as a wilting flour is therefore not complete. When some of those sleeper plants die, they often leave behind bulbs. Whatever the future of the Green party itself, its policies will remain - and split the centre right down the middle. 

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