A Green Wave in Germany?

Main Image Credit Germany's Green Party after the Bavaria state election, October 2018. Courtesy of Wikiolio/Wikimedia Commons.

The meteoric rise of what used to be a single-issue party has the potential to transform Germany’s politics and international posture just as much as the forthcoming election of a new Chancellor.

The reign of Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel is coming to an end. In 2021 – at the latest – Germany will have a new Chancellor, for the first time since 2005. All eyes are therefore on next week’s conference of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, where her successor at the head of the party, and quite potentially in the Chancellery, will be elected. Yet, the most dynamic force in German politics at the moment is found elsewhere and has largely flown below the radar of international observers: it’s the Green Party.

In recent state elections in Bavaria and Hesse, the Greens have celebrated big successes and are now the second strongest party behind the CDU. The Greens are benefiting from the slump in popularity of the two traditional Volksparteien (mass-movement people’s parties, as they are frequently referred to in German political parlance) – the CDU and the Social Democratic Party (SPD) – as voters are increasingly tired and unhappy with their grand coalition in Berlin. While the CDU is hoping for a revival with a new leader, the SPD is in deep crisis with no obvious way out.

The Green Party’s rise comes on the heels of the so-called Jamaica failure in 2017 – the ultimately futile coalition talks between the CDU, Liberals and Greens which were known as the ‘Jamaica’ option because the parties’ colours are the same as the flag of the Caribbean nation – and the formation of a new Green party leadership duo. Robert Habeck and Annalena Baerbock have given the party new energy and charisma. German media is comparing them to Green Party icon and former Foreign Minister and Vice Chancellor Joschka Fischer, who long held the title of ‘Germany’s most popular politician’.

Both Habeck and Baerbock come from the pragmatic and realistic side of the party, as opposed to the more radical and idealist wing, and are therefore at least partially responsible for broadening the party’s appeal. Yet, they also remain true to the Greens’ long-established environmental focus. Baerbock is an expert on climate change, while the immensely popular Habeck has been minister for the environment in Schleswig-Holstein.

In the international press the Greens’ rise has largely gone unnoticed with the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) taking most of the limelight. While on opposite ends of the political spectrum, both parties are benefiting from the growing appeal of identity politics. The AfD is pushing a dark, xenophobic narrative of a country overrun by refugees and migrants. The Greens, meanwhile, are taking no less decisive, but much more positive positions: they proudly stand for environmentalism, gender equality and diversity – all while promoting economically centrist ideas.

The Greens’ recent electoral successes and a surge in national polls – 21% say they would vote for the Greens if elections were held this week, only 6% behind the CDU and 6% ahead of the SPD – suggest that they may very well be involved in the next German government. It is therefore worth taking a look at the party’s actual policies.

Long considered a ‘Programmpartei’ (single-issue party), rather than a ‘Volkspartei’ with an all-encompassing policy portfolio, the Green Party’s societal and environment-focused policies are well-established. In matters of security, foreign and defence policy, however, things remain more ambiguous.

The Greens’ ideas are perhaps clearest in the area of migration and asylum – arguably the single most important policy issue of the day in Germany and across the European continent. The party unashamedly stands for a Germany open to refugees and asylum seekers (and even advocates steps such as allowing them to vote in local elections). At the same time, other areas of immigration are to be more closely controlled; seeking a compromise between those liberal and sceptical towards immigration, the Greens want to introduce a ‘points system’ or ‘talent card’. Beyond Germany’s borders, the party wants to address the migration crisis upstream, placing a humanitarian focus on supporting countries hosting large numbers of refugees, such as Jordan and Lebanon.

On other internal security issues, however, the Greens’ programme is much vaguer and has a bit of a ‘feel-good’ air to it. According to its website, the party wants to improve and specialise the police, reform the ‘Verfassungsschutz’ (the interior intelligence agency responsible for counter-terrorism measures), and put an end to data saving on internet and phone traffic. It also wants stricter rules on the possession of weapons, better radicalisation prevention and a tougher stance on far-right hate crime. Yet, below the headlines, actual policy measures remain vague and – arguably – more rooted in the idealistic wing of the party.

This continues in the foreign affairs and defence portfolios. There is a call for disarmament and arms control, staunch opposition to raising the defence budget to NATO’s 2% goal, as well as a focus on human rights promotion and conflict prevention (mostly emphasising security sector reform and development assistance).

In its commentary on current international issues, the party has moved between mainstream opinions (criticising the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal), expected left-wing views (condemning new trade deals with the USA, including the import of liquid gas and soy), and – for the German left – more surprising positions, such as demanding an overhaul of the European policy towards Russia involving harsher sanctions to punish Russian behaviour in Ukraine.

Some of these positions on security, defence and foreign affairs raise questions about how compatible the Greens would be in a coalition scenario, particularly with the conservative CDU. For the moment, much of the party’s programme in these areas is typical of a party that is not in government and can make big promises without having to follow through.

Some of the ambiguity and vagueness contained in the Green Party’s policies could indicate room for compromise. But moving too far and walking back too many of its positions could open the party up to accusations that it is betraying its own ideological framework in an attempt to finally return to government (the Greens served in Germany’s coalition government from 1998 to 2005).

Finding the fine line between pragmatism and selling out will likely be the central challenge for Habeck and Baerbock going forward. Their predecessors were harshly criticised for their willingness to drop the party’s goal of a cut-off date for the ban on combustion engines in 2030 during the Jamaica negotiations in 2017.

With the survival of the current coalition in Berlin until 2021 far from assured, this test may well come sooner rather than later. As for many other German Programmeparteien, the need to compromise to get into power may lead to a reversal of the Greens’ fortunes.

However, with political dynamics shifting across Europe – and Germany specifically – this is no forgone conclusion. If Habeck and Baerbock continue to succeed in striking the balance between pragmatism and idealism, the two forces driving their party’s surge in popularity, they have a chance to establish the Green Party as one of the most important forces shaping German politics in the post-Merkel era.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the authors', and do not necessarily represent those of RUSI or any other institution.


Juliana Suess

Project Officer and Research Analyst

RUSI International

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Dr Tobias Borck

Research Fellow for Middle East Security Studies

International Security Studies

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