Europe’s Greens are on the ropes

Europe’s Greens are on the ropes
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Farmers’ ire and a right-wing surge is testing the EU’s climate goals. And the Greens that backed them are teetering.

BRUSSELS — The green wave is over. 

The parties that roared to their best-ever results in 2019’s EU election on the back of mass climate protests led by Greta Thunberg are now facing a farmer-fueled backlash that is endangering their prized Green Deal. 

Europe is rocking with farmers demanding exemptions from environmental rules. Nationalist parties are fanning the flames. And far-right parties in places like Germany and France are surging.

The Greens now face a stark choice as they strategize for their next big electoral test in the June EU elections: compromise to save the best of the Green Deal or stick to their ideals and risk their calls for a greener agenda being sidelined. 

“I’m ready to compromise — but then knowing that you need to compromise to get something,” said Bas Eickhout, a Dutch European Parliament member expected to be chosen as a co-leader of the Greens’ EU election campaign during a party congress in Lyon this weekend.

The prospects of pulling off another green wave look slim, if not impossible. 

In the upcoming EU elections, the Greens — who vaulted to become the Parliament’s fourth-largest group in the 2019 elections — are poised to lose about a third of their 72 seats, according to POLITICO’s Poll of Polls. Some of their most experienced legislators who shaped the faction’s European policies in recent years are also departing. 

It gets worse. 

EU environment chief Virginijus Sinkevičius — the only commissioner nominated by a green party — will not have a second stint in the role. Meanwhile, his erstwhile boss — and long-term EU climate czar — Frans Timmermans has long since returned to Dutch politics. Talks to coax Italy’s 5Star Movement to join — which could add to the Greens’ numerical strength in the next Parliament — have also hit a dead end. 

The ramifications are potentially damning: The Greens could be pushed to the sidelines of climate policy decision-making in the next Parliament, have little sway over Europe’s legislative agenda in the next European Commission and be forced to watch as a more right-leaning EU assembly slows down or even repeals large parts of the Green Deal.

“The risk is real,” said `Belgian MEP Philippe Lamberts, who is a co-leader of the Greens’ faction in the Parliament. 

“Everyone is green as long as it’s free of charge. Once it starts costing someone a penny then they all scatter,” he lamented.

Lamberts will not be around to stave off the backlash, however. He’s stepping down at the end of this term.

Better in or out?

The key question facing the Greens is how they can keep exerting influence, even if their ranks thin out after the upcoming elections. 

The center-right European People’s Party — expected to be the largest group with some room to maneuver on votes — will likely be able to choose whether to make deals with politicians to the right or the left, as it sees fit.

“What is important,” said a Greens/EFA official who spoke on condition of anonymity, “is that we push the EPP more close to a pro-European camp, than to the ECR” — the nationalist European Conservatives and Reformists group.

Already, the EPP has flirted with the right in recent months, as EPP leader Manfred Weber mounted an aggressive campaign against several new Green Deal laws, marching alongside far more conservative MEPs. A draft of the EPP’s EU election manifesto also proposes to abolish plans to end all new sales of combustion engine cars by 2035 — a key Green Deal pillar.

Still, the EPP’s standard bearer is Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, an architect and champion of the EU’s Green Deal. Von der Leyen is widely expected to seek a second term atop the EU’s executive and the Greens will want to extract concessions in exchange for their support. (MEPs must approve Commission presidential nominees in a secret vote.)

Back in 2019, the Greens did not back von der Leyen, despite her putting climate policies center stage. But five years later, the stakes of formally cooperating with other centrist and progressive political forces are higher, said Anna Cavazzini, a German Green MEP. 

“It is more important, but not only for us as a political force but I think also for a general pro-European cause, it is important that a majority will not be formed with the far right,” she said. 

But can the Greens be trusted? MEPs of other political stripes have accused the group of being a fickle and unreliable negotiating partner, pointing to their choice to run a candidate against Roberta Metsola to be Parliament president in 2022 while other groups accepted concessions in exchange for support.

“In terms of reliability, when we get our stuff in [legislative] texts then — and I’ve made that my whole mark — we deliver,” Lamberts said, chiding the EPP for reneging in public on deals made in closed-door talks.

A key test case of the Greens’ recent dilemma between pragmatism and idealism came during the emotional internal negotiations over whether to approve conservative candidate Wokpe Hoesktra as the EU’s new climate commissioner last October. 

At the crunch moment in Strasbourg, Eickhout shed tears as he corralled enough members to back Hoesktra, despite huge reservations. “He’s a radical-realo like me,” Lamberts said about his Greens colleague.

“We should put the bar high but not so high that they can’t jump it,” he added, recalling his strategy with the Commission over that decision. 

“It is very clear that we Greens will never be part of anything if there is not a very clear follow-up on the Green Deal,” Eickhout said.

In a Parliament with more far-left and many more far-right MEPs, von der Leyen will need to reach beyond the three traditional center-ground parties — conservatives, socialists and liberals — to secure a second term in the Berlaymont.

“Then the choice is very clear: It’s either ECR or us,” said Lamberts, referencing the group that includes the likes of Italy’s far-right leader Giorgia Meloni and Poland’s nationalist Law & Justice party.

“Ursula von der Leyen will have to decide at a certain point: What is she standing for?” said Thomas Waitz, an Austrian Green who jointly leads the Greens’ pan-EU party, the European Greens.

“Is she standing for a progressive, or at least a pro-European reasonable, value-based course? Or is she actually standing for the cooperation with the far right, and for actually questioning our European unity?” he asked.

Stay positive

So how do the Greens survive in a green-backlash world? 

Their answer: Stay the course, and keep the faith. Green policies have won before and will win again, senior politicians insist, sometimes with almost religious fervor.

“I’m actually quite optimistic that we will come back to comparable strength as we have now,” Waitz said, adding that the fact that the Greens are in government in six EU countries portrays them as more reasonable across the Continent. The Greens are also hoping to boost their numbers with some MEPs from the Spanish left-wing platform Sumar after the June election.

The party’s draft EU election manifesto, which is up for debate at the party congress in Lyon this weekend, remains ambitious, calling for the EU to hit climate neutrality by 2040 — a decade earlier than currently planned. Such a move would require speedier changes and even more costly investments.

In contrast, the EPP is rebelling internally over the Commission’s plans to publish a much lower and non-binding 2040 target.

The Greens’ EU campaign strategy is about repackaging existing climate-friendly proposals and tailoring them to a current context marked by a cost-of-living crisis, explained Mélanie Vogel, co-chair of the European Green Party. 

“The greens are very pragmatic. I don’t think that it’s something new that we need to be pragmatic,” Vogel argued.

Will the Greens step up?

“We stand ready for negotiating and exploring,” said Cavazzini, the German Green MEP. “Not at all costs.” 

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