(Bloomberg Opinion) — Europe’s Green parties are having the best kind of midlife crisis. Born in the radical and hirsute counterculture of the 1970s, their movement is now entering not only middle age but also the hallways of power. Having grown big, though, the Greens must now grow up.
The Greens owe their recent surge in the polls partly to the “Greta wave,” the new zeitgeist of climate consciousness. But they also benefit from a reaction by urban and educated Europeans against the rise of populist parties. Increasingly, the European Union’s voters are leaving the traditional big-tent blocs for the relative clarity of the poles: populists demanding closed societies or Greens defending openness.
In Austria, the Greens could soon replace the far right as junior partners in a national government. In Germany, they’ve been rising in the polls since 2017, and are becoming strong runners-up to the prevailing center-right bloc. They’re already partners in nine out of 16 state governments — and soon two more — and thus have sway over a majority in the upper house of parliament, where they’ve promised to raise the roof when the lower house sends a watered-down climate bill.
The current Greening of Europe is the movement’s second run at power. Starting in the 1990s, Green parties were at various times part of national governments in Belgium, the Czech Republic, Finland, France, Ireland and Germany. Latvia in 2004 even briefly had a Green prime minister.
But those were different times and different Greens. The parties hadn’t yet resolved their internal confusion. Did they want to be, in the German jargon, radical “fundis” or pragmatic “realos”?
Many of the EU’s Green parties started out as collections of warring fundi cliques. Some were devoted myopically to ending nuclear power, or to veganism, recycling or pacifism. Others had communist fantasies, or stood for sexual liberation. They could afford these eccentricities because they didn’t really expect to carry political responsibility.
Times have changed. These days, carbon dioxide emissions are a bigger threat than nuclear power plants. Vladimir Putin in Moscow and Donald Trump in Washington make purist pacifism untenable. Mass migration is testing the limits of Europe’s “welcome culture.”
But arguably the biggest challenge is to bring the planet’s ecologic and economic destinies into harmony. The Greens have always, at least rhetorically, cared about the former, while showing disdain for the latter, with their distrust of markets. Growing up means overcoming that false dichotomy. Instead of badmouthing business, for example, it makes better sense to put a price on carbon and let markets adjust to it.
In this context, the most encouraging place in Europe may be Baden-Wuerttemberg, one of Germany’s richest and most successful states. For 58 years, it was ruled by conservatives; for the past eight, the Greens have been in charge. Its premier, Winfried Kretschmann, epitomizes the evolution other Greens should make. He entered political life in the 1970s in a Marxist-Leninist student group. Today, he’s the quintessential realo: He hobnobs with citizens, entrepreneurs and bosses alike, loves both bicycles and Mercedes, and wants people to make money, but without polluting.
Kretschmann’s Greens are interested not in wealth taxes and soaking the rich, but in innovation. For instance, they’ve brought together their state’s car industry — the likes of Daimler AG, Robert Bosch GmbH and Porsche Automobil Holding SE — with universities, unions and laboratories, so that together they can make German cars not only fancy but also electric.
This is the direction Europe’s Greens should take. They need to embrace markets and capitalism, but update both for the global struggle against climate change. It’s a pity that Europe’s Liberal parties haven’t yet risen to this challenge. They’re leaving a void in the political spectrum. The Greens should fill it.
— Editors: Andreas Kluth, Timothy Lavin.
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