Could 2019 Be the Breakout Year for Europe’s Greens?


The supposition is so widespread that it seems almost a done deal: Twenty nineteen will be the year that right-wing populists overrun the European Parliament and rack up high vote tallies in Denmark, Switzerland, and Greece too—all of which have elections coming up. Apparently Steve Bannon, currently agitating for a nationalist international in Europe, and Hungary’s strongman Viktor Orbán have it all worked out.

But despair may be premature. The nationalist momentum has subsided a tick, polls indicate, the result in part of another force climbing out of the ruins of Europe’s traditional political landscape—the Greens.

Europe’s Green parties recorded best-ever showings in regional votes last year in Germany, Luxembourg, Belgium, and the Netherlands, and they are today, according to polls, flying higher than usual in other countries where the party is much weaker. The emergence of the environmentally minded, left-liberal Greens as a decisive political factor—above all, but not exclusively, in northern Europe—is a rebuke to the national populists and cautious reason for hope. More than any other force, the Green parties stand uncompromisingly against the national populists, challenging the hard right’s race-based, fact-bereft stances on migration, Islam, human rights, identity, the European Union, and, of course, climate change. The Greens have succeeded because they have dared to attack the far rightists’ assumptions rather than—as all of their rivals, including socialists, have—creep onto the far right’s turf with panicked calls to clamp down on “illegal” refugees and other migrants.

This heady revival in the fortunes of the Greens comes after their having been knocked out of many governments and legislatures a decade or so ago. It comes after their having digested the bitter lessons from those defeats, which have enabled them to make unprecedented inroads into the mainstream. It has come at a price, though: The Greens have abandoned much of their countercultural, in-your-face radicalism in the concerted effort to lure more traditionally minded voters.

There’s probably no better example than the German Greens, Europe’s premier Green party, who are currently polling around 20 percent, second only to the Christian Democrats (CDU). This is more than double the Greens’ showing in the 2017 national election. In state elections last fall in traditionally conservative Bavaria as well as in Hesse, home of the financial center Frankfurt, the Greens proved they can sustain their jump in the surveys when they garnered 18 percent and 20 percent, respectively. In the well-heeled southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg, the Greens head up the government, for a second term in a row, now with the CDU as their deputy coalition partner (a humbling place for the once-invincible conservatives there, but, alas, they had no choice other than to languish in opposition). The Greens are in governments in half of Germany’s 16 federal states, in a colorful pastiche of coalitions, including four with conservatives, two with the Social Democrats (SPD), and two all-leftist “red-red-green” governments, with the SPD and Die Linke, Germany’s democratic socialists.

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