Germany’s Green party turns 40 this year, yet there is little sign of a looming midlife crisis.
Polls suggest the party — once a byword for fringe radicalism — would win 18 per cent of the vote if an election was held now, making it the second-largest group in parliament. At the regional level, the Greens form part of the government in nine out of 16 federal states. Back in Berlin, speculation abounds over whether the party is on course to eclipse the tired-looking Social Democrats (SPD) as the leading force of the German left.
The Greens’ new confidence is embodied by Robert Habeck, a novelist-turned-politician who was elected co-leader of the environmental party last year. A ubiquitous presence on television talk shows, Mr Habeck makes no secret of his party’s ambitions. “We no longer want to stand at the margins, and only represent a certain milieu. We want to be in the centre of the political debate,” he told the Financial Times in an interview.
“To overtake the SPD is not a goal in itself. We stand for a political approach that is progressive, pro-European and pro-environment — and if the result of that is that we are ahead of the SPD then so be it,” he added. “We are certainly not afraid of assuming the leadership role in the centre-left camp.”
Senior Social Democrats and some political analysts are not entirely convinced. They point out that the Greens have a history of surging in the polls halfway through a parliamentary term — only to crash back to earth at the next serious electoral test. The party polled in the double figures in 2011 and 2016, for example, but scored just 9 per cent in the 2017 general election, following a lacklustre campaign in which the party often seemed out of step with the national mood.
According to Mr Habeck, however, that particular criticism no longer rings true. He argues that Green issues such as climate change and the environment, gender equality and the push for further European integration have rarely met a more receptive audience. “The Green programme has become the new normal in society,” he said.
At the same time, he argued that the party represented a degree of continuity in German politics, a commitment to uphold political positions that once underpinned the old West Germany. “Our view is that we stand very much in the tradition of the old federal republic of Germany,” Mr Habeck said.
“There was always a consensus in Germany that we should support deeper European integration. So when we say today that we want a eurozone budget or that we want the internal market to also have a social element we are actually continuing a tradition that was embraced by Germany’s Christian Democrats, and by Helmut Kohl in particular,” he added.
The Green journey from the leftwing fringe to the soft political centre was highlighted in the wake of the 2017 general election, when the party came close to striking a coalition deal with Angela Merkel’s CDU and the pro-business Free Democrats. The negotiations broke down eventually, but the Greens’ readiness to make common cause with parties across the spectrum remains notable. At the regional level, it has formed coalition governments with five different parties, from the conservative CDU to the far-left Die Linke.
That flexibility, said Mr Habeck, was one of the hallmarks of the Greens today — and an important reason why the movement could thrive in an era of political fragmentation. On issues such as European integration, the party was happy to make common cause with free-market business associations and the German conservatives. On climate change, it would go looking for allies elsewhere. “We are heading towards a much more flexible and goal-orientated political system in which your strength depends to a large degree on the sum of your political connections,” he said. “The inability to strike a compromise is not a political strength.”
Alliances between the Greens and Ms Merkel’s CDU — known in German political jargon as “black-green” coalitions — have become commonplace in recent years. But such tie-ups could become harder as the new party leader, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, tries to win back lost ground on the political right.
“I don’t like what is happening in the CDU now. They are once again trying to hold up the environment and the economy as opposites. They have become more backward in terms of refugee policy, and it also seems OK once again to make jokes about minorities,” Mr Habeck said, in a reference to remarks made by Ms Kramp-Karrenbauer during a recent carnival speech. “The distance between the CDU and the Greens is growing once again.”
One party that the Greens clearly define themselves against is the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), the other great beneficiary of the splintering of German politics. Polls suggest the AfD is losing ground, giving Mr Habeck hope that the far-right resurgence in Germany may have passed its zenith. “The AfD is no longer able to dominate the political discussion in the way they did in recent years . . . We have seen that the AfD is beatable. This sense of despondency — that everything is about to go to hell — is no longer there,” he said.
Mr Habeck — who shares the party leadership job with Annalena Baerbock — has emerged as perhaps the most high-profile Green politician of recent years. Admirers mention his literary hinterland (among other endeavours, he has translated the British poet Ted Hughes) and occasional wild-man antics (he stage-dived into a crowd of Green supporters after last year’s Bavarian regional election). Critics accuse him of being vacuous and smug, pointing to a burst of Twitter gaffes in which he suggested that certain regions of Germany were lacking in democracy.
The backlash was fierce, prompting Mr Habeck to cancel his social media accounts. Twitter in particular, he argued, was a medium that encouraged “divisive and polarising” communication.
Two months into his social media detox, the Green leader said he had no regrets. “I have become more relaxed,” he said. “Occasionally, something happens on Twitter that would have annoyed me all day, and now I only hear about it the next morning.”