Zack Blumberg: The European left’s future looks green

Wednesday, July 31, 2019 - 6:32pm

For the past several years, European political coverage has focused almost solely on the rise of the far right — and not without reason. Far-right parties have gained voters in “progressive” countries like Germany and France, and have even managed to win outright majorities in Poland and Hungary. However, while the far-right may be grabbing all the headlines, another movement is beginning to make its presence felt in European politics: green parties.

Long thought of as the quirky little brother of the European left, green parties across Europe have recently emerged as legitimate electoral powers capable of winning seats in Parliaments and impacting mainstream political discourse. Green parties throughout Europe have crafted a wholly progressive identity which sets them apart from traditional center-left parties, focusing not only on environmental protection (as the name would suggest), but also on fighting economic inequality and promoting multiculturalism. In an era where political leanings correlate heavily with age and education level, the Greens seem to be the leftist party of the future, with ideologies that are highly attractive to young and well-educated voters. 

Compared to established parties, European green parties are a relatively new phenomenon. The German Green Party, probably the biggest and most influential in Europe, wasn’t founded until 1980, while Germany’s premier center-left party, the SPD, was founded in 1875. Similarly, the French, Austrian and Dutch Green Parties weren’t established until 1984, 1986 and 1989, respectively. During their early years, green parties across the continent found little success, and were often barely able to win seats in their respective nations’ parliaments. The German Greens consistently won only about 6 percent of the vote during the two decades after their founding, and their most notable contribution was controversy, which they provided when their members chose to wear sweaters and other business-casual attire into the Bundestag (German government building) instead of suits.

Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, European Green Parties remained largely irrelevant. In many cases they were their nation’s third-most influential leftist party, behind both traditional moderate leftist parties and free-market centrist parties, who were often key for forming left-wing coalitions. Though they would occasionally serve in these governing coalitions, they were never major players, and their views were often outside the mainstream left.

However, the 2019 European Parliamentary Elections were a watershed moment for the Greens. After winning 48 seats in the 2009 elections and 50 in the 2014 elections, the Green Coalition won 74 seats in the 2019 elections, placing them fourth overall (and ahead of the highly-touted far-right coalition). Crucially, Greens did well in several major countries: they came second in Germany, and third in France and the UK. This showing seems to have boosted the domestic fortunes of green parties across the continent: The Greens are now polling as the second-most popular party in Germany, and are gaining popularity in France and Austria as well. 

Looking at the foundations of the Green Party movement, it's actually not surprising that the Greens are on the rise across Europe, as the party has successfully corned two demographic groups: young voters and highly-educated voters. The Green’s flagship issue is climate change, due to citizens across the continent becoming more and more concerned about the threat it poses. A Pew Survey from 2017 found that 64 percent of Europeans believed climate change was a major threat to their respective counties. Unsurprisingly, the age demographic most concerned with climate change was young people, something which translates to support for green parties; in the 2017 German Elections, Green Party voters had the lowest average age.

Additionally, another Pew survey found that, while young European voters are just as likely as the general populace to be leftist, they are less supportive of traditional moderate leftist parties, leaving an opening on which the Green Party can capitalize. As climate change becomes an even more important issue going forward, the Greens’ progressive stance will likely pay dividends, allowing parties across Europe to capture a greater and greater share of young and environmentally conscious voters. 

In addition to protecting the environment, green parties also promote diversity and multiculturalism, which helps them appeal to more educated European voters. Surveyed citizens of nearly every European country say their nation has become more diverse in the past 20 years, making diversity a political issue. While there is no overwhelming consensus on the merits of diversity, the young and well-educated strongly favor it and believe it is a positive development.

By focusing on climate change and diversity, green parties throughout Europe have set themselves up to be the leftist parties of the future. While green parties support the standard economically progressive ideas that all leftist parties support, their specific focus on issues beyond that has allowed them to win new voters who felt unimpressed with center-left establishment parties. Though left-wing views have historically been associated with lower-class urban workers (many of whom were part of labor unions, hence the birth of “labor” parties), this connection weakened over time as demographics shifted. As working-class union members were primarily interested in leftist economic policies, which ensured they would be protected from corporate overlords, labor parties are lead to focus primarily on fighting economic inequality. However, times have changed, and the Greens’ environmentally and socially conscious brand of progressivism is well-suited for contemporary Europe, where left-wing voters are increasingly more likely to be young, well-educated and urban. Though it won’t happen instantly, and it may take years, if not decades, the Greens’ vision for contemporary leftism will allow green parties across the continent win over new voters and grow into major political forces.

Zack Blumberg can be reached at zblumber@umich.edu.