The German Greens

Jon Worth

Jon Worth authors one of the longest running blogs on EU affairs and is one of the most active Twitter users debating EU politics. He has been widely quoted in the media on the EU and Brexit, and has appeared on live television and radio in English, French and German. He has published articles for new sources such as LabourList, Politico Europe, and Guardian Comment is Free. Worth has also authored chapters from the books How to Work with the EU Institutions: A Practical Guide to Successful Public Affairs in the EU, and Geschlossene Gesellschaften? Beteiligungsprozesse, Medien und Öffentlichkeiten in Europa. Worth regularly makes speeches and presentations at events and training courses across Europe. Outside of blogging, Worth is a self-employed consultant on online communications for political purposes. He is deputy chair of the EU Committee of the Grüne and a member of the Europe Policy Group of the World Economic Forum and the Advisory Group of Transparency International’s EU office. Worth was in the 2012 cohort of Europanova’s 40 Under 40 European Young Leaders programme, and a former President of the Young European Federalists. Worth has been listed by Euractiv as among the 40 most influential Britons on EU policy. He previously worked as a civil servant in London, and as an assistant in the European Parliament in Brussels. Worth speaks fluent English, French, and German, as well as intermediate Swedish and Italian. He holds a BA in Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) from Merton College, University of Oxford, and a MA in European Politics from the College of Europe, Bruges.

On the verge of entering government? Or even able to name Germany’s next Chancellor?

March 14, 2021, was the day when Germany’s mega election year suddenly burst into life. Elections in the states Baden-Württemberg (results) and Rhineland-Palatinate (results), both in the prosperous southwest of Germany, were the first in this year that features elections in six of Germany’s sixteen states and culminates with the September 26 federal election.

In both Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate, the Green Party (Bündnis 90/Die Grünen) scored their best results ever, and in both states, Germany’s traditional governing party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) scored its worst results ever. In Baden-Württemberg the state minister-president Winfried Kretschmann is a Green, and he will continue to govern with the CDU as junior coalition partner, while in Rhineland-Palatinate the Greens will be junior partners in a Social Democrat (SPD) led administration, with the Free Democrats (FDP) also in the coalition.

Since March 14, even the national opinion polls have begun to shift – showing further losses for the CDU buffeted by a series of scandals and Germany’s slow COVID vaccine rollout and further polling gains for the Greens. The latest polling puts the CDU together with its Bavarian sister party the CSU at 27 percent, the Greens just four points behind at 23 percent.

It is almost an odds-on certainty that the Greens will return to government for the first time since 2005.

A few short months ago, it looked like one coalition government – CDU-Green – was the overwhelming favorite to emerge after the September 26 election, but the poor results for the CDU in the two state elections and its polling position suddenly open up the prospects for two other possible coalitions – Green-SPD-FDP (so-called traffic light coalition, from the parties’ colors) and Green-SPD-Left (green-red-red). A further option – CDU-SPD – can effectively be discounted as an option as the SPD does not want to suffer in a coalition with the CDU again as it has for the past eight years.

That means it is almost an odds-on certainty that the Greens will return to government for the first time since 2005, when the two-term SPD-Green Schröder-Fischer government came to an end. In the meantime, the Greens have been steadily gaining ground at the state level – the party has the minister-president of one state (Baden-Württemberg) and is junior coalition partner in ten other states. Party membership and organizational strength have been growing too – the party now has a membership of over 100,000 for the first time in its history.

The challenge for non-German audiences is to understand what the Green Party would do in government and how to understand this party that grew out of the anti-nuclear and pacifist movement. In their stance against nuclear power and nuclear weapons, and with an enduring policy of disarmament and multilateralism, the Greens remain true to their roots in these areas. And in terms of style – you are more likely to see wooly jumpers and Birkenstocks at a party congress than smart suits – the party looks different from the usual. But when it comes to a whole slew of policy areas, the party takes a radical but solutions-orientated approach, ready to take responsibility in government to shake up the German government for the sake of the future.

Combatting climate change is the party’s overarching goal – expect much more radical solutions on phase-out of oil-burning vehicles and a redoubling of efforts to generate more electricity from renewables if the Greens enter government. When it comes to social policy and taxation the Greens lean left and are willing to contemplate a loosening of Germany’s strict government anti-deficit policy. When it comes to lifestyle choices the Greens are as liberal as they come, and with regard to the European Union, the party is as pro-EU as there is in Germany – solving transnational problems with transnational institutions is a core part of the party’s approach.

But when it comes to a whole slew of policy areas, the party takes a radical but solutions-orientated approach, ready to take responsibility in government to shake up the German government for the sake of the future.

In terms of where the Greens’ voters come from, the largest share comes from ex-SPD voters, with lower shares coming from ex-CDU voters and previous non-voters. The party’s support is younger, more urban, more university-educated, and higher-earning than voters of the SPD – this does not fit a traditional left-right take on voting behavior.

What would all of this mean, in practice, for Germany’s future government?

If the fall of the CDU is somehow arrested in the next couple of months, a CDU/CSU-Green coalition would offer the most predictable and stable government for the four years after the election. The CDU would bring governing experience, while the Greens would bring a freshness and radicalism that has been lacking in the latter Merkel years. Junior coalition partners in Germany generally are allocated the Foreign Minister position, although in the current coalition the junior partner controls the Finance Ministry as well – a tactic that the Greens would seek to emulate.

A Green-led government – with SPD and FDP or SPD and Left as coalition partners – would be a marked departure from the style and substance of the Merkel years, but such a government would be neither unstable nor unpredictable.

But with opinion polling looking good for the party, the Greens – for the first time in their history – need to seriously answer the Kanzlerfrage (the Chancellor question). Were the Greens to lead a coalition and determine who Merkel’s successor would be, which Green politician would get the nod?

As the party in Germany most committed to gender equality, the Greens have traditionally had a gender-balanced joint leadership – currently, the two officeholders are Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habeck. But as Habeck has acknowledged, only one person can be Chancellor. And the bad news for Habeck is that it looks unlikely to be him. Not only would it be strange for the Greens to send a fifty-something man into the election running against other parties likewise led by middle-aged men, but Baerbock’s support within the party is stronger than Habeck’s.

A Green-led government – with SPD and FDP or SPD and Left as coalition partners – would be a marked departure from the style and substance of the Merkel years, but such a government would be neither unstable nor unpredictable. The Greens are far too professional for that these days, and Germany’s politics less marked by the short-term populism that besets other European countries. It would be easier for the Greens to compromise with the Left than with the FDP within a coalition but both options are viable.

So, in this vital election year in Germany, and as Merkel bows out, the Greens are ideally placed to step up – and possibly to get the biggest job of all, with a Chancellor Baerbock following Chancellor Merkel. It is going to be an interesting six months in German politics!

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.