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Greens drubbed in EU elections, putting climate policies in jeopardy

BERLIN, GERMANY - JUNE 09: Tino Chrupalla and Alice Weidel, co-leaders of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) political party, celebrate at the AfD election evening gathering following the release of initial election results in European parliamentary elections on June 9, 2024 in Berlin, Germany. Elections to the European Parliament have been taking place since June 6 across European Union member states and are concluding tonight. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)  (Sean Gallup)
By Matina Stevis-Gridneff New York Times

BRUSSELS — There is no sugarcoating it: Losing one-third of their seats in the European Parliament elections last week, the Greens tanked.

The European Union has in recent years emerged as the world’s most ambitious frontier in fighting climate change. It did so through major policy shifts such as setting high targets to cut emissions, preparing to ditch combustion engines, pushing for nature restoration and curbing the effect of farming on the environment. Green parties across the 27 EU member states have successfully driven that agenda.

But over the past few years, something has clearly snapped in much of the European electorate.

European voters are anxious about the war in Ukraine and its effect on defense and the economy. A cost-of-living crisis fueled by the coronavirus pandemic is still gripping core EU members. Curbing immigration has emerged as a voter preoccupation. In this new set of priorities, the Greens’ appeal seems to have faded — or worse, made them appear out of touch.

“Europe really did a lot on climate action,” Bas Eickhout, a prominent Green politician from the Netherlands who serves as the European Greens’ vice president, said in an interview. “But especially after the war in Ukraine and the inflation that has caused the cost-of-living crisis, I think there are a lot of people concerned now and asking, ‘OK, can we afford this?’”

Post-mortem

A number of explanations are emerging as to why the Greens did badly electorally.

Centrist parties nibbled away at the Greens’ support by incorporating much of their agenda into their own policies. Yet, the Greens’ own identity failed to evolve sufficiently. That made the Greens seem too narrowly focused on an issue — the climate — that has slipped down in the ranks of voters’ priorities.

But there is also a broader trend at play that does not favor Europe’s Greens. A backlash against climate change policies as part of broader culture wars has gained momentum.

In many places, the nationalist agendas of far-right parties have been augmented by populist appeals to economically strained citizens. The right surged among voters by targeting the Greens specifically, painting them as unfit to protect poorer working people in rapidly changing societies.

For many voters, Green parties failed to show that their proposals were not just expensive, anti-growth policies that would hurt the poorest the most. And some view them as elitist urbanites who brush aside the costs of the transition to a less climate-harming way of life.

Eickhout said that line of attack on his party had taken hold. “They portray this transition as a very elitist transition, that it’s only for the ‘Tesla people,’” he said. “And I can tell you, Tesla does not have a good image anymore.”

Then there are Europe’s farmers, who protested fiercely against green policies over the past two years, particularly rejecting those seeking to limit the use of chemicals in agriculture and introduce nature protections that would eat away at farmlands. The protests spooked moderate voters and politicians.

In Europe, Green parties polled particularly poorly in countries where they are a part of the governing coalition — primarily in Germany.

The enormous youth movement that had buoyed the Greens to win 1 in 5 votes in Germany five years ago has been punctured by being part of the governing coalition. “The party can’t please the younger progressive voters who they want to welcome into the fold and, at the same time, appease moderate voters who are wealthier,” said Sudha David-Wilp, a regional director at the Berlin office of the German Marshall Fund.

Because Germany is the most populous nation in the EU — and so is allocated the most seats in the European Parliament’s 720-seat assembly — the Greens’ poor performance there reverberated widely.

Green shoots

The picture for the Greens is not dire everywhere. Green parties performed very well in Nordic countries such as Denmark, Finland and Sweden, with one possible reason being higher prosperity and longer debates about climate change.

And they made surprising inroads in eastern and southern Europe, including Italy and Spain, places that have traditionally had weak Green parties and, in some cases, never even elected Green deputies in the European Parliament.

Perhaps the most complex political picture for the Greens emerged in the Netherlands, a country with a particularly powerful climate change movement; a uniquely organized and strong farmers’ movement; and a hugely successful far-right movement that won the national elections late last year.

There, the Greens formally ran together with Labor, a social democratic party, and won the election, relegating the far-right party to second place.

For the Greens, this kind of successful collaboration could be a model for coalitions in upcoming local and national elections elsewhere in the EU, Eickhout said.

“It’s absolutely crucial that the Green party has broader credibility, not only on climate,” he said, adding that collaboration with social democratic parties could help create a compelling progressive alternative to conservatives and the far right, while staying true to the Greens’ climate roots.

Who pays?

The poor showing for the Greens has triggered a chorus of lament, that the European Union Green Deal — as the collection of policies that the bloc has adopted to fight climate change and limit its own contribution to it is known — is dead.

Experts say that these concerns are unrealistic: Many of the policies that are meant to make an ambitious target for reducing carbon emissions possible are already law.

But procrastination and dilution of the policies because of the loss of Green momentum are very real risks, warns Simone Tagliapietra, an EU climate policy expert with Bruegel, a major Brussels-based think tank.

And defunding the Green Deal policies could also crush their effectiveness. To avert that, he added, the EU should push for a joint budget to invest in the green transition and protect the poorest from any economic fallout.

“The radical Green Deal transformation raises tough questions about who will pay,” Tagliapietra said. “If those costs end up falling disproportionately on ordinary workers — let alone the poorest and most vulnerable communities — the transformation will worsen inequality and become socially and politically unviable. That is not an option.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.