Germany’s Green party once made its name campaigning against high military spending, nuclear power and dirty fossil fuels.
Since taking office as part of Olaf Scholz’s three-party “traffic light” coalition government last December, however, Die Grünen have become the Bundestag’s most vocal advocates of supporting the Ukrainian resistance with heavy weapons. They have extended the running time of three nuclear power stations due to shut down at the end of the year, reactivated mothballed coal plants and built the country’s first terminals for importing fossil fuel in liquefied form.
More surprisingly still, voters seem to like it.
Unlike their two power-sharing partners, the centre-left SPD and the liberal FDP, the Greens are currently polling at a higher share of the vote than they achieved at federal elections last September. Their two most prominent politicians, the foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, and energy minister, Robert Habeck, have the highest approval ratings in the country. One year in, the environmental party can justifiably called one of the first winners of the post-Angela Merkel era.
“The Greens have proven that they are ready to govern”, said Andrea Römmele, a professor of political science at Berlin’s Hertie School of Governance. “In politics you campaign in poetry and govern in prose, and they have come across as a party that doesn’t just want to work through their manifesto but engage with new challenges.”
Both of the Greens’ leading lights have sought to present theirs as a party of doers, crossing over red lines of old in surprisingly fleet-footed fashion along the way.
In spite of having campaigned on the promise to oppose “the export of weapons and armaments into war zones” as recently as September 2021, it was Baerbock who openly questioned Scholz’s reluctance to ship tanks to Ukraine this summer.
Seemingly drained of confidence at the end of her unsuccessful run for the chancellery, she has looked in her element since taking charge of the foreign ministry, facing up to Russia’s foreign minister with an unsentimental candour that her predecessors have lacked.
On a trip to Nigeria at the start of this week, where Baerbock and the German culture commissioner, Claudia Roth, handed back 20 museum artefacts once looted from the kingdom of Benin, a generational shift between the two former Green party leaders was palpable.
Where 67-year-old Roth was enthusiastic and effusive, her 42-year-old party ally showed flashes of steel even at the emotional handover ceremony, at one point using praise of a female royal’s mask to politely reprimand her Nigerian counterpart for the low percentage of women in his government.
Baerbock’s former co-leader Habeck, meanwhile, has been forced to make choices that contradict his party’s championing of renewables as Russia’s war in Ukraine upended decades of German energy policy.
But he has done so with vigour: under his direction the economic ministry has passed 29 new laws within the first 11 months – his predecessors in each of last three electoral terms managed 40-odd in four years.
Habeck has nationalised the energy company Uniper, the country’s largest importer of gas, put the German subsidiaries of Russian companies Rosneft and Gazprom into trusteeships, and managed to fill the country’s gas storage tanks to 100% by the start of winter, in spite of a complete ceasing of deliveries from Russia. If the country can avoid a scenario of gas rationing this winter, it will be in large part due to putting pragmatism above ideological posturing.
“This government inherited a complete shambles and is at least showing the kind of ambition and dynamism in trying to clean up the mess that its predecessors lacked,” said Claudia Kemfert, an energy expert at the German Economic Institute. “It’s making mistakes – but it’s also getting a lot of things right.”
Blaming governments of the past for Germany’s current energy dilemma won’t serve the Greens for the length of a four-year term, however, especially if there is a sense that its own ideological red lines helped create the predicament in the first place.
Confidence in Habeck’s ability to steer the economy clear of trouble took a dent over the autumn, as he U-turned on a series of new policies.
Putting Germany’s three remaining nuclear power stations, due to be phased out by the end of the year, into an “emergency reserve” standby status before announcing two would need to remain on the grid until next April was a cumbersome move, seemingly prioritising procedure over outcome.
Since the Greens’ identity is less tailored to Habeck than the SPD’s to Scholz or the FDP’s to the finance minister, Christian Lindner, the reputation damage was limited. Still, for a moment Die Grünen looked like the party of can’t-do.
“We have seen a lot of frantic activity in Habeck’s ministry, but not always an underlying sense of direction”, said Uwe Leprich, a climate policy specialist at the Saarland University of Applied Sciences. “He seems to have surrounded himself with advisers who are set on intervening in the market as little as possible,” said Leprich.
One of the qualities that enabled Habeck’s and Baerbock’s rise was rhetorical skills that contrasted starkly with the taciturn ways with words of both Scholz and his predecessor as chancellor, Merkel. But such unfamiliar focus on outward-facing communication has also triggered some yearnings for the non-transparent backroom dealings of yesteryear.
“A pragmatic business manager may have found a way to continue shipping in some Russian gas to keep down prices, like France and Japan did,” said Leprich. France became the world’s number one importer of Russian liquefied natural gas in April and May, and was still shipping in between 7-9% of its gas requirements from Russia in early September.
The Green party’s message, in spite of the temporary and limited extension of nuclear running times, is that Germany can and must go 100% for renewable sources of energy.
But while renewable sources are still subject to sudden weather-dependent fluctuations, gas-powered plants that could be quickly switched on and off were a key component of the national energy strategy as sold to the electorate by German governments – including this one. “Natural gas is irreplaceable for the transition period,” says the Scholz cabinet’s coalition treaty signed by the Greens last September.
“The debate right now should be: what energy source do we combine renewables with?” said Johannes Güntert of Project Planet A, a small thinktank that tries to pitch an “eco-modernist” alternative to the Green’s current renewables vision. “The German Greens, who were founded as an anti-nuclear rather than a climate protection party, are sadly not unbiased in answering that question.”
If high gas prices and energy shortages force German businesses to close down or relocate in the coming 12 months, the Greens may need to search even more deeply in their party’s soul to retain a reputation as the doers of this government.