Green is the future of Germany. In opinion polls, German voters consistently rank the climate crisis as the most or second-most important political issue. While other concerns – the pandemic, employment and fiscal stability, migration and integration, Afghanistan and terrorism, relations with the US or Russia, or the antics of populist governments in the neighbourhood – rise and fall, the climate issue remains a top priority. Over the past two years, egged on by the Fridays for Future demonstrations — led by young voters and followed by their parents and grandparents — all democratic parties have responded accordingly and now include climate action in their election campaign manifestos.
This is water to the Green party’s mills, which is in a long-term ascendence to power at a time when the grand old parties of the center-left, the Social Democrats (SPD), and the center-right (CDU/CSU) coalition of Christian parties are in decline. Germany’s upcoming federal election on the 26th of September 2021 will be just another milestone in the Greens’ long advance. They will win the election, even if they won’t become the largest party in the Bundestag and their leader Annalena Baerbock won’t succeed Angela Merkel as Chancellor.
The Greens have momentum on their side as Germany is heading not only for a change in government but, more importantly, for a generational shift. Today, Fridays for Future and other initiatives, networks, and movements of those under 30 demand a change of direction as well as personnel. There is impatience in the air, a palpable desire for more ambitious action to defend democracy, fight inequality, update the inner workings of government, catch up with the digital revolution, and tackle the climate crisis. This also includes a shift in transport policy towards electric mobility, improvements in public transport, and a preference for railways. In these areas, Germany has been a laggard and a brake on EU ambitions. It may soon become a driving force again.
Barring last-minute surprises, the SPD or the CDU/CSU will be the largest and second largest party in the next Bundestag. Neither will have a majority, and either will need at least two other smaller parties to form a government. The Greens and the liberal FDP are the most desirable coalition partners: they are compatible agenda-wise and involved in coalitions of various combinations across many of Germany’s 16 Länder. Because of their involvement in regional governments, the Greens control over 47 out of 69 — and thus more than two thirds — of the votes in the Bundesrat, the federal parliamentary chamber representing the Länder.
In the 2019 European elections, the Greens captured over 20% of the vote in Germany, and in recent elections they have gained control of major towns. Germans know that the Greens can govern; they expect and trust them to run public affairs well enough — and perhaps even better — than the old-established parties so wedded to an unsustainable status quo. For many who do not vote Green, the natural place for the Greens would nevertheless be as the second largest partner in a ruling coalition.
Forming that next government may take some time. Normally, the incoming ruling coalition is made explicit or can at least be discerned in Germany before midnight after an election. That, however, changed four years ago, when the FDP first negotiated a coalition agreement with the CDU/CSU and the Greens, but then pulled out at the last minute. Compared to the FDP, their rivals in German coalition-forming, the Greens look like the more dependable partner.
With a likely doubling of their share of the vote, the Greens will look like the winners on election night. That will create expectations not only for a participation of the Greens in government but also of environmental and climate-friendly policies being pursued by the next government.
Most of the new emphasis will play out in domestic policy-making first, but that will gradually spill over to European policies, and not only because of the new priorities being expressed in Germany’s votes in the EU Council of Ministers.
This will be more prominent in the field of energy policy, not only in the expansion of renewable energy generation, and the drive for more energy efficiency, but also in the approach to interconnections and transboundary trade within the EU and across its external borders. Expect an accelerated shift towards electric mobility, with the engineering prowess and brand recognition of German carmakers behind it. There will also be an important focus on rail transport, public transport, and cycling as healthy and low-carbon forms of mobility. The electrification of heating in buildings and industries will also be on the agenda, with heat pumps and a coupling of energy, transport, and building in smart energy systems.
During the pandemic, the climate and health impacts of food system and nutrition have become a focus of attention and debate. The results are pushes to reduce meat consumption in favour of a more plant-based diet, to promote regional sourcing of food products, and to reduce food waste. Some of the foreseeable policy vectors are in line with those in other European countries. When Germany accelerates the decarbonization of its energy, transport, heating and food systems, the economic impact will be felt in the EU internal market even before EU policies are changed.
In international policies, too, the effect will be felt. The Greens, though not uncritical of some policies, have fully subscribed to the general consensus in Germany in support of the EU, good relations with the US, NATO, the UN, and many other international organisations. But they differ from the established status quo when it comes to the pre-eminence of trade and industrial interest at the core of foreign affairs, especially when it comes to Russia and China, but also in relation to countries like Saudi Arabia or Iran. The next German government, with participation of the Greens, may put more emphasis on values and long-term public interests than on specific and short-term economic interests.
Federalism, the importance of parties in parliament and of parliament in electing the government, and the electoral system in Germany result in a convergence in the political center ground. That is where majorities are won, and ruling coalitions formed. That center does not shift much from one election to another, which explains the remarkable continuity in German politics and policies. The rise of the Greens does not change this underlying continuity; there will be no sudden changes or disruption. However, their increased leverage and hands on the levers of power over domestic and international policies, will affect the course of Germany into a green future.