Germany’s Greens Are Neoliberals With Bicycles

Germany's Green Party is polling in first place for September's federal election, spurring hopes of real action on the climate. But in the run-up to the vote, the party's leaders have spared no effort in boasting of their "pro-business" credentials — and their record in regional government shows they'll never challenge polluting corporations.

German Green Party co-leaders Annalena Baerbock (L) and Robert Habeck (R) at a two-day party congress in Bielefeld, western Germany, 2019. (Ina Fassbender / AFP via Getty Images)

Last month, Germany’s Greens nominated a candidate for chancellor for the first time in the party’s thirty-one-year history. The Green Party has long been a vocal but minor force in German politics — rarely scoring over 10 percent support in national contests. But with the advent of climate justice movements like Fridays for Future and the party’s rising presence in regional government, it is now polling above 25 percent, creating a realistic prospect for its cochairwoman Annalena Baerbock to become chancellor after September’s federal election. As both the Social Democrats and Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) continue their downward spiral, it has become hard to imagine a national government without any Green participation.

Media reports have been eager to point out that Baerbock’s party is very different from the Greens of old — a composite force that scraped together various currents of the antinuclear and peace movements, as well as some shattered remnants of the 1970s radical left. The modern Greens are seen as pragmatic centrists, who are comfortable with and eager for political power.

High-ranking Green politicians have striven to establish the party’s image as a pragmatic liberal force: unapologetically pro-European, progressive on issues such as women’s and minority rights, and moderate in their stance on regulating big business. As Baerbock and cochair Robert Habeck claimed in a high-profile column for German weekly Die Zeit, the Greens are the party of social movements as well as business.

The party’s success might seem surprising in the EU’s economic powerhouse — and the Greens could be taken for an attractive alternative to the many failing center-left parties across the continent. But even apart from the fact that the Greens are much more likely to end up in government with the conservative CDU than in a center-left coalition, the party is fundamentally not on the side of most working people — and has already shown it.

Greening Capitalism (But Not Much)

The Greens’ recent victories notwithstanding, their attempt at balancing highly contradictory interests in the name of ecological pragmatism has already become a strain on the party. Only through the meteoric rise of the Fridays for Future movement have the Greens been able to establish themselves as the strongest party among under-thirty-year-olds. Yet, Habeck and Baerbock have spared no efforts to improve their standing with German industry and shake their old antibusiness image.

In 2019, Baerbock gained recognition with the Bundesverband der Deutschen Industrie (BDI), Germany’s leading federation of industrialists and corporations, for putting forward an economic agenda that is especially aggressive against China. She insisted that Germany must be part of a European economic and digital infrastructure that is independent of Chinese corporations such as Huawei. She added that new climate regulations could actually prove advantageous for German businesses, especially if Chinese competitors who supposedly undercut these regulations were subject to extra taxation.

Baerbock’s foray into a sort of Green anti-Chinese economic policy has since been praised by German business representatives. It is not hard for them to accept this — especially given that questions of union rights and worker representation are noticeably absent from this vision. Accordingly, Baerbock has commended initiatives such as Elon Musk’s new Tesla factory in Brandenburg, regardless of the fact that Musk has repeatedly made clear that he will accept neither union representation nor collective bargaining agreements in his new factory.

The Greens have also proven to be very generous partners to German industry — or rather, industrialists — in the state of Baden-Württemberg, where Winfried Kretschmann has governed for ten years as the party’s first and so far only state-level prime minister. Baden-Württemberg used to be a stronghold of the CDU but has been won over by Kretschmann with an agenda which adds a green face to conservative, pro-business parties.

Kretschmann has since established his party as the strongest in the state — but also continuously irritated its activist base with his stance protecting the interests of automobile manufacturers like Daimler-Benz and Porsche, and his cautious position on the transition to electric cars. While Kretschmann’s administration has presided over a decline in public infrastructure and a rise in poverty — especially among children and pensioners — it has actively fended off social initiatives such as a popular petition for free childcare and remains committed to conservative fiscal policies.

The Greens have also alienated parts of the climate justice movement, for instance when the CDU/Green government in the state of Hesse pledged its support for the controversial extension of the A49 highway and, connected to this, the clearing of the Dannenröder Forest. Protesters who tried to prevent the clearing in November 2020 were met with numerous incidents of police violence — provoking much negative publicity for Hesse’s government and its transport minister Tarek Al-Wazir, a member of the Greens.

“Socially Responsible”

The party’s delicate position is marked by its eagerness to enter government at any cost and, at the same time, the constant danger of alienating significant portions of their newly won voter base. So far, the Greens have benefitted from the fact that other parties — especially the left-wing Die Linke and the Social Democrats — have not managed to convince voters of their willingness and capability to effectively tackle issues related to climate justice and environmental protection. The Greens’ popularity does not yet seem to have been damaged by their often-contradictory politics in state-level government. And yet their attempt to establish themselves as a party that is both business-minded and socially responsible has not endeared them to everyone.

The party’s message mostly resonates with a young, middle-class, and university-educated electorate, generally more focused on individual consumption habits and shutting down industries such as soft coal mining and manufacturers of cheap meat, either through direct closures or raising food prices. This approach often brings Greens into conflict with trade unionists and people from regions whose livelihood depends on these industries, such as Lusatia or the Rhineland.

So far, Greens have yet to propose any meaningful strategy toward a clean energy transition that will not result in a massive increase in unemployment and depopulation for these provinces. But while alienating trade union members may not seem overly devastating from the Greens’ perspective, they have had difficulty balancing conflicts over broader social justice issues.

No topic better illustrates this than rent control, which has already become one of the most prominent issues of this year’s election cycle. In Berlin, the Greens form a center-left government with the Social Democrats and Die Linke. With rents having risen astronomically in the city for many years, Die Linke pushed for an unprecedented form of rent regulation. In 2020 a ban was placed on rents being raised within the next five years and landlords were actually forced to lower rents if they exceeded limits set by the city government. Though this resulted in significant financial relief for many working-class Berliners, the so called Mietendeckel was nullified by the constitutional court, which ruled that such a law could only be passed on a national level.

The Berlin Green Party has not only joined Die Linke in campaigning for a Mietendeckel to be passed nationwide by the federal government but also in supporting another highly popular campaign for the expropriation of the largest real estate corporations in the city. Yet this prompted national cochair Habeck to speak out against a nationwide Mietendeckel in favor of a much milder rent control plan, unlikely to provide meaningful aid to the working-class families suffering rising living costs in many regions.

Conflicts such as these show that the Greens’ liberal outlook does not allow them to bypass debates on matters of social justice. Yet, their detachment from the labor and trade union movement — coupled with their commitment to corporate and business interests — prevents them from putting forward a serious agenda to break through the political stagnation that has plagued Germany for decades.

Indeed, many of the party’s top politicians are much more comfortable with presenting themselves in terms of cultural progressivism than taking a clear stance on issues such as housing, labor rights, or the hollowed-out German welfare state. That cultural progressivism is mostly expressed through a number of rather lofty pledges of allegiance to the European idea, Western liberal democracy, and antiauthoritarianism.

Greens for NATO

In recent years, the Greens have made a point of casting themselves as staunch defenders of European democracy and vigorous critics of what they perceive to be a new axis of authoritarian regimes, by which they have meant anything from China and the right-wing conservative and cryptofascist governments in Eastern Europe to Islamist regimes in the Arab world and the Trump administration. On this year’s international “Star Wars Day,” ex-party chair Cem Özdemir, tweeted that the “dark side of the force in Ankara, Moscow, Beijing, Tehran, Riyadh, and Budapest” would not want a Green government in Germany.

As stale a joke as this might be, it reveals something about the worldview of Green leaders. They appear to imagine global politics as an ever-expanding web of complicity between very distinct movements and governments who they paint as the chief enemies of Western liberal democratic capitalism. This perspective enables them to wield the weapon of antiauthoritarianism not only against nationalist movements, such as the far-right Alternative für Deutschland party, but also against their critics on the Left, whenever it suits their purposes.

It reveals a lot about the current state of the Greens — a party that was once firmly rooted in the peace movement — that Habeck has recently stated that any government coalition involving both the Greens and Die Linke would be possible only if this latter party was willing to commit to NATO. Whereas Die Linke has maintained its position that NATO should eventually be abolished in favor of a cooperative security architecture involving Russia, the Greens have shifted toward unwavering support for the Western military alliance and a decidedly anti-Russian stance.

Notwithstanding their roots in the peace movement, the Greens do have a history of military action in the cause of “Western democracy.” In 1998, when Germany sent troops to Kosovo and thereby waged war for the first time since 1945, then Green foreign minister Joschka Fischer even went so far as to argue that due to Germany’s atrocities in the Holocaust, it was now its responsibility to involve itself in the war on Serbia’s authoritarian government. The statement was highly controversial at the time, to say the least. But it perfectly summed up the Greens’ newfound commitment to Western military interventions in the name of progressivism and democracy — a sentiment that echoes throughout its agenda to this day.

It is difficult to guess what exactly a Green project for government will exactly look like, especially since the polls will continue to shift considerably before September’s vote and various coalition partners are on the table. But while Baerbock and Habeck have made a point of keeping their options open, they are today much more likely to end up in government with the Christian Democrats than in a center-left alliance.

Not only would such a coalition probably have a larger majority but both parties have recently made advances toward each other. It should also come in handy that the Greens’ election manifesto commits rhetorically to social justice and battling inequality but remains perfectly vague with respect to the actual steps the party is looking to take in this direction.

The only thing that can be said with some certainty is that no fundamental political change in favor of workers and minorities is going to be brought about by the Greens, especially in the absence of constant pressure from the Left. However, with the Social Democrats in a downward spiral due to their inability to reconnect with their labor roots and Die Linke stagnating in the polls, building such pressure is going to be a challenging task.