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European Greens surge as voters abandon old parties over climate

A young protester holds a poster that reads “no coal, no nuclear power, green electricity only” during a Fridays for Future demonstration for urgent action on climate change in Berlin last week. (John MacDougall/AFP/Getty Images)

BRUSSELS — European Green parties on Monday were cheering E.U. elections that vaulted them into a kingmaking position of power, as voters abandoned traditional political parties in favor of climate-focused activists in a green wave that swept several countries.

The results propelled the Greens into second place in Germany and third place in France and elsewhere, amid a surge in excitement from young voters who faulted old-school parties for ignoring their concerns about the environment and offering few alternatives for a generation beset by economic pain following the global financial crisis.

In an election for the European Parliament in which far-right, ­anti-immigration buccaneers also gained modestly to post their best-ever result, the good showing for the Greens may have the bigger impact on policy. The center-left and center-right parties that long jointly ruled the parliament have lost their majority, meaning they will need to depend on Greens and other centrists to advance their agenda.

The far right, meanwhile, captured about a quarter of the seats, up from a fifth — enough to entrench their angry voices of protest and cause trouble in the legislature, but not enough to actually enact an agenda.

“This is confirmation for us that the topics we’ve been working on for years are the topics that matter to the public in their everyday life and for the future of their children,” said Sergey Lagodinsky, a newly elected Green member of the European Parliament from Germany. “We had times when we wondered: Is this a fringe agenda? Now we know it’s not. It’s the mainstream agenda.”

Listen on Post Reports: Michael Birnbaum reports from Brussels on Green gains in the latest E.U. elections.

Many Green parties in Europe have evolved into disciplined political machines with an agenda that extends far beyond the environment. 

And they have been particularly successful at capturing energy from young voters. Fridays for Future, a global movement of students who skip school to protest climate inaction, has been active in Europe for months, inspired by a 16-year-old Swedish student, Greta Thunberg, who has become an influential activist.

“The new generation has been re-politicized,” Lagodinsky said. “We thought about these young people as people who only stare at their screens. But they can walk the streets. And that has an impact on their parents and grandparents.”

In some countries, including in Germany, Greens have served in government. But they had never achieved such widespread gains until Sunday’s elections. To some, the result felt like a Green ticket into the European establishment. The party gained 2 percentage points, winning 9 percent of the 751-seat legislature. Although the overall gain was modest — and in Europe’s south and east, they made little progress — they outperformed in several of Europe’s biggest and most influential countries.

“They’ve become mainstream. They have matured enormously. They’re much more disciplined,” said Heather Grabbe, director of the Open Society European Policy Institute, a think tank.

Swedish climate change activist Greta Thunberg, 16, addressed politicians at Britain's House of Commons on the night of April 23. (Video: Reuters)

Their appeal to voters goes beyond the environment, she said, after many center-left leaders offered the same mix of austerity-driven fixes for the 2008 economic crisis as that of their center-right rivals.

“Neoliberalism has triumphed in economic policy, with both the center-right and center-left adopting it. And then the economic crisis came along, and the left did not benefit from that,” Grabbe said. “The left did not provide alternatives.”

Green issues have reverberated outward: Leaders from other parties, seeing a Green success bubbling in opinion polls, emphasized climate issues in the campaign.

“Green is not the sole property of the Green Party,” Frans Timmermans, a senior Dutch politician who was the European center-left coalition’s lead candidate, said at a debate last month. He said other political parties — notably his own — were also focusing on the environment.

That will benefit the Greens. As they sweep into Parliament, they will have to team up with others to enact their agenda, as they have already with success inside individual countries.

“In an increasing number of countries, we’re a real player, a real polar force now, and we want to translate that to the European level,” Reinhard Bütikofer, a longtime German Green lawmaker, told an after-election event on Monday.

The Green wave was most pronounced in Germany, where the party has long been a potent political player — even serving for seven years as the junior partner in a coalition government in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

But it had never enjoyed a night like Sunday, when it vaulted into second place nationwide with nearly 21 percent of the vote. The surge for the Greens was mirrored by a collapse for the Social Democrats, traditionally the dominant party on the left of German politics but perhaps now supplanted.

The result followed a string of Green successes in German state elections and reflected a surge in the polls that dates back nearly a year as voters registered their unhappiness with the so-called “grand coalition” between Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats and the center-left Social Democrats.

But more than a protest vote, Green strength also rests on deep concern in Germany about the state of the planet. German voters told pollsters that the environment was their top concern going into the vote, and that was apparent in the outcome.

Exit polls in Germany showed the Greens to be the overwhelming top choice for young voters and for first-time voters. The party also did especially well in cities, taking voters from the center-left and center-right parties.

Leaders of those two parties acknowledged after the vote that they had been too passive in responding to voter concern about the climate, and they promised to do better. The Greens in Germany have pushed for aggressive action to curb climate change, including an earlier-than-planned phaseout of coal power.

Jürgen Falter, an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Mainz, said the onus is now on mainstream parties to show they take the issue seriously. But that approach may have its limits.

“Voters tend to choose the original and not the party that only discusses the issue after many defeats,” Falter said.

In a reflection of just how much the Greens are steering the debate in Germany, far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) leader Alexander Gauland declared that the party was now “our main enemy.”

The AfD, which denies the science behind man-made climate change, had a disappointing night on Sunday, failing to match its performance in the 2017 federal elections.

As in Germany, France saw a humiliating loss for the center-left but surprising gains for the Greens. They came in third place, with approximately 13.5 percent of the vote. The Socialists, by contrast, won only 6.2 percent.

Although the Greens also placed third in 2009, winning 16.3 percent of the vote then, Sunday’s victory came in the context of the near-total flatlining of the older political movements that dominated France for decades.

 In France as elsewhere, the left seems not to have died but merely to have changed form. To the extent that a muscular leftist movement exists, it is now green.

“The Greens represent the only project of the future,” French Greens leader Yannick Jadot said Monday on French television. 

Climate change, said an editorial in France’s Liberation newspaper, “has become the principal criteria of judging political action in the European Union.”

Witte reported from Berlin, and McAuley reported from Paris. Quentin Ariès in Brussels contributed to this report.

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