Making Europe’s Solar Future

Despite a promising start a decade ago, European production of solar power infrastructure has had mixed fortunes. Amid rising geopolitical tensions with China, and supply chains disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic, the case for a domestic solar manufacturing industry in Europe today is strong. Experts agree the time is now to build on Europe’s technological leadership and industrial sovereignty, and the actions of European companies and investors increasingly reflect this.

At the beginning of the last decade European solar manufacturing was at its pinnacle, though few knew it at the time. The 2010 EU Solar Energy Conference and Exhibition, held in Valencia, was far from the dowdy affair of previous years, where the results of scientific endeavours to increase the efficiency and reduce the cost of solar photovoltaic (PV) cells, panels, and rooftop or free-field solar systems were discussed in academic detail. Instead, a host of innovative, fast-growing and profitable solar manufacturing companies hosted lavish parties at port-side venues in the Spanish city. The companies were riding high on the rapid growth of the European solar industry, benefiting from generous subsidies first in the Czech Republic, then Spain, Italy, and most significantly, Germany – which saw high tariffs paid for solar electricity fed back into the nations’ electricity networks for 10, 15, and even 20 years.

Early promise fizzles out

Some of the subsidy programmes were undoubted success stories in that they spurred the development of solar systems and provided the opportunity for solar manufacturing to reach the scale it required to realise significant cost reductions. However, when the tariffs remained high and PV production and installation costs fell, it led to excess and a degree of hubris. For the European manufacturers of solar cells and panels, the transition from profitable to profligate was a rapid one.

Germany-based manufacturer Q-Cells is a telling example. In 2010, the company’s leadership presented themselves as captains of this new, green industry. Yet in a little over two years, Q-Cells declared bankruptcy – with its market valuation having collapsed from almost 8 billion euros in 2007, to less than 35 million euros in 2012. 

For the European manufacturers of solar cells and panels, the transition from profitable to profligate was a rapid one.

The reasons behind the rapid decline in fortunes of Europe’s PV manufacturers are numerous, but primarily they lost out in the face of fierce competition from aggressive Chinese rivals. Compounding matters, the European solar market experienced a sharp decline in 2013, followed by a multi-year trough – from which it did not recover until 2018. This period saw many European national governments winding up or scaling back subsidy measures – primarily the generous feed-in tariffs (FITs) paid to solar parks for the electricity they fed into the grid. More egregious policy changes were also a feature in countries such as the Czech Republic and Spain, where FITs were altered retroactively or taxes on solar power exports introduced.

The series of bankruptcies that swept across European manufacturers in the following years have left Europe, in 2021, at somewhat of a crossroads. As the energy transition away from fossil fuels intensifies, a bright dawn for solar installations across the EU is breaking, but the capacity of the bloc to supply these with products manufactured in Europe has been diminished.

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Inside the solar supply chain

The solar panels that sit atop homes, businesses, agricultural buildings, and in free fields were formerly comprised of largely made-in-Europe components and technology. The dominant PV technology today is known as crystalline silicon PV, and some of its supply chain mirrors the semiconductor industry – which drives the ICT devices, like laptops and smartphones, that have transformed our lives.

A little over a decade ago, Europe was home to much of the solar supply chain; materials required for each stage of production were all developed and produced in Europe. And the continent’s manufacturing engineers had developed production machinery that allowed solar cells and panels to push their efficiencies ever higher – transferring the technological solutions presented by European researchers into efficient machines that were increasingly accurate and could deliver the world’s best quality at declining costs.

However, Europe was not alone in fostering its solar manufacturing sector. China too had spotted the opportunity for a fast-growing “sunrise industry” and several young entrepreneurs had been developing the country’s solar manufacturing, deploying predominantly Australian PV technology and knowhow, since 2002. Suntech is the most notable example, with its pioneering founder Dr Shi Zhengrong, for a time known as “the sun king” having applied the solar skills he had developed at Sydney’s UNSW back to China to establish Suntech and go on to change solar manufacturing forever.

While Dr Shi has pointed to China’s low labour costs as behind his decision to establish Suntech’s manufacturing in his home country, there were likely other factors informing his choice. European and US solar manufacturers have claimed that regional Chinese authorities have deployed a range of subsidies, in a bid to create manufacturing jobs in their provinces, but this remains uncertain. It was suggested that these subsidies came in the form of cheap loans, free land for manufacturing facilities and/or heavily subsidised energy – the latter, somewhat ironically, largely from coal-fired generators.

Undoubtedly the Chinese solar engineers’ entrepreneurial spirit and ability to drive costs out of PV production also played a role. As a result, the cost of a solar module fell by close to 90 per cent over a decade. China’s young manufacturers also had considerable success in attracting the foreign capital required to build new factories, with Suntech and others listing on the NASDAQ and raising vast sums. Modern solar technology pioneer Professor Martin Green argued that it was the combination of Australian technology, US capital and Chinese entrepreneurial endeavour that laid the foundations for of success Suntech and a number of other companies that remain dominant forces in today’s PV industry.

In 2021, more than 80 per cent of the global production of PV cells is now housed in Asia. Europe is home to around 8-10 gigawatts (GW) of solar module assembly capacity, but it is heavily reliant on China for solar cells and other materials such as glass and aluminium frames. As a result, Europe is the technology and price taker, rather than leader, despite the continent’s long track record in developing and deploying solar technology.

Chart: IHS Markit

European production equipment suppliers had done brisk business throughout the 2000s, providing high-margin solar manufacturing equipment to the Chinese manufacturers. However, it was a business that was not to last, as domestic producers quickly developed their own capacities. While many European production equipment suppliers have made claims of intellectual property infringements, with their equipment designs and processes often appearing in made-in-China tools, the Chinese technology suppliers have worked closely with the manufacturers, often located in the same region or even the same city, to develop new production techniques and to design, produce and supply the machines at remarkably low costs – itself a key factor in delivering the cheap and efficient PV panels available today.

The potential for a return to EU solar production

To investigate whether there could be a future for Europe’s PV manufacturers, German manufacturing equipment industry association VDMA Photovoltaic Equipment tasked one of the country’s leading solar research institutes, the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems (ISE) to conduct an analysis. The study, published in August 2019, concluded that: “A chance still exists … for Europe to play a role in this big future market”.

However, the Fraunhofer ISE team found that European market competitiveness depends on a number of important conditions. For instance, transport costs of panels from China to Europe must be taken into account – which the analysis calculates at totalling around 10 per cent of the cost of a panel. Other conditions include the capacity of European production to achieve the necessary economies of scale, the production of essential materials for solar panels at a “locally competitive price” in Europe, and the reduction of “CO2 and other environmentally harmful emissions to a minimum” to ensure a sustainable “cycling economy, cradle-to-cradle”. “This is not only a big opportunity for high-tech manufacturing in Europe,” Franhofer ISE’s report found, “but also a change to ensure energy security by reducing dependency on imports in the sensitive field of energy generation.” Of course, these conditions depend upon one overwhelming consideration: that European solar manufacturing can attract the investment required. Investors, previously burned by massive losses resulting from a host of solar manufacturing bankruptcies, have been reticent to back European solar manufacturing a second time. In the decade after 2007, when Europe was the market leader in PV production, the global solar market expanded by a factor of seven, according to Fraunhofer ISE. “The required financial flows for investments were provided in China,” the report states, “European companies could not keep up and have therefore disappeared from the market.”

Image: Fraunhofer ISE

However, Europe has remained one of the R&D leaders when it comes to PV, with research centres such as Germany’s Fraunhofer ISE, Belgium’s imec, and Switerland’s CSEM, among others, routinely publishing innovations in solar materials and more efficient production technologies.

Covid-19 related global supply chain disruptions and an increased emphasis on Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) criteria in investor priorities has resulted in improved conditions for aspiring local solar manufacturers in Europe. Since the beginning of 2020, there has been a roughly 8-to-10-fold increase in container shipping costs from Shanghai to Rotterdam. A report from the Fraunhofer ISE released in April 2021 notes, “buyers are placing more value on sustainable production criteria than they did just a few years ago. Regional production has become affordable.”

In terms of European manufacturers being able to achieve the scale required for competitiveness, Fraunhofer ISE points to Spanish start-up Greenland, whose strategy is to establish “a highly-automated photovoltaic production line with an output of 5 GW per year” and have devised a plan that involves not only the assembly of imported PV cells from China into panels, but also a cell-to-panel production facility.

Dr Jutta Trube, head of VDMA Photovoltaic Equipment, concluded “With the worldwide increasing demand of PV installations, the production has to follow… As we have seen during the corona pandemic, it is appropriate to have several supply options. The dependence of the photovoltaic value chain should be avoided or eliminated as soon as possible.”

Alongside Greenland’s plans in Spain, other European firms such as Switzerland’s Meyer Burger are also pursuing gigawatt-scale plans. In Italy, energy company Enel is rumored to be developing cell and module production of 2 GW in Sicily, and Singapore-headquartered manufacturer REC has previously announced its intention to build 3 GW of solar manufacturing capacity in France. 

The politics of making solar

Besides the market movers and drivers, energy sovereignty is an increasingly important issue, highlighted by the current energy price crisis, with spot electricity prices high across many European marketplaces largely driven by a squeeze on natural gas. Furthermore, if Europe is to meet its stated climate goals and the required solar and wind buildout, a heavy reliance on imported solar cells and panels could conceivably become an energy security issue.  

Energy security and renewables are issues Michael Bloss, a German Green member of the European Parliament, is passionate about. For him, the central question when it comes to energy sovereignty will be: “who is actually able to produce solar panels, who has all the intellectual property rights? Currently we have the unfortunate situation in that we have a lot of knowledge, research and expertise happening in Europe, but all the manufacturing is not happening in Europe.”

A heavy reliance on imported solar cells and panels could conceivably become an energy security issue for Europe.  

At present, there appears to be much attention being paid to battery cell and module manufacturing in Europe and rightly so, with energy storage a crucial part of the energy transition. However, in contrast with the dominant battery cell chemistries being produced today, PV cells and modules require very few scarce and rare earth materials in production. As solar manufacturing has grown in scale, PV producers have proven adept at reducing material consumption as the industry expands – another factor behind the remarkable cost reductions that have been achieved.

In order to take advantage of this pivotal moment, the European Solar Initiative (ESI) is seeking to strike while the panels are hot, in order to re-establish a strong PV industry in Europe. Solar panels were in short supply in late 2021 and prices have soared to highs not seen since late last decade, according to Martin Schachinger of pvXchange – with prices not expected to return to a downward trajectory for much of 2022. 

“The ESI brings together all stakeholders in the complete PV value chain,” explains Dr Jutta Trube, “as well as political actors, to work towards a strong PV industry and clean energy in Europe.” What the ESI is trying to achieve, continued Trube, is “a suitable level playing field”. Given this levelling process, Trube believes European manufacturing can scale up PV manufacturing in the manner required “to reach the goals of the Paris Agreement.”

The question of potential support measures is a crucial one; tariffs are often blunt, permeable, and, when it comes to the already cost-competitive PV market, distorting. Manufacturing subsidies and aid are more effective, though a flat subsidy is also too heavy-handed a measure for such a complex supply chain.

Another option is the use of European Recovery funds following the Covid-19 pandemic. For Michael Bloss, “Reconstruction funds can and must be used for solar energy deployment and manufacturing in Europe. We are financing a renovation wave of 35 million buildings and there should be solar panels on the roof of every one of those buildings.” However, adds Bloss, in order to provide the necessary stability for investment in solar manufacturing, “We need to create this market, and I believe there are tools of the EU’s industrial policy that can be used to support renewable energies and create an important project of European interest for solar manufacturing, like we have for hydrogen. That would be important to kickstart and reassure the solar industry in Europe.” Such industrial policy can be as straightforward as making it easier for solar parks in Europe to receive their required development and grid connection permits, and as basic as standardising solar on rooftops for this coming “wave” of renovation.

A done deal?

The success of policies around solar and the plans to build the large industrial facilities required in Europe will hinge on a number of factors. Stability, both in terms of the European market and the political foundations, will be a crucial prerequisite. One project seeking to foster market stability is the European Technology and Innovation Platform for Photovoltaics (ETIP PV) “Solar Manufacturing Accelerator” project, coordinated by SolarPower Europe, Europe’s peak solar-industry body, which aims to facilitate the rapid development of solar manufacturing projects. It is an open platform aimed at companies and organisations interested in de-risking their solar supply chains or finding local partners and investors. With a coordinated effort, the development of a competitive solar supply chain and manufacturing base in Europe could be seen to carry less risk than 10 years ago, in light of the current demand for renewables. And with supply chains across a wide range of industries under pressure due to the Covid-19 pandemic and current geopolitical circumstances, the value of shorter supply chains has become more evident. 

Communities are likely to be more supportive of both rooftop and free-field solar arrays if more people found employment in the PV industry.

Speed is another important factor: “We have to be much faster and I think that also creates demand,” says Bloss, “there are already people investing, there is already a solar manufacturing site in Saxony [Germany] with Meyer Burger, so it is already happening it just needs to be accelerated. The future solar energy deployment in Europe is massive, and we can produce it here in Europe. I am quite sure that we will see much bigger investment in the future.”

What is more, new industry means new jobs, and the European jobs that will be created by enabling a competitive solar manufacturing industry, and its associated supply chain, will likely bring auxiliary benefits. Communities are likely to be more supportive of both rooftop and, more importantly, free-field solar arrays if more people found employment in the PV industry – essentially enhancing solar’s social license. At present, according to The Renewable Energy and Jobs Annual Review 2021, only one European nation (Germany) features in the top 10 countries for solar employment. Europe holds 6 per cent of the world’s solar jobs (with EU member states accounting for 4.9 per cent). In 2020, PV employment in Europe was estimated at 239,000 jobs, of which 194,000 were in the EU. The latest proposals for expanded solar production capacity in Europe could see thousands of new jobs added throughout the European manufacturing chain, and 3,500 full-time installation jobs for each additional GW of capacity. Given that SolarPower Europe conservatively forecasts the European market will continue to expand by approximately 14 per cent each year up to 2024, it would seem that there will be no shortage of demand for homegrown solar cells and modules – if, that is, there are investors that are willing to deliver supply.

Two Sides of the Same Coin: GroenLinks Needs Allies in the Fight for Climate and Social Justice

The elections that took place earlier this year in the Netherlands brought disappointing results for Dutch Green Party GroenLinks and evidence of a significant fragmentation of the country’s political scene. After months of negotiations, efforts to agree on a governing coalition remain unsuccessful. Green MEP Bas Eickhout reflects on how GroenLinks might craft a winning message for the next election and the potential for greater cooperation with like-minded forces on the Left.

This interview is part of a series that we are publishing in partnership with Le Grand Continent on green parties in Europe.

Green European Journal: Elections took place in the Netherlands in March 2021, but a government has yet to be formed. What does this ongoing political vacuum reveal about the state of Dutch politics?

Bas Eickhout: Dutch politics is the canary in the coal mine. Its parliament is highly fragmented and has no threshold whatsoever; you can gain one of the 150 seats with 1 per cent of the vote. This has advantages and disadvantages. Some trends that we see in other European countries first emerged in the Netherlands in the 1980s and 90s. Belgium, France, and Italy currently each have more than 10 parties in their national parliaments, for example, and the ancien régime no longer holds power. In that sense, Dutch politics provides clues as to what may lie ahead for other countries. That’s the positive side. The downside is that the fragmentation seen today in the Netherlands has gone beyond the optimum. It took until the end of September to settle the question of who should be around the table for coalition negotiations.

Having 19 parties in parliament, of course, complicates the negotiations. A majority government will need at least four parties – five or six parties isn’t out of the question. In Germany the prospect of a three-party coalition may be shocking but for the Netherlands, that was the 1990s.

An additional complication is that the outgoing prime minister, Mark Rutte, will soon leave office and he dominates the centre-right of the political landscape. There’s competition on the right from Geert Wilders and Thierry Baudet, but both leaders are so extreme they may as well be living in parallel universes. So there is no alternative to Rutte, and the main question is: who will fill that void once he leaves? The reality is that parties are already looking towards the next elections, even while negotiating after the last ones.

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GroenLinks didn’t have a good election, losing almost half of their seats from the previous term. What’s your reading of the result?

It was very disappointing and, in the end, if you don’t do well in an election, you have to look inwards for answers. Everyone had to deal with pressures such as the Covid-19 pandemic, so this is not an excuse.

Our biggest problem was twofold: first, our message didn’t stand out. There are now more parties competing around the climate. It is comparable to what happened in Germany, where the Greens positioned themselves as changemakers on climate and Olaf Scholz [of the Social Democratic Party] pushed back as the moderate alternative. We didn’t manage to create the feeling that while other parties talk about climate, the Greens are the ones who would deliver. Many climate voters went to [the social-liberal Democrats 66] D66, for example.

Second, GroenLinks has never been in the government. So understandably, voters start to wonder “when will you take responsibility?” D66, our biggest competitors this time, has a more credible claim to power because they have been there before.

This challenge also relates to the image of Jesse Klaver as our party leader. He was very successful four years ago as a new, fresh face. Four years on, he’s no longer a fresh face so he has had to change tack towards taking responsibility. But, as we lack the credibility of leadership that comes with being in government, we ended up attempting to straddle both positions. We were left without a narrative that worked. That confusion cost us the election.

The reality is that parties are already looking towards the next elections, even while negotiating after the last ones.

Is the fragmentation especially pronounced on the green-minded left side of the political spectrum? It appears to be quite a crowded field with the climate-conscious liberals at D66, the Animal Party, the pro-European party Volt, the new anti-racist party BIJ1…

That’s a bit too easy – the fragmentation hits everyone. On the Right, there is Thierry Baudet’s party as well as its splinter group, a farmers’ party, and two Christian parties. So, it would be unfair to say the fragmentation hits the Left harder. However, it does make it more complicated for centre parties to find a distinctive narrative that can fully cover all bases. We have a Black Lives Matter Party, an Animal Party, and Volt challenging us, and they always emerge as stronger on each of these issues, because they are single-issue parties.

There is one difference on the Right, however. The greatest advantage that Rutte has is that the competitors to the right of his party make statements of such lunacy that they do not hold up in a serious debate. While the Animal Party is quite rational and makes strong arguments, Thierry Baudet says “build back better” is about world domination. It’s easier to argue against that.

What about environmental awareness within society more broadly? Whether or not the Greens are winning enough votes, are environmental and climate issues shaping the debate and influencing voters’ behaviour?

Polling shows that climate is the main issue for Dutch voters, after healthcare and employment. So yes, it is an important topic in the Netherlands, but so far that hasn’t been reflected in elections when multiple subjects are competing for the attention of voters.

Europe wasn’t a prominent part of the campaign, as is often the case in national elections, but what role does Europe play in Dutch politics and how does GroenLinks position itself on this issue?

It’s absolutely true that Europe wasn’t discussed, and I think Volt benefited from this absence as a party of the new generation. They put out a narrative on Europe that resonated with some people and their rational, new brand of politics helped win them support, and they managed to win three seats in the elections.

Much like in many other countries, and to my great sorrow, the majority of Dutch people do not care about Europe. Rutte has struck a tone on Europe that chimes with the majority view: he says that Europe is needed and that leaving the EU is nonsense, but there’s no love. Trade and economics come first and that’s it. What is slightly changing for left-wing voters is the awareness that when it comes to the climate and foreign affairs, Europe makes sense. Increasingly, there are debates on a stronger Europe. Rutte has even indicated that the Netherlands would drop its foreign policy veto – which would have been unthinkable five years ago. This is progress in limited areas but progress nevertheless. It’s easier in these areas, as well as on trade and economics – we are a trading country which earns money in the EU.

Over the past year, rule of law has entered mainstream debate in the Netherlands. Quite cleverly, Rutte immediately picked up on the trend: encouraged by the prevailing mood in the country, he became the most vocal European leader in attacking Orbán last year. Bashing Orbán is completely acceptable in the Netherlands now. The positive side of this tactic is that Rutte is talking about European values, which is also a significant shift. So there is growing support for a Europe that is more than just a market and trading community. But money is often the sticking point. Any talk about the budget – especially on the Covid-19 [recovery] fund – is very unpopular. In the end, Rutte agreed to the fund without much public or government support.

In these discussions, Greens are the most vocal. For instance, our message on the recovery fund was clearest: we wanted Europe to commit to it. The centre-left Labour Party (PvdA) supports us, but quietly. D66 is very much in agreement but they have been cautious because of their place in government and their chances of entering the next one. We put these topics on the agenda but, to be very honest, we can only do it with Labour. Together, the two parties hold 17 seats out of 150.

Where do you situate the Netherlands in the European political landscape? In recent years, the Netherlands has aligned itself with fiscally conservative alliances such as the New Hanseatic League and the Frugal Four with Austria, the Nordic nations, and the Baltics. Is this position now entrenched, with the current balance of forces?

We’re entering an interesting phase, in this respect. There’s still a big feeling of loss after Brexit. We’ve always felt very close to the UK. We are the most Anglo-Saxon country remaining in the EU – more than Ireland, I would say – because we view the bloc as primarily a trading community. We felt most comfortable sitting between the UK and Germany. But the UK has gone and Germany is changing. When Germany suddenly changed its position on the recovery fund and sided with France, that was a shock for the Netherlands. It became clear that we can no longer rely on Germany. So, the immediate reaction was to look for new allies in the Baltic states, the Nordics, and Austria. But no one is happy with this pivot because we all realise this coalition is too vulnerable. Rutte recognises this weakness too and is now investing in our relationship with France. We have always had a very peculiar view of France. We don’t take them seriously. That is a mistake, which the Dutch governing parties are slowly beginning to realise.

In the EU, the Netherlands felt most comfortable sitting between the UK and Germany – but the UK has left and Germany is changing.

The growing attention paid to foreign policy issues in the Netherlands that you touched upon is part of the wider debate about US-China relations and what it means for Europe. How does GroenLinks see Europe’s place in the world?

In the Netherlands, there’s a perpetual dilemma between investing in becoming a global trading partner and a stronger alliance at the European level for protection. The latter is often regarded as protectionism, which is very negatively perceived. If you want to kill a political argument in the Netherlands, label it protectionist. The Greens were quite scared of this for a while. But I’m glad to see this is changing. We have moved from taking a “wait and see” approach to a more proactive one. We have become much more critical of trade deals; there’s strong opposition to TTIP within GroenLinks, for example.

Today’s context is also more receptive to these challenges whereas 10 years ago, going against CETA for instance, would have been more difficult. On top of that, the Covid-19 pandemic and the Trump era have made people realise that we need to think of a strategic industrial agenda in Europe. Even a liberal party like VVD [People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy] is becoming more cautious and strategic, and increasingly supportive of keeping industry within Europe. We’ve been pushing industrial policies for a while and we now have an incentive to be the avant-garde in this area.

Returning to the national level, there’s still uncertainty about the next Dutch government, and important local elections coming up next year. What are the strategic priorities for GroenLinks in the years ahead?

For the upcoming municipal elections, we need to stay in power in the cities where we are already. We are very strong in progressive and student cities, such as Amsterdam and Utrecht, and our greatest ambition is to remain so. Interestingly, we are doing better in cities like Rotterdam where Greens struggled in the past because it is a port city – rougher and more industrial than the student cities like Amsterdam and Utrecht where we do well. So one of our priorities is expanding across the Netherlands.

Strong climate policies implemented in an unequal society will only widen inequalities.

Another priority is further collaboration with progressive parties. Looking at the fragmentation in our political landscape, we have a responsibility here as a party to show that we are serious about cooperation. This is why, in the negotiations, we have joined forces with the Labour Party and made it clear that we will negotiate together and go in as a team should we enter the government. The party has taken this position because we recognise that the fragmentation is not good for anyone, and progressive voices need to be stronger.

There’s another reason why collaboration with the Labour Party makes sense; a big challenge is not only ambition in climate policies but also ensuring that we are changing our economic and taxation policies. Strong climate policies implemented in an unequal society will only widen inequalities. We need to address both aspects, and this goes further than just saying, “climate policy needs to be just”. No. We have a totally unequal society and that needs to change; it’s a much stronger agenda.

Political developments in other parts of Europe suggest competition with Labour parties will be a key challenge for Greens in the years ahead. Between the two movements there is convergence but also important differences in the visions for a green transition for society. As the policy implications of the climate agenda become sharper – in terms of energy costs, petrol prices, etc. – navigating this relationship could become even more salient for Greens.

I have a similar analysis, but I would stress that it needs to be more than saying that we need climate policies with a bit of redistribution. It’s not as simple as retrofitting buildings. Climate policies should not be conditional on social policy or vice versa. Inequality is a fundamental issue in our society and the battle for strong climate and social policies are truly two sides of the same coin. In that sense, a stronger collaboration between Labour, who have a better track record on fighting inequality (at least in principle if not not always in practice), and GroenLinks could be a natural marriage for the future.

« L’écoféminisme est plus radical que le féminisme »

L’écoféminisme a bonne presse ? Prenons garde à ne pas l’« aseptiser ». Un exemple, selon Jeanne Burgart Goutal, spécialiste du mouvement : « On parle des sorcières, mais pas de l’histoire des luttes contre l’extractivisme, bien souvent menées par des femmes. » En parlant d’interconnexions entre toutes les luttes — féministe, écologistes, antiracistes…— l’écoféminisme remet en cause le système dominateur dans son ensemble.

Laury-Anne Cholez: On entend beaucoup parler d’écoféminisme mais le concept semble encore mal compris, à la fois chez les écologistes et les féministes. Quelle en est votre définition ?

Jeanne Burgart Goutal: L’écoféminisme n’est pas un concept à la mode, mais un mouvement né dans les années 1970 [1], portée par des collectifs et des luttes concrètes autour de différents enjeux. Leur point commun, c’est la conviction qu’il existe des liens indissociables entre la crise écologique et le patriarcat notamment. Selon les écoféministes, l’exploitation de la nature et la domination masculine ont de profondes racines communes, et mettent en œuvre des mécanismes analogues (objectivation, dévaluation, violence…).

Plus largement, leur analyse tisse des liens entre toutes les formes de domination, de classe, de « race », du Nord sur le Sud… En ce moment, on parle beaucoup d’intersectionnalité. C’était déjà une exigence de l’écoféminisme d’articuler les questions écologiques et de justice sociale. En refusant, par exemple, les formes d’écologie implicitement sexistes et néocolonialistes comme les campagnes de stérilisation forcée de femmes en Inde au nom de la régulation démographique. Ou encore en refusant de se réjouir que l’émancipation de certaines femmes se fasse au prix de conséquences sociales ou environnementales négatives.


Le combat pour l’égalité entre les hommes et les femmes s’est donc réalisé sur le dos des personnes plus précaires qui s’occupent des enfants et de la maison.

C’est un impensé du féminisme mainstream. Sociologiquement, les théoriciennes féministes les plus connues étaient souvent des femmes blanches bourgeoises ou de classe moyenne, qui réfléchissaient à partir de leur position sociale, en reproduisant des réflexes d’ordre patriarcal. L’écoféminisme cherche à rendre visible ce qu’on invisibilise, et qui est pourtant indispensable à notre vie et à notre économie, comme le travail domestique (préparation des repas, soin de la maison et des enfants…), le travail surexploité à l’autre bout du monde pour fabriquer les objets de notre quotidien, ou encore le travail d’autorégénération des écosystèmes. On retrouve d’ailleurs cela depuis la Grèce ancienne, avec la division entre les hommes libres et les esclaves, qui s’occupaient des tâches considérées comme indignes des humains, car partagées avec les animaux. Il faudrait arrêter de vouloir se décharger des tâches de subsistance sur d’autres personnes et les prendre en charge collectivement. Mais cela remet en question l’image de la réussite : les parents ne vont pas dire à leurs enfants qu’il faut devenir éboueur, paysan ou femme de ménage. Il faudrait revaloriser ces tâches vitales autant sur le plan moral que financier, et sans doute les partager de façon plus équitable voire aller vers une autre division du travail.


On a lu beaucoup de critiques sur l’écoféminisme : qu’il était trop idéaliste, trop ésotérique…

Ce sont des critiques qui ont déjà contribué à discréditer l’écoféminisme dans les années 1990. [L’essayiste étasunienneJanet Biehl, par exemple, attaquait l’écoféminisme en dénonçant un culte de la déesse, en expliquant qu’il s’agit d’une pensée trop peu politique. Toutes ces critiques sont partielles. Certes, il y a des textes écoféministes qui sont essentialistes ou spiritualistes mais ce n’est pas du tout la totalité du mouvement. Il y a aussi des textes clairement constructivistes avec une analyse marxiste en règle. La grande majorité des autrices écoféministes déconstruisent l’association traditionnelle entre « femmes » et « nature ». Elles analysent la façon dont le patriarcat s’est construit historiquement en rejetant les femmes du côté de la nature, mais elles ne valident pas cette association. La sociologue Ariel Salleh par exemple explique clairement que non seulement les genres sont une construction sociale, mais aussi les sexes : pour elle, il s’agit d’un continuum, et non pas d’une division binaire. On est donc très loin de l’essentialisme !

Quant à Maria Mies ou Rosemary Ruether, elles reprennent les concepts de Marx sous un angle féministe, en faisant de la division sexuelle du travail le fondement du patriarcat. Même si elles s’intéressent aussi aux constructions idéologiques, culturelles, symboliques qui sous-tendent le patriarcat, elles s’inscrivent bien là dans un cadre matérialiste, fondé sur l’analyse des rapports entre production et reproduction : on est donc aux antipodes de l’idéalisme !

Tous les gens qui critiquent l’écoféminisme devraient lire les écoféministes. De plus, ce qui fascine le plus dans l’écoféminisme, c’est justement ce qu’on lui reproche. Le côté spirituel avec les rituels, et les sorcières. Cela intéresse les médias et les gens car c’est original, « vendeur » et séduisant.


Ces critiques sont-elles un moyen de rendre l’écoféminisme plus inoffensif ?

Comme l’expliquent bien Ève Chiapello et Luc Boltanski dans Le Nouvel Esprit du capitalisme (éd. Gallimard, 2011), le système récupère tout ce qui cherche à le détruire. Ici, le capitalisme essaie d’aseptiser l’écoféminisme, de le tronquer de tout ce qu’il a de plus politique, de subversif et d’altermondialiste. On voit même cela au niveau des institutions internationales. Aujourd’hui, inclure les mots gender et environment permet d’obtenir des subventions. C’est le nouveau discours politiquement correct qui permet d’enjoliver les politiques de « développement » au niveau mondial, avec le financement de coopératives de femmes ou de microcrédit en Inde ou en Afrique par exemple. Alors que cela ne change pas fondamentalement le système, comme le souhaite l’écoféminisme.

L’écoféminisme relie les différentes formes d’exploitation : celle des hommes sur les femmes, celle des humains sur la nature. Prend-il aussi en compte les questions de dominations coloniales ? Oui, les théories écoféministes ont toujours fait le lien entre le sexisme, le racisme, le patriarcat et la colonisation. Si la question raciale et colonialiste est au cœur des écrits écoféministes, dans la réalité il existe une vraie difficulté à faire la jonction entre le mouvement antiraciste et le mouvement écologique. Souvent, les militants qui composent ces luttes ne fréquentent pas les mêmes cercles sociaux, n’ont pas les mêmes codes ni les mêmes références. On note tout de même des tentatives de passerelles, comme l’alliance entre la génération Adama et la génération climat en juillet dernier à Beaumont-sur-Oise (Val-d’Oise). Mais traverser le périphérique, pour certains Parisiens, ce n’est jamais simple. Pourtant, il ne faut pas que les efforts soient tout le temps faits dans le même sens.

Diriez-vous que l’écoféminisme est plus radical que le féminisme du XXe siècle dit « libéral », qui plaidait pour l’égalité entre les hommes et les femmes sans remettre en cause les structures qui menaient à cette domination ?

Oui car l’écoféminisme parle des interconnexions entre différentes luttes et veut remettre en cause le système dans son ensemble. C’est une grande différence avec le féminisme libéral. Ce n’est pas un combat pour que plus de femmes dirigent des entreprises prédatrices des ressources naturelles, ou soient au Parlement pour voter des lois liberticides, ou encore pour l’ascension sociale de quelques femmes privilégiées. L’idée n’est pas d’accéder en haut de la pyramide mais plutôt de transformer cette structure même pour construire à la place un système plus coopératif, circulaire et démocratique.

Dans l’histoire des luttes sociales, les femmes ont souvent été en première ligne. Or, leur présence est très souvent occultée dans les livres d’histoire. Comment changer cela ?

L’école devrait être au cœur de ce grand chantier. Depuis les années 1970 au moins, il y a beaucoup d’ouvrages féministes qui remettent sur le devant de la scène le rôle des femmes dans l’histoire, la préhistoire, au Moyen-Âge, dans diverses cultures non patriarcales, ou encore dans la création artistique… Ces travaux existent mais ne sont transmis ni dans la culture populaire ni à l’école. Ils ne restent connus que par des gens politisés. Par exemple, dans les médias mainstream, on parle de sorcières, mais pas de l’histoire des luttes contre l’extractivisme ou de celles contre la déforestation, bien souvent menées par des femmes, car c’est trop militant.

Quelles sont les écoféministes d’aujourd’hui qui vous inspirent ?

En France, il y a une réémergence de l’enjeu antinucléaire, notamment à Bure, comme une manière de renouer avec les premiers enjeux du mouvement écoféministe. Certaines Zad incarnent également à leur façon des utopies proches de l’écoféminisme des débuts, avec son côté très « alternatif ». On remarque aussi une inscription croissante de l’écoféminisme dans le quotidien. Par exemple, un lieu de bataille important est la sphère de l’intime, la question du corps et de la sexualité : les jeunes femmes cherchent à dépatriarcaliser les rapports intimes. L’alimentation est aussi au cœur du mouvement aujourd’hui, par exemple avec le syndicat de parents d’élèves Front de mères qui milite pour une alternative végétarienne dans les cantines scolaires en Seine-Saint-Denis. Mais il semblerait que ce soit surtout en Amérique du Sud que les luttes environnementales menées par des femmes soient très vivaces, même si elles ne se qualifient pas forcément d’écoféministes.

Cela fait maintenant une dizaine d’années que vous étudiez l’écoféminisme. Comment expliquez-vous l’engouement récent sur le sujet ?

Il y a eu un effet boule de neige, avec la conjonction entre les marches pour le climat et #MeToo. L’urgence écologique est de plus en plus sensible pour tout le monde et en même temps, on assiste à un retour du féminisme, longtemps considéré comme ringard. De plus, depuis le confinement, il y a une sorte d’aspiration générale à un changement de système, avec l’impression d’être arrivé en bout de course. Les élites politiques n’en prennent pas la mesure et n’entendent pas ce qui émane de la société civile. Face à cette politique technocratique étriquée, il est compréhensible que la tentation utopique devienne irrésistible.

Pensez-vous que les jeunes filles qui découvrent le féminisme aujourd’hui s’intéressent aux théories écoféministes ?

J’ai l’impression qu’il y a une politisation, ou tout du moins une atmosphère beaucoup plus propice à l’utopie que lorsque j’avais leur âge. Peut-être qu’à mon époque, les perspectives d’avenir étaient un peu plus supportables ? Je pense à mes élèves [elle est professeure de philosophie à Marseille] qui sont dans un désarroi total. Ils ne comprennent pas ce qui les attend et les adultes n’ont pas de réponse à leur apporter. Plus personne n’a de repère clair. Comme ils ont l’impression que plus rien ne marche vraiment, ils font assez facilement le lien entre les différents problèmes. Et ce désarroi peut les amener à se radicaliser, dans une direction ou une autre.

Entre le succès du livre d’Alice Coffin, « Le génie lesbien », et celui de Pauline Harmange, « Moi les hommes je les déteste », on a le sentiment que la misandrie progresse auprès de certaines militantes féministes.

Dans un sens, je les comprends car à force de lire et de décortiquer les mécanismes du patriarcat dans toute sa violence, il est parfois difficile de garder sa sérénité. Mais je crois que cette stratégie est contre-productive. L’écoféminisme est né dans les années 1970, dans la mouvance de la contre-culture peace and love et des hippies qui voulaient la paix et la réconciliation. La misandrie peut être un premier pas vers une sorte d’éveil mais ne peut pas constituer un but en soi. On ne peut pas rester en permanence dans la lutte et l’opposition. Un des axes de l’écoféminisme est justement de dépasser cette dualité et ces oppositions. Cela m’intéresse plus de voir comment on peut apprendre à vivre ensemble joyeusement.

Vous êtes professeure de philosophie mais aussi professeure de yoga. En quoi cela vous aide-t-il dans vos recherches ?

Pour être précise, je suis encore en formation. En tous cas, le yoga est une pratique que je relie à l’écoféminisme pour de nombreuses raisons. J’ai l’impression que cela s’inscrit dans une démarche décroissante. On apprivoise le vide, l’immobilité, la lenteur, le non-agir. Au lieu de vouloir fuir dans une sorte de temps linéaire, ou dans la perspective d’un au-delà comme dans le Christianisme, on s’inscrit dans un cycle, on tente d’apprivoiser la mort. D’ailleurs, l’un des ressorts profonds du capitalisme, cette course au toujours plus, c’est un refus de la mort. Je pratique le yoga tantrique, un yoga non ascétique associé à la présence au monde, à l’émotion et au culte d’un symbolisme dit « féminin ». C’est un yoga qui permet de cultiver sa sensibilité et la non-compétitivité. On ne se compare jamais aux autres mais on apprend à chercher sa propre voie plutôt que de faire mieux que son voisin. Moi qui avais sagement suivi l’injonction sociale à faire des études très compétitives, j’ai donc dû me rééduquer et apprendre à trouver ailleurs que dans la compétition le moteur pour développer une pratique exigeante, rigoureuse et vivante.

Entretien republiée avec la permission de Reporterre.

Fighting the Patriarchy to Save the Planet

Ecofeminist thinking seeks to shed light on the ways in which different forms of oppression reinforce and sustain each other. Jeanne Burgart Goutal’s book Être écoféministe : théories et pratiques (Being an Ecofeminist: Theory and Practice) (L’Échappée, 2020) was awarded the French Political Ecology Foundation’s book prize this year. In it she explains how the ecofeminist movement sets out to challenge the dominant system as a whole, by identifying the interconnections between struggles – feminist, environmental, anti-racist, and others.

This interview was originally published by Reporterre.

Laury-Anne Cholez: There’s a lot of talk about ecofeminism, but the concept still seems poorly understood, both by ecologists and feminists. How do you define it?

Jeanne Burgart Goutal: Ecofeminism isn’t a faddish concept, but a movement born in the 1970s[1], driven by collectives and real struggles around different issues. What they have in common is the conviction that there are inextricable links between the ecological crisis and the patriarchy. According to ecofeminists, the exploitation of nature and male domination have deep shared roots, and use similar mechanisms such as objectification, devaluation, and violence.

More broadly, their analysis draws links between all forms of domination, be it class, “race”, North over South, or any other kind. At the moment, there’s much talk of intersectionality. But connecting environmental and social justice issues was already a demand of ecofeminism. For example, by rejecting implicitly sexist and neo-colonialist forms of environmentalism like the forced sterilisation of women in India in the name of population control. Or by refusing to celebrate when the emancipation of some women comes at the cost of negative social or environmental consequences.

According to ecofeminists, the exploitation of nature and male domination have deep shared roots.

Advances in equality between men and women have therefore been achieved on the backs of the most precarious, those who look after the children and the home.

This is what mainstream feminism overlooks. Sociologically, the best-known feminist theorists were often bourgeois or middle-class white women who thought about things based on their own position in society, reproducing patriarchal responses. Ecofeminism seeks to make visible what has been made invisible yet is indispensable to our lives and the economy, like domestic work (preparing meals, looking after the home and children, and so on), the overexploited labour on the other side of the world to make items for our everyday lives, or the work to regenerate ecosystems. We’ve seen this since ancient Greece with the divide between free men and slaves, who were given the tasks considered beneath humans because they were shared with animals. We need to stop trying to offload subsistence tasks onto other people and take responsibility for them collectively. But this calls into question the image of success: parents aren’t going to say to their kids that they should become a dustman, small holder, or cleaning lady. We should value these vital tasks more, both morally and financially, and undoubtedly share them more fairly, even going so far as a new division of labour.

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There are many critiques of ecofeminism: that it’s too idealist, too esoteric…

These critiques helped to discredit ecofeminism in the 1990s. For example, Janet Biehl denounced ecofeminism as a goddess cult, explaining that it was a school of thought that wasn’t political enough. There’s some truth to all of these critiques. Admittedly, there are ecofeminist texts that are essentialist or spiritualist, but this is by no means the whole movement. There are also clearly constructivist texts with a distinctly Marxist analysis. The vast majority of ecofeminist authors deconstruct the traditional association between “women” and “nature”. They analyse the way in which the patriarchy has historically been built by casting aside women as part of nature, but they don’t endorse this association. For example, the sociologist Ariel Salleh clearly explains that not only are genders a social construction, but sexes too: for her, they are continuums rather than binary divides. So we’re a very long way from essentialism!

As for Maria Mies or Rosemary Ruether, they reinterpret the concepts of Marx from a feminist standpoint, making the sexual division of labour the foundation of the patriarchy. Although they’re also interested in the ideological, cultural, and symbolic constructions that underpin the patriarchy, they take a strongly materialist approach, based on the analysis of relationships between production and reproduction: it’s the polar opposite of idealism!

Everyone who criticises ecofeminism should read the ecofeminists. Furthermore, what’s most fascinating about ecofeminism is exactly what it’s criticised for: the spiritual side with rituals, and witches. This interests people and the media because it’s original, it sells, and it’s seductive.

Capitalism is trying to sanitise ecofeminism, to strip out everything that’s most political, subversive, and anti-globalist about it.

Are these critiques a way of making ecofeminism more inoffensive?

As Eve Chiapello and Luc Boltanski explain in The New Spirit of Capitalism, the system co-opts everything that tries to destroy it. In this case, capitalism is trying to sanitise ecofeminism, to strip out everything that’s most political, subversive, and anti-globalist about it. We even see this in international institutions. Today, including the words “gender” and “environment” will get you grants. It’s the new politically correct discourse that allows global “development” policies to be dressed up, with funding for women’s cooperatives or microloans in India or Africa, for example. Yet it doesn’t fundamentally change the system, as ecofeminism seeks to.

Ecofeminism links different forms of exploitation: of women by men, of nature by humans. Does it also address colonial domination?

Yes, ecofeminist theories have always drawn the link between sexism, racism, patriarchy, and colonisation. While questions of race and colonialism are at the heart of ecofeminist writing, there is actually a real difficulty in bringing together the anti-racist movement and the environmentalist movement. Often, the activists fighting for these causes don’t move in the same circles, don’t speak the same language, or share the same touchpoints. We have, however, seen attempts at building bridges, like the alliance between the French anti-racist Adama movement and the climate generation in July 2020 in Beaumont-sur-Oise [Val-d’Oise]. But, for some Parisians, crossing the ring road is never simple. Nevertheless, these efforts don’t always have to be in the same vein.

Would you say that ecofeminism is more radical than theso-called “liberal” feminism of the 20th century, which argued for equality between men and women without challenging the structures that led to this domination?

Yes, because ecofeminism talks about the interconnections between different struggles and seeks to challenge the system as a whole. It’s a major point of difference with liberal feminism. It isn’t a fight for more women to lead companies that prey on natural resources, or to be in parliament to pass oppressive laws, or for the social advancement of a few privileged women. The idea isn’t to get to the top of the pyramid but rather to transform this very structure and instead build a more cooperative, circular, and democratic system.

In the history of social struggles, women have often been on the front line. Yet their presence is often rendered invisible in the history books. How can we change this?

School should be at the heart of this undertaking. Since at least the 1970s, there have been many feminist books that place the role of women centre stage in history, prehistory, the middle ages, in various non-patriarchal cultures or in artistic creation. These works exist but are not circulated in popular culture or at school. Only politicised people are aware of them. For example, in the mainstream media, there’s much talk about witches, but not the history of struggles against extractivism or deforestation, which are very often led by women, because it’s too militant.

Which of today’s ecofeminists inspire you?

The nuclear question has recently remerged in France, as seen in Bure [a village in north-eastern France where a disposal site for nuclear waste is planned], in a way that reconnects with the original demands of the ecofeminist movement. Some ZADs [zones à défendre – occupations by activists of “zones to defend” to prevent destructive developments] also embody in their own way utopias similar to those of the early days of ecofeminism, with its very “alternative” side. We are also seeing ecofeminism have a growing influence on everyday life. For example, an important battleground is intimacy, the body, and sexuality: young women are trying to “depatriarchise” intimate relationships. Food is also at the heart of today’s movement with, for example, the parents’ association Front de mères [Mothers’ Front] that is fighting for a vegetarian alternative in school canteens in the Seine-Saint-Denis region. But it seems to be in South America that environmental fights led by women are most enduring, even if they don’t necessarily consider themselves ecofeminists.

There’s much talk about witches, but not the history of struggles against extractivism or deforestation, which are very often led by women.

You’ve been studying ecofeminism for around a decade now. How do you explain this recent burgeoning interest in this subject?

There’s been a snowball effect with the convergence of the climate marches and #MeToo movement. The ecological emergency is increasingly apparent to everyone and, at the same time, we’re seeing a return of feminism, long considered uncool. What’s more, since the lockdown, there’s been a sort of general aspiration for a change in the system, with the impression that it’s run its course. The political elites don’t understand it and are not listening to what’s coming out of civil society. Faced with this narrow technocratic politics, it’s understandable that the lure of utopia might become irresistible.

Do you think that young women discovering feminism today are interested in ecofeminist theories?

I have the impression that there’s a politicisation, or at least an atmosphere much more conducive to utopia than when I was their age. Perhaps in my day the prospects for the future were a bit more tolerable? I think of my students [Burgart Goutal teaches philosophy in Marseille] who are totally bewildered. The don’t understand what lies ahead for them and adults don’t have an answer for them. Nobody can find their bearings anymore. Because they have the impression that nothing really works anymore, they find it fairly easy to draw the links between different problems. And this bewilderment can lead them to become radicalised in one direction or another.

With the success of Alice Coffin’s book Le génie lesbien, (The Lesbian Genius) and Pauline Harmange’s I Hate Men, some suggest that “misandry is growing among some feminist activists.

In a way, I understand them because by reading and dissecting the mechanisms of the patriarchy in all its violence, it’s sometimes hard to keep calm. But I think that this strategy is counterproductive. Ecofeminism was born in the 1970s, as part of the peace and love countercultural movement and with hippies who wanted peace and reconciliation. Misandry may be a first step towards a sort of awakening, but it can’t be a goal in itself. You can’t remain permanently engaged in struggle and opposition. One of the tenets of ecofeminism is precisely to move beyond this duality and these oppositions. I’m more interested in seeing how we can learn to live together happily.


[1] First theorised by Françoise d’Eaubonne, author of Le Féminisme ou la mort (Feminism or Death)

The Romanian Protest Wave: A Path to a New Political Era?

Over the past decades, Romania has seen successive waves of protests calling for deep reforms of the country’s politics in line with principles of democracy and social and environmental justice. The impact of these protests has been pivotal, reshaping the political landscape by leading to the rise of new parties. Raluca Besliu traces the trajectory that has led Romania to the politics it has today and explains why the country, in many ways, remains an outlier in the region.  

In 2013, Romania experienced the largest protest movement the country had seen since the fall of communism. Opposing the exploitation of a gold mine in Rosia Montana, a small town in the Apuseni Mountains, through an open-pit cyanide mining process, hundreds of thousands of protesters marched for months demanding the government end the project.

It was the first in a series of major protest movements, which, over the past eight years, have set about renegotiating the relationship between the Romanian public and their politicians and have demanded and enabled the rise of new forces in the political sphere.

The Rosia Montana protests

In 2013, the Romanian government proposed a law to allow a Canadian company, Gabriel Resources, to extract an estimated 800-4000 tonnes of gold and around 1500 tonnes of silver at Rosia Montana, using around 40 tonnes of cyanide per day.

The government, dominated by the Social Democrats and led by Prime Minister Victor Ponta, argued that the region needed the project to escape poverty. However, the region’s impoverishment was the result of governmental industrial policy, which had declared the region a mono-industrial mining area, preventing alternative types of development for Rosia Montana.

Rosia Montana was a historical moment: it opened the gateway to a overhaul of the relationship between the government and the population.

Exploiting the mine entailed destroying four forested mountains, contaminating several rivers, destroying several fragile ecosystems, and ruining over 900 historical buildings. It also required damming part of a river valley to hold 250 million tons of cyanide-laced waste.

The proposals triggered an unprecedented wave of socio-environmental protests demanding that the law be withdrawn and the project stopped. Instead, the protesters wanted Rosia Montana to become an ecotourism hub and a recognised UNESCO heritage site, due to its well-preserved Roman mines.

Taking place weekly between September 2013 and January 2014, the demonstrations attracted up to 200,000 demonstrators in 50 Romanian cities and 30 cities abroad. The largest single protest saw 20,000 people gather in Bucharest. While people were motivated by a combination of reasons, the unifying ones were anti-corruption and environmental protection.

Rosia Montana was a historical moment in the country. It opened the gateway to a overhaul of the relationship between the government and the population: people reclaimed their power and understood that they held influence over political decisions and could call for accountability and transparency about decisions taken against country’s best interests. In doing so, citizens took the first steps in relaunching the demand for long-term change and establishing a functional democracy in Romania, last claimed in the early 1990s.

The 1990-1991 “Mineriade” protests

Known as the Mineriade, Romania’s early mass-scale post-communist protests ended in horrendous violence. In June 1990, young Romanians, mostly high-school and university students, professors, intellectuals and other professionals, wanting a democratic future and disappointed by the direction their country was taking, demanded that communists and former communists, including then President Ion Iliescu, the first president of the post-communist era, be excluded from public office. The protested saw Iliescu’s government, consisting mainly of former communists, as implementing democratic reforms either too slowly or not at all.

To restore order in Bucharest and save a so-called threatened democratic regime, Iliescu called on the staunchly loyal mine workers from the Jiu Valley  to come to the capital and repress the protests.

Repress they did. Although official figures at the time indicated four fatalities and hundreds of injured, more recent estimates suggest that the actual number of people injured was above 1300, with around the same number being arrested for political reasons.

These violent episodes, most of which took place in 1990 and 1991, created a long-lasting trauma that built on the existing fear of violent repression under communism. The fear of taking to the streets for political protest would take decades to overcome. The clashes also pitted the working class against the intellectual class.

The Mineriade helped drive the first wave of post-communist emigration from the country. Tens of thousands of students and professionals sought new horizons in western Europe, the United Kingdom, and the United States, which were still accepting Romanians as political refugees at the time. The exodus had incalculable social and economic consequences for Romania, as driven, educated people with aspirations for their country left. Unlike subsequent waves of emigrants, many never returned, taking their families with them and assimilating within their receiving communities. In this sense, it was truly a lost generation for Romania.

Parallels and departures

For the Rosia Montana protests, the initial fear was that there would be violent repression from the government, like during the Mineriade, because of the extremely high stakes of the mining project. At first, politicians refused to engage the protesters’ demands, even when tens of thousands were on the streets. Then, as the demonstrators kept showing up week after the week, politicians moved to insult them. Prime Minister Ponta called them “anarchists” and “good for nothing hipsters.” A similar language of depreciation had been used during the Mineriade. Iliescu had called the protesters “hooligans” and suggested that fascists groups had infiltrated the protests to seize power.

Just like with the early 1990s protests, the Rosia Montana protesters were predominantly young, students, activists, artists, and intellectuals from across the political spectrum. While there were some incidents of pepper spraying and some arrests, for the most part the protests faced little violence. This helped protesters overcome the fear of violent repression internalised during the last major protests of the post-communist era.

The substantial difference in the governmental response stems to a large extent from the very different European environment in 2013 compared to the early 1990s. Romania had entered the European Union in 2007 and breaches of the rule of law could henceforth be reprimanded by the European Commission. Responding with violence to peaceful protesters would have cast the Romanian government in a negative light on the European stage. As a result, the Rosia Montana protesters gradually understood that the government could not and would not repress them violently.

The diaspora played a significant role in the protests. In cities across Europe and the United States, people united in front of embassies and government to demand that the project be stopped. By 2013, there were around 2.7–3.5 million Romanians living in Western Europe, mostly in Spain, Italy, and Germany. Many of them retained ties to Romania through family connections, sending remittances, and voting – often with a significant impact. In the 2009 presidential election, the diaspora vote ultimately decided the winner.

An historic win

When the Rosia Montana protests started in September 2013, nearly no one in Romania believed that they would succeed. There had never previously been an instance in post-communist Romania of the people emerging victorious from a confrontation with the Romanian government.

This time around, however, the demonstrators came with unprecedented resoluteness driven by years of disregard from a corrupt and greedy political elite that did not prioritise the country’s best interests nor its citizens’ wishes. After they made themselves impossible to ignore, the Parliament rejected the law proposed on Rosia Montana in June 2014.

This peaceful citizen victory helped reshape the political landscape in Romania. People found strength in numbers and realised that change could be achieved through persistent action. Politicians also understood that this was not the population of 20 years ago, but rather a younger generation, determined to hold their politicians to account.

People found strength in numbers and realised that change could be achieved through persistent action.

There was also a sense of deepened solidarity between the diaspora and those in the country, not perceived before. The diaspora showed that it was not there just to send remittances, but also to fight alongside the population for causes that mattered for Romania’s future.

The Rosia Montana victory was followed by a raft of political and environmental protests, such as the one opposing parliamentary immunity in 2015 and the 2014 presidential elections’ diaspora voting bloc.

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The Colectiv protests

The next crucial protest movement surrounded the Colectiv nightclub fire on 30 October 2015. The fire resulted in the death of over 60 people, mostly from burns and chemical smoke inhalation, and injured 150 others, dozens of whom were left disabled. It was the deadliest fire in the country’s history, caused by a lack of appropriate safety measures. The club had been given an operating license by the local mayor’s office without a fire safety permit. The acoustic foam on the walls ignited from pyrotechnics, causing a human stampede toward the single-door exit.

Many could have been saved, if it had not been for the systemic flaws of the medical system in Romania, left to decay by the Romanian political class during the post-communist era. The hospital care that the injured receive was inadequate. Following the fire, the government insisted that it had the capacity to treat the victims, even though the country had few burns units. Patients were only transferred abroad for treatment around eight days after the fire, which, for some, was already too late.

For others, suffering from non-life-threatening burns, staying in Romanian hospitals proved to be fatal, as they went on to die from bacterial infections due to diluted disinfectants. According to an independent analysis, some active ingredients had been diluted down to just 1 per cent against the 12 per cent recommended concentration.

This system had been set in place under the watchful gaze of mobsters running state-run hospitals as political appointees, not medical experts. Their sole loyalty was to their political patrons, with whom they shared graft money.

Outraged by the situation, on 3 November 2015, around 15,000 gathered to protest in front of the Romanian government headquarters, calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Victor Ponta, who had survived Rosia Montana, and of the local mayor who had granted the nightclub’s licence.

The following morning, the Ponta government resigned. As the first sitting premier to stand trial for corruption amid a tax fraud scandal, he was already under substantial pressure. The mayor also announced his resignation.

Nevertheless, the protesters were not appeased: they continued to gather in the days that followed, with 35,000 people demonstrating in Bucharest and 10,000 in Timisoara, among other cities, calling for a profound overhaul of the country’s politics. Solidarity protests were again held in the diaspora, in cities including London, Paris, and Madrid.

It was only on the seventh day, after Klaus Iohannis, Romania’s President, held consultations with street representatives and personally visited the main protest area that the protests stopped.

The rise of new political parties

While the Rosia Montana protests dissipated following the halting of the mining project, reaching their primary objective was not enough for the Colectiv protests. Continued protests signalled that Romanians were no longer satisfied with short-term fixes. They had understood that the real stake of their protests was the country’s future. Just like their predecessors 25 years earlier at the 1990-1991 protests, they wanted a new political class, capable of fulfilling their country’s democratic promise, and they wanted it immediately.

In 2015, the protesters’ determination was partly emboldened by a heightened awareness of high-level corruption over the past two years. Under the new leadership of Laura Codruta Kovesi, the National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA) had just launched a crackdown on political elites and authorities. In 2014 alone, the directorate indicted over 1130 figures, including politicians, prosecutors, and businessmen. In 2015, cases were filed against an additional 1250 high-level politicians, including Victor Ponta, ministers, and parliamentarians. The forms of corruption that particularly incensed people included tax evasion, procurement deals involving substantial sums of EU money, and exercising undue influence over the judiciary.

As a result of the protests, then-President Klaus Iohannis selected Dacian Cioloș, a former Romanian Minister of Agriculture and European Commissioner, to form a cabinet of technocrats in November 2015. Cioloș himself, though previously involved in politics, remained an independent.

Further capitalising on this demand for change, in 2018, Cioloș created a new centre-right political party, called the Freedom, Unity and Solidarity Party (PLUS).  His party’s creation had been preceded by the launch, in 2016, of another centre-right party, Save Romania Union (USR), as an alternative for people disappointed by the political elite. USR considered itself centrist on social issues and centre-right on economic issues. Many members had no previous political background and had diverse profiles, including ecologists, neoliberals, and activists. The party placed anti-corruption at the core of its agenda, lending its support to the civic campaign “No Convicts in Public Office,” in 2018.

In 2019, PLUS and USR joined forces to run together in the European Parliament elections, before ultimately merging in 2021. USR-PLUS is currently part of the coalition leading Romania, alongside the National Liberal Party (PNL), and the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania.

The long wait for a Green breakthrough

The Green presence at the political level in Romania remains very weak and fragmented. A Green party has existed since 2005, but has so far failed to produce any prominent leading figures. It was preceded by the Ecologist Federation of Romania, created in 1990.

An important factor hampering the rise of the Greens is the fact that the Left in Romania is still dominated by the Social Democrats.

The Greens participated in the Rosia Montana and shale gas protests and made statements opposing both projects. However, they played a minor, indecisive role, instead of using the movement as a platform to propel their ideas to the forefront of politics, especially as the youthful, urban, intellectual audience was demanding change.

An important factor hampering the rise of the Greens is the fact that the Left in Romania is still dominated by the Social Democrats (PSD) and has been for the past three decades. Despite being mired in severe corruption scandals, in the 2020 parliamentary elections, the PSD still won 29 per cent of the votes, followed by PNL at 25 per cent and USR-PLUS at 15 per cent.

The PSD’s continued position as a monolithic left-wing force sets Romania apart from other Eastern European cases, where green actors have begun to secure power, at least at the local level. In Hungary, for instance, the fragmentation of the Left after the Hungarian Socialist Party, a successor of the Communist Party, suffered defeat in the 2010 parliamentary elections, opened the door to the rise of several other left-wing groups. Most significant among them was the Democratic Coalition (DK), which has become a key opposition party in Hungary. The erosion of the traditional Left also created space for the rise of the country’s two main Green parties: Dialogue for Hungary (PM) and Politics Can Be Different (LMP). Having a strong new socialist party, such as DK, available and willing to form a coalition, played a key role in getting the opposition candidate for prime minister, Gergely Karácsony, elected as the mayor of Budapest in 2019.

The overall context is similar for the recent victory of the Zagreb city assembly and mayoral elections in Croatia in May 2021: the Social Democratic Party had been losing credibility among the traditionally left-leaning Zagreb electorate. This contributed to strengthening the position of the Green-Left Coalition, composed of smaller left-wing and Green parties, ultimately leading to its recent win.

Whether the Green party in its current form will succeed in implementing the changes needed or whether a new green or progressive party will need to take over remains to be seen.

Such a left-wing coalition is virtually unfathomable for the Greens in Romania, given the enduring popularity and unity of the PSD. Understanding this reality, the nascent parties forming in Romania knew they needed to clearly distinguish themselves from the PSD, while positioning themselves as anti-system initiatives and catering to the protests’ youthful, urban, intellectual audience. The obvious choice was centre-right.

USR and PLUS have adopted green ideas, such as developing the recycling and circular economy sectors, mass reforestation, and decarbonisation. For the Greens, this means that they now need to set themselves apart not only from PSD, but also from these new centre-right parties. This remains possible, as these parties also promote non-green policies, such as nuclear energy and Black Sea gas extraction.

As it stands though, the Romanian Greens first and foremost need an internal overhaul, before reshaping their agendas and policies. The party remains riddled with conflict between members and dominated by middle-aged men. Whether the Green party in its current form will succeed in implementing the changes needed or whether a new green or progressive party will need to take over remains to be seen.

An unsatisfied appetite for change

Popular discontent with USR-PLUS is already building. Having run a campaign on anti-corruption, they are now backpaddling, claiming that corruption will not represent a problem when it comes to the absorption of EU funds based on the national recovery and resilience plan. Meanwhile, the Romanian anti-fraud office has called on prosecutors to investigate Dan Barna, USR’s President since 2017, for alleged misuse of EU funds in several projects.

The door for change is still open, as evidenced by the phenomenal rise of the extreme-right party, Alliance for the Union of Romanians, which gained 9 per cent of the vote at the parliamentary elections of 2020, despite having only being created in 2019. As Romania has not witnessed successful far-right movements in recent times, this is a particularly worrisome trend.

The protest wave that began in 2013 has little by little reclaimed the space for the Romanian public to express the unfulfilled political demands for change and democracy of their precursors who took to the streets in Romania’s early post-communist days. This makes for an effervescent time in Romanian history, full of undeniable promise and perils ahead. There are greater opportunities than ever for new actors, including the Greens, to take the stage and shape Romania’s future.

From the Green Wave to Eco-hegemony

Despite its relative youth, the Green movement has had a profound impact on society. Today, many of the concepts and problems first identified by Greens have become part of the political mainstream, with parties of all stripes proclaiming their green credentials. Yet, across much of Europe, the real power needed to implement lasting solutions remains a distant prospect. Marc Martorell Escofet looks at how a growing public consciousness around issues such as the climate crisis could be a way to change this.

Back in 2019, in the now seemingly distant pre-Covid-19 era, the “Green Wave” seemed unstoppable. Historic electoral results for Green parties in countries such as Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, and Ireland seemed to indicate a growing trend across Europe, that also reached the European level at the May 2019 European elections. The European Green Party was the rising star in a new European Parliament that seemed to be entering a new phase, leaving behind Brexit, far-right populism, and Grand Coalitions, and looking towards new challenges – with the climate crisis foremost among them. At last, it seemed that those in power could no longer simply maintain their business as usual, and even European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen had begun to talk about the European Green Deal. Election results and political developments across Europe, such as those in France and Spain, along with the widespread mobilisation of young people protesting in the streets, signalled that for European citizens increasingly viewed the climate crisis as a top priority, with local councils and regions declaring the climate emergency all over the continent.

Then, in 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic struck. Was it the perfect storm for Green aspirations of institutional conquest?

A growing call for change

Thus far, political ecology’s strategy of choice could be described as one of “evangelisation”: Greens have tried to convince society, with varying degrees of success depending on national realities, that their proposals were common sense, especially in relation to the climate crisis, and that implementing them would not only be beneficial for humans, but also for the planet. In other words, Greens aimed at winning the battle of ideas, both on climate and more broadly, and at building up what Antonio Gramsci called cultural hegemony.[1] We should, however, see it as a Pyrrhic victory. Yes, Green proposals regarding climate alleviation are now at the centre of the political debate, thanks to effective campaigning and an improved understanding about the reality of climate change across society; yet, in most cases, it is not Greens who are leading and implementing these ideas. The worrying trend is that such policies are seen as technocratic initiatives. With climate change being evident to most people, Ministries, institutes, and companies are the ones taking the lead. Ecological proposals are adapted to suit all kinds of ideological preferences, and the political forces in favour of preserving the status quo seem to be championing them — as they still hold the balance of power in institutions throughout the world.

Climate actors in civil society are adapting to this apparent consensus by scrutinising political action and proposals and calling out empty rhetoric and gestures. As a result, denouncing greenwashing is now commonplace in most environmentalist organisations. However, the immediate actions that need to be taken are asked of the same institutions that led us here — that is, to the current climate crisis. As Ernstson and Swyngedouw argue, there has been a depoliticisation of the climate, as the issue seems to have been taken on by political actors across the board[2]. The climate has become a terrain of mainstream political competition where Greens face the challenge of distinguishing themselves.

Ecological proposals are adapted to suit all kinds of ideological preferences, and the political forces in favour of preserving the status quo seem to be championing them.

Through their efforts, Greens, climate movements, and NGOs that have long campaigned for climate change mitigation measures, have made these ideas more acceptable to the broad majority. At the same time, Greens run the risk of becoming redundant —in the sense that almost any political force or party can now put forward a proposal for an ecological transition, or at least can claim to be in support of such a transition even if this commitment amounts to little more than greenwashing. It seems, therefore, that the Green Wave, which emerged from the social consensus about the existence of the climate crisis, now finds itself up against an electoral ceiling which it is unlikely to be able to expand beyond, as long as Greens continue to base their proposals and strategies on the need for an ecological transition. At least, in a post-pandemic world.

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This is why the development of a “climate citizenry” – a cohort of climate-conscious citizens who have been converted by the messages from Greens and the broader climate movement about the urgency of this issue – is so significant for Green demands to gain ground. For these citizens, not only has the climate crisis become a top priority, but they are also eager to mobilise in order to demand that climate change mitigation policies be put into practice. Yet for some, this does not translate into direct political action and support for those who are willing to put in place the sweeping changes and broad reforms that are needed. In order to convince these citizens about the need for a re-politicisation of the climate, it is insightful to draw on systemic analysis such as that of Andreas Malm or the “tell the truth” demand from Extinction Rebellion. Both concepts force political ecology to be honest if it is to take over the institutions: the former refers to the need for a total systemic change, meaning that ambitious policies that push the line forward for climate policy must be applied. The latter refers to acknowledging how we arrived at the climate crisis, and specifically identifying who is to be held accountable for that. Combining both, it becomes clear that, in order for political ecology to be fully in line with the challenges the climate crisis poses, it needs to demand regime change, and not only argue for more effective reforms to be implemented.

Green visions must be firmly rooted in reality

What are the implications of this realisation, in the system we live in? Our current democracy is ultimately a political system where elite change takes place by peaceful means. If we aim for the Green Wave to maintain its potential strength, we should ensure our objectives are clear. In her work Reform or Revolution, Rosa Luxemburg argued that what differentiates a revolutionary from a reformist is the will of the former to change the system, whereas the latter only aims at aesthetic reforms that don’t involve real, substantive change. In the 21st century, such a dilemma — whether to continue with climate reforms or push for a paradigm shift — is one that Green movements must confront.

It is important to acknowledge that the changes society needs to implement are highly radical, and to be understood as drastically changing our way of life — or, at least, the Western model. To work towards these, the Green Wave must expand its institutional takeover, as only from holding the political power can ambitious Green proposals be fully rolled out. However, this push for change should not be conceptualised as a single revolutionising event, act, or moment in time, as the scope of Green policies and ambitions go well beyond this. In the world we live in, aiming at creating a tabula rasa, simply ignoring that Green policies are built within the neoliberal order, is naive. An effective strategy, therefore, is one aiming not only at reaching power, but maintaining it for long enough that the changes and solutions put in place are no longer reversible. Greens need to appeal to the climate citizenry — and thus use the widespread concern for the climate as a stable electoral base from which to grow.

Eco-hegemony as a counterforce to populism

In Europe, we generally understand populism as a strategy identified with the far right; we associate it with fear-mongering speech and the scapegoating of marginalised and under-privileged groups. However, the Latin American emancipatory tradition sees it as a tool aimed at supporting progressive policies. As Ernesto Laclau argued, building a “people” through politicising the multiple sovereignties that make up the state is a necessary step to maintain the climate of opinion that sustains a progressive government.[3]

Politicising the climate, making it a platform from which we can build actual governments, requires the creation of political subjects, or “peoples”.

Álvaro García Linera, Vice-President of Bolivia between 2006 and 2019, provides an example of this. He argues that, in order to obtain the power, the dominated segments of the population need to organise to sustain the political struggle against those who hold the power. Following the experiences in Bolivia, he argues that only through broadening the alliances between those who began the political struggle, and those who joined the cause later, can political change be fully implemented. In other words, the Bolivian experience shows how, in order for a progressive government to obtain and remain in power, it must not only convince its support base, but also broaden it so the political support becomes hegemonic across the whole of society.

Politicising the climate, making it a platform from which we can build actual governments, requires the creation of political subjects, or “peoples”. In fact, these subjects already exist: we can see them in the climate movements and in the broad, undefined category of the climate citizenry. So, while populism is a strategy that aims at recovering an illusory national sovereignty that could rule the world as it supposedly once did, eco-hegemony, conversely, should aim to build a democratic base of peoples, or of citizens, that pushes those in power to deliver the necessary measures to tackle the eco-social crisis. This image of “peoples” would not be based on imbuing spaces of belonging with mythical significance by reclaiming sovereignty, but rather on trying to empower citizens for them to lead the way towards a Green institutional revolution.

The power of alliances to deliver change

For a full discussion of eco-hegemony in practice, it would be necessary to look at cases where Greens have been in power for a sufficient length of time to need to seek continued electoral support for their policies. Such cases are extremely limited, however some insights can be gained from the Catalan experience – specifically that of Barcelona.

After the hard, first lockdown in Spain from March to May 2020, people rediscovered the importance of having a city where life is actually possible. Climate movements organised to even go even further beyond traditional demands: the Recuperem la Ciutat (Reclaim the City) platform demanded spaces within the city dedicated to community life, while the Revolta Escolar (School Revolt) movement gathered several schools, parents’ organisations, and climate activists demanding safe and clean school environments, free from cars and pollution.

Such movements could not be understood without the local council initiatives that put the city at the centre of climate change mitigation measures, with superblocks or car-free areas around schools. However, both these movements surpass institutional dynamics, as they aim to reach their objectives in a more immediate timeframe than that in which public policy generally operates, and push for more extensive action than was originally foreseen. Indeed, they demand that the City Council take immediate action in most schools in Barcelona, while the institutional timing is subject to each project’s planning and implementation.

These highly demanding movements represent, of course, a possible danger for a rising political ecology, in that they clearly show the limits for delivering public policy. At the same time, such a dynamic is its greatest asset: social mobilisation creates a climate of opinion that allows the incumbent government to be more ambitious in its institutional work. In terms of creating the cultural hegemony that all progressive policies need in order to be maintained, this process can be compared to populism, but it pushes political ecology to go beyond its own limits – clashing with the systemic ceiling our market democracies impose on all political parties.

In a post-pandemic context, with rising social inequalities, building a political ecology adapted to the current age cannot be based only on climate change mitigation.

Connecting climate and quality of life

The cases mentioned clearly involve policies that could be described as “Green”. Both are related to improving the environment, even if they have a more direct relation with society – they are, after all, within our comfort zone. How could eco-hegemony be expanded beyond those boundaries?

In a post-pandemic context, with rising social inequalities, building a political ecology adapted to the current age cannot be based only on climate change mitigation. These experiences demonstrate the potential for people – those who are concerned about climate change – to be mobilised and involved in the process of change Greens are calling for, when their priorities align. Would parents’ organisations occupy city streets if they were not motivated by a sense of concern for their own children’s health? Perhaps those who are dedicated activists, but it is doubtful whether the majority would.

One of the basic tenets of political ecology is to defend life on Earth, for humans and non-humans. A strategy based around eco-hegemony should consider life not as the mere state of existence, but as the capacity for living with dignity. Such an approach would see material needs – housing, food, health, etc. – and post-material ones – clean environment, comfort, energy, etc. – as inseparably intertwined. The defence of life, both as a political platform and a political strategy, could pave the way towards eco-hegemony, allowing Greens to provide the radical change we all need.


[1] Gramsci, Antonio (1971). Selections from the Prison Notebooks. International Publishers.

[2] Ernstson, H., & Swyngedouw, E. (2019). Politicizing the Environment in the Urban Century. In H. Ernstson, & E. Swyngedouw, Urban Political Ecology in the Anthropo-obscene: Interruptions and Possibilities. (Questioning Cities). Routledge.

[3] Laclau, E. (2005). On Populist Reason. Verso.

Germany: Towards a Socio-Ecological Market Society?

The political choices Germany faces in the coming years – on issues such as the environment, the economy, and the significance of freedom – will be of great consequence. Will the next chancellor be up to the task? And what kind of coalition agreements are likely to be on table? In the second of a two-part series, Reinhard Olschanski looks at the contenders and potential scenarios, and sets out what is at stake.

The Greens in Germany are fighting to become a leading force in the federal election for the first time. But the 2021 Bundestag election campaign is not just about winning the chancellorship, but also establishing hegemony in the centre-left. The question is whether social democracy can reclaim its ancestral place as leader of the centre-left, or whether the Greens will establish themselves permanently. After so many years in power, are the Social Democrats (SPD) temporarily weakened or permanently damaged? Since 1998, they have governed in coalitions for a total of 19 years; seven as the party of the chancellor (Gerhard Schröder) and 12 under Angela Merkel of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Is the rise of the Greens a sign of a major turning point – in the Federal Republic and perhaps even beyond?

Ecology and hegemony on the centre-left

There is some evidence that the rise of the Greens, within Germany and elsewhere, represents a trend away from a culturally more homogeneous, social democratic, and labourist left and towards a more culturally plural and ecological centre-left orientation. Ecology, the first core brand of the Greens, has morphed into a political paradigm of its own over the past 50 years. It has set itself alongside the older paradigms of liberalism, socialism, and conservatism, becoming associated with issues such as the fight against nuclear power, climate and biodiversity, sustainable development, mobility, and food and nutrition, and has successfully reformulated many of the issues of the older paradigms as well. Given the current centrality of ecology, it is surprising it has taken 200 years for the ecological question to join the social question as a fundamental issue of industrial modernity.

After so many years in power, are the Social Democrats temporarily weakened or permanently damaged?

In retrospect, socialism, liberalism, and conservatism, despite their familiar differences, were always united by a common meta-ideology: industrialism. Nature appeared as the arbitrarily exploitable Other, as dead clod. Romanticism and the life reform movement had already pointed out the blind spots of this industrialist worldview. But they were always considered only as marginal currents, whereas today global warming and species extinction fundamentally call into question human living conditions and require fundamental social and economic changes to be made.

The Fridays for Future movement provided an additional impetus to ecology’s rise to prominence. The movement demanded that the self-declared “climate chancellor” Merkel honour the commitment to effective climate protection she had made at the beginning of her term and when she signed the Paris Climate Agreement. The students’ criticism that the government was gambling away the future of the young generation made a great impact upon the political system. The CDU/CSU and SPD quickly negotiated a new climate law and, at the insistence of the Greens, went even further than their original plans.

The Federal Constitutional Court took the same line as the activists. In a landmark ruling, it partially overturned the new climate law, and thus backed up the activists’ political and moral claims with a legally binding interpretation of the constitution. The court put the onus on policymakers to demonstrably deliver the German share pledged in the Paris Agreement. For the court, putting this problem on the back burner meant placing an excessive burden on future generations and restricting their freedom. Through this legal mechanism, climate protection is now also explicitly referred to as the protection of freedom in German jurisprudence. The ruling is a mandate for greatly strengthened climate protection and goes beyond the matter at hand to provide a legal basis for the new, expanded logic of the Federal Republic. It sets a course whereby politicians need to commit to bringing the new basic ecological consensus, that has long been emerging in society, to bear.

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A new understanding of freedom

The ruling is also important for a contemporary understanding of freedom, a concept central to the German Constitution, and thus provides clues to the definition of what a liberal society can be today. The philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel fought all his life against views that equated freedom with arbitrariness and impulses. He was referring not least to representatives of contemporary Romanticism. But today’s populists and market radicals, those who identify prohibition and tyranny in every rule, from social and environmental legislation to face masks, also fit in the same category.

In Germany, the main representative of such a narrow conception of freedom is the right-wing populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). But even the market-liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) has formulated a watered-down variant of this rhetoric. Without calling the liberal constitution into question, its communication stirs up opposition and taps into the population’s fatigue with the pandemic. In the longer term, the focus is on aversion to state regulation, particularly widespread among the FDP’s clientele of the liberal professions and small and medium-sized businesses. If the CDU/CSU were one day to suffer the historic decline that has hit other Christian Democrat parties in Europe, not only the AfD but also the FDP would be likely to benefit.

The FDP abandoned the social liberal path to the present a good 40 years ago, during the Reagan and Thatcher eras, when it marginalised its left wing. By doing so, the Greens were able to take the left-liberal field largely without a fight, and the Greens subsequently developed it into their second core brand, alongside ecology. Today, after a long phase of cultural change and despite all the authoritarian countertendencies, social liberalism is deeply attractive to a large section of society. It therefore further increases the Greens’ chances of becoming the hegemonic force on the centre-left.

Meanwhile, market-radical liberalism appears tarnished but, as seen in the Trump administration or parts of the AfD, it can succeed in a dangerous mix with populism. The basic political opposition of the future may be between ecological-left-liberal and populist-market-radical positions.

Distortions on the Right and the Left

The pluralisation of the party system is leading to increasingly colourful coalitions at the state level in Germany. Only the AfD remains largely on the sidelines. However, the election of an FDP politician as prime minister of Thuringia with votes from the CDU and the AfD showed that there are also forces in the CDU/CSU and FDP that are willing to cooperate with the far right. Although the episode in Thuringia ended with the swift resignation of the incumbent after nationwide protests, it is a dangerous development for the post-Merkel era. The opening of the CDU/CSU to right-wing populism as seen among the American Republicans is not an imminent threat in Germany, but it remains conceivable in the medium and longer term. One recent positive sign is that Reiner Haseloff, the CDU prime minister of Saxony-Anhalt, an eastern and more rural state, convincingly won his state election by distancing himself from the AfD.

After its populist adventure with the AfD, the CDU in Thuringia cooperated in the re-election of the popular, pragmatic Die Linke (The Left Party) politician Bodo Ramelow as prime minister. Nevertheless, the left wing of Die Linke, especially in western Germany, persists in radical positions that isolate the party. This wing still calls for Germany’s withdrawal from NATO and an opening towards Putin’s Russia. These stances currently rule out a government majority with the Greens and SPD – even if it were numerically possible. Some previously left-wing voters have now turned to the AfD, and left-wing figures such as former SPD chairman Oskar Lafontaine and his wife Sahra Wagenknecht want to win back these votes with a mixture of socialist and nationalist rhetoric. The debate has further split the party and, against this backdrop, Die Linke may fail to clear the 5 per cent threshold in September.

Colour games

As things stand, only the CDU/CSU, the Greens, the SPD, and the FDP remain as potential coalition partners. A new grand coalition of CDU/CSU and SPD is rather unlikely because of the deep fatigue within social democracy but also because it may not have the numbers. Speculation about a “German” coalition, a black-red-yellow coalition of the CDU/CSU, SPD, and FDP, is more of a thought experiment entertained for tactical reasons. Such a constellation would look like a posthumous extension of the grand coalition.

It is unlikely that the Greens will push ahead of the CDU/CSU and lead a green-black government.

A two-party coalition of the CDU/CSU supported by the FDP would be straightforward but the parties will struggle to win a joint majority. A new edition of the failed Jamaica coalition (black-yellow-green) attempt of 2017 is more likely. But equally likely is a two-party black-green coalition, which looks numerically achievable. For the Greens, taking the chancellorship for the first time is of course tempting and does not seem out of the question in a Green “traffic light” coalition with the SPD and FDP. The SPD naturally dreams of a traffic light under its leadership in the event of the party overtaking the Greens.

With poll numbers around 30 per cent, which are very weak for the CDU/CSU, the party is still well ahead of the Greens. So it is unlikely that the Greens will push ahead of the CDU/CSU and lead a green-black government. Moreover, it would be a serious challenge to the ego of the old conservative People’s Party. In Baden-Württemberg, the Greens have just entered into a coalition with the CDU for the second time after winning 33 per cent in the state elections in spring, proving that in principle this option can work. But in the federal government the weights are distributed differently, so that even a result of around 20 per cent would be a success for the Greens – after a rather meagre 8.9 per cent in 2017. For many observers, therefore, black-green is the most likely combination.

The socio-ecological market economy: A new social compromise?  

Regardless of the colours involved, in terms of content, an ecological turnaround in politics is likely to prevail. The 2020s will see an ambitious push for reform around ecology and sustainability, involving a comprehensive decarbonisation of the economy and everyday life, a rapid expansion of renewables, a reinvention of mobility, and a turn toward more sustainable agriculture. These are the widely shared aspirations for the next government. In the best case, steps for reform will get underway that will lead to a new and expanded social compromise for the republic.

The 2020s will see an ambitious push for reform around ecology and sustainability.

The old social compromise, the “Rhineland” model, was that of a social market economy combining the dynamism of the market with solidarity-based protection against its risks. Such thinking is part of the DNA of Christian democracy as seen in the Christian socialist influences found in the party’s early programmes. Today, the task is to broaden the foundation in the direction of a socio-ecological market economy. Ultimately, the ecological question must be addressed alongside the social question, and treated as fundamental for the republic, and the dynamism of markets must be aligned with both social and ecological requirements.

A socio-ecological market economy could become the new consensus and the politico-institutional orientation of the Berlin Republic, which still lingers. If the Berlin Republic wants to come to terms with itself, it should develop a socio-ecological market economy as its guiding principle for the 21st century. A timely and highly urgent alternative to a declining market radicalism, the socio-ecological market economy is also a programme for the future of liberal democracy.

Chancellorship in the 2020s

Even Armin Laschet, the candidate viewed as the current favourite to become chancellor, should recognise that such a refoundation is the great task of German chancellorship in the 2020s. The main competitor, Markus Söder, had recognised the prize and was very obviously reaching out for it. It is surprising how half-hearted Laschet’s attempts have proved so far. The Rhenish Christian Democrats were always very aware of how much they had shaped Bonn’s Rhenish Republic. But they have barely begun to understand that what is at stake today is the far-reaching rewriting of a Berlin Republic.

Without being an economist himself, Laschet is strongly influenced by the old industrial roots of his home region of North Rhine-Westphalia where, until recently, energy giants dreamed simply of stalling the energy transition. With Laschet’s assistance, a 40-billion-euro coal phase-out by 2038 was agreed. In effect, it amounts to extending the damaging and increasingly unprofitable use of coal. With his patronage-oriented coal policy, Laschet shows that he has not yet recognised what is expected of Angela Merkel’s successor.

Laschet also plays ecology off against social issues while opposing many proposals that approach the ecological and social questions in a sustainable way. He does not advocate an increase in the minimum wage, which could mitigate possible additional burdens from climate policy for people on lower incomes. He does not want deeper cuts in climate-damaging subsidies, and he is also stonewalling on a citizens’ energy subsidy to compensate for higher carbon prices, as proposed by the Greens.

Instead, Laschet is planning a feel-good election campaign. After the pandemic has subsided, German citizens are to be bothered as little as possible with politics and campaigns: Everything will be fine! No green scaremongering! Knight Armin will drive away all worries, just like Mother Merkel did in the old days. It is not clear whether this strategy will work. Smiling away the great need for change might not cut it. Faced with a young and impatient generation, this tried-and-tested Christian Democrat strategy could go very wrong. July’s disastrous floods, in which Laschet’s home region was particularly affected, demonstrate that the issues of climate and flood protection cannot simply be pushed into the background. Moreover, video footage of a candidate laughing heartily while visiting the disaster region has lost him many sympathies.

However, Laschet is not a dogged fighter for the old. It is therefore not inconceivable that he will also come to terms with a black-green coalition in the federal government. On the other hand, even if the Greens do not succeed this time in gaining the chancellorship, such a constellation could nevertheless pave the way for a Green-led government in the medium term, as was the case with the emerging SPD. Social Democrats governed in the Federal Republic’s first grand coalition as junior partners to the CDU/CSU from as early as 1966, before Willy Brandt took over the chancellorship for them in 1969. At that time, the junior partner role benefited the SPD as much as it harms it today.

A new phase of the Berlin Republic seems possible, a decade in which it finally comes into its own as a socio-ecological market society.

Mature pluralism

A positive aspect of Germany’s pluralistic situation is that the representatives of the front-running parties are dealing with the situation relatively pragmatically. People have become accustomed to coalitions as have the politicians involved. For the time being, the increasing pluralism of culture and politics in the Federal Republic has not been leading to kind of tribalisation seen in the United States under Trump.

Germany will have a new chancellor after the election and probably also a new combination of parties in government. The chances are strong that it will be a stable government that will not plunge the country into any adventures but instead will tackle issues of ecology and sustainability more decisively than before. A new phase of the Berlin Republic seems possible, a decade in which it finally comes into its own as a socio-ecological market society that takes on the major issues of globalisation and digitalisation. If this turns out to be the case, and Germany acts as a player firmly anchored in Europe that faces up to geopolitical challenges, this is far from the worst signal the country could send.

Trapped in a Populist Imagination: Slovenia under Janša

On July 1st, Slovenia took over the rotating presidency of the EU. However, the country’s relations with the EU are currently strained, as Prime Minister Janez Janša and his party continue to pursue a course of populist tactics and rhetoric, undermining democracy and curtailing freedoms and fundamental rights. Political scientist Alem Maksuti provides some insight into Janša’s regime and its rise, and where it might be headed.

Green European Journal: Since Slovenia is rarely the focus of international news, how would you sum up the situation in the country to those living outside it?

Alem Maksuti: In Slovenia, a minority government is in power: The Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS) is currently in coalition with two conservative parties and supported by a far-right Eurosceptic party. The fourth coalition member (Democratic Party of Pensioners of Slovenia) left the coalition in December in protest at the “Orbanisation” of Slovenia. SDS is led by the autocrat Janez Janša. His policy is a dead-end from which there is no return. It is a delusion that is poisoning foreign relations, impoverishing society, and slowly but surely pushing Slovenia towards the periphery of Europe. Janša bases his political strategy on what he calls “anti-communism”; he speaks of an unfinished transition (from communist, multinational Yugoslavia to an independent Slovenia) and advocates for a “second republic”, constantly emphasising the shortcomings of the former Yugoslav regime.

Over the past year, in the self-righteous manner of his role model, Donald Trump, Janša has been seeking to usurp practically all the branches of the state, from the media to the courts. In addition, the measures implemented by the Slovenian government in the fight against Covid-19 are simply not working. Janša has lost the trust of citizens. People are frustrated, and the government does not have majority support among the public (only about 30 percent). Thus, the only solution would be early elections, which Janša is avoiding any way he can. He is aware that there will be no willing coalition partners with which to form a new government in the next parliament. He went too far. His policy has no future.

The next elections are due in 2022. Talking to The New York Times, the philosopher Slavoj Žižek argues that it is too early to write off Janša, in part due to the ”impotence of the Left”. Could he yet make a comeback, or is he too isolated and weak?

A victory for Janša at the next elections would only be a Pyrrhic victory because he will not have a majority in parliament to form a coalition. That is the first problem.

Žižek’s assessment of the impotence of the Left seems abstract to me. I understand that the Left has many problems, but the results of the next elections in Slovenia will be determined by anti-Janša sentiments. We have four opposition parties that will most likely form the next coalition. Janša will be relegated to the right corner of parliament where he’ll remain as a destructive opposition. Of course, the strength of Janša’s party depends on the relations within the party system. In this sense, it is not possible to write him off completely. There is always the possibility of him coming back but it is still too early to speculate about that.

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Authoritarian populist leaders usually start their takeover of democratic institutions with the courts, the media, and civil society. Are all these institutions under attack?

Janša, like Trump, denies reality and continuously labels those who confront him with the consequences of his actions as his greatest opponents. In this sense, his biggest opponents are the political opposition, the media, the courts, and, of course, the people. A good example of Janša’s attitude towards the independent media, is his treatment of the Slovenian Press Agency (STA). The government threatened to withhold the funding of the STA, even though it is obliged by law to guarantee its operations, and despite the European Commission’s warnings.  

Practically every month, the Constitutional Court points to the unconstitutional nature of laws sent to parliament by Janša’s government. Janša and his ministers react by calling this a conspiracy by the Constitutional Court, whose nine-member senate includes Dr. Rok Čeferin, the brother of Aleksander Čeferin, UEFA president. So the conspiracy is supposedly led by forces of the deep state, of which the Čeferin family is alleged to be one of the fundamental pillars.

All Janša has is anti-communism. His party’s political essence was cemented in 1991, from which it has never moved on.

What were the reasons for Janša’s electoral victory? The refugee crisis is often mentioned, but do economic challenges and the country’s Yugoslav or post-Yugoslav history play a role?

It is characteristic of all European countries for there to be between 5 and 10 per cent support for right-wing nationalists. As the average turnout is around 50 per cent, and this group is more likely to vote, this 5-10 percent support will turn into a 10 to 20 per cent vote share for parties with nationalist rhetoric. The same goes for Janša’s SDS party. Regardless of what is on the political agenda, his party in Slovenia gets around 20 per cent.

All Janša has is anti-communism. His party’s political essence was cemented in 1991, from which it has never moved on. If you watch or read the SDS’s own media, you have the feeling that they are still in the 1990s, with Janša taking on the role of the main character, a role which he enjoys and to which his constituents agree in exchange for treating their own frustrations. In this way, the circle between the leader and his supporters is closed.

Janša does not respect democratic standards, but has he overseen their deterioration to the point of compromising the integrity of elections and ending the level playing field for other political actors?

Yes. Of course. In the past, Janša only recognised elections in which he was the winner, and this will go on in the future. In the 2014 elections, for example, he claimed that the election was stolen from him just because he was in prison at the time, being convicted in the Patria affair (a political controversy surrounding claims of bribery of Slovenian officials by the Finnish defence industry company Patria).

He claimed that the 2018 elections were illegitimate because his SDS party received the most votes (close to 25 per cent) but still did not manage to form a coalition. This is, of course, pure nonsense in a multi-party democracy. Janša, like Trump, only acknowledges elections in which he is the winner. He wants the media to report according to his truth. Everything else is superfluous to him; and he would rather abolish the mechanisms of democracy. He is a classic autocrat, just as Viktor Orbán is.

Janša is seen as a close ally of the Hungarian prime minister. Hungarian investors (close to the governing Fidesz party) have in recent years invested in media outlets supportive of Janša’s party. This gives the impression that Hungary is attempting to create another “illiberal democracy” in its neighbourhood. What role does Hungary play in Slovenia?

Janša is fascinated by Orbán’s political style. But Slovenia is not Hungary, and the SDS is not Fidesz. In a proportional multi-party system, the SDS will never get an absolute majority. However, Hungarian influence in Slovenia has been growing over the years.

Janša, like Trump, only acknowledges elections in which he is the winner.

First of all, this influence is especially evident when we look at the media outlets close to the SDS party. They run a propaganda machine of one party (SDS) and one man (Janez Janša), following the example of Orbán and the media in Hungary. (In some cases with the involvement of Hungarian investors.) The problem is that these “media” are promoting all kinds of racists, homophobes, and other lunatics. They attack opposition politicians, journalists, intellectuals, and even ordinary citizens, who dare to be critical of the government and the cult of “Janšism”. In Slovenia, these media are referred to as “the factory of evil” by the majority of the public.

The second aspect is the political influence of Hungary. The ruling coalition wants the Hungarian state and companies to invest in Slovenian infrastructure projects (such as the second track of the Divača-Koper railway line). As these are projects financed from the state budget, the government makes direct decisions. Janša wants to make the most of this political power.

The third area of influence is private investment. At the forefront, of course, are financial funds and banks. The most recent example is the Hungarian OTP bank, which bought a stake in the Slovenian NKBM, making it a larger banking group than NLB (once the largest state-owned bank). Although these are the operations of independent companies, the circle of people around Janša and his party have been implicated in numerous corruption scandals, which means that we have to monitor developments in this area very carefully.

What exactly does Janša’s party stand for ideologically?

Janša’s political capital rests on the ideological basis of nationalism, which substantiates national sovereignty by the principle of ethnicity. This is contrary to the idea of liberal democracy, based on ​​the sovereignty of citizens, and opposed to the nation as the organic category.

Democracy presupposes freedom of choice between different interests by different social groups; nationalist ideology is based on the link between nation and territory. Janša has used the nominal transformation of the old Yugoslav one-party system into a quasi-plural society, characterised as a multi-party system, to hide his intention to create a new form of authoritarian state organisation. Janša’s policies confirm this with each passing day.

You argue that a possible early election would be likely to put an end to Janša’s reign. But would a new government be capable of cleaning up after the SDS and rebuilding democratic institutions?

The next government will face several challenges as a legacy of Janša’s regime. The first problem will be the rehabilitation of public debt, as the Janša administration dug a multibillion-euro hole in the budget. Restoring trust in state institutions will also be a difficult task.

Slowly but surely, we are sinking into the living mud, from which it will be increasingly difficult to escape. The opposition, such as it is, should therefore get serious. Now is not the time to debate post-material values, ecology and the fate of the planet. The most successful opposition party will position itself among loosely allied parties as the leader and agent of change in the next parliamentary elections.

As of July, Slovenia holds the rotating presidency of the EU Council. This will be the second time it has done so, since the country joined the EU in 2004. The first presidency in 2008 took place during Janša’s first term as prime minister, at a time when his politics were far more moderate. Will this presidency be marked by conflict?

The first thing to remember is that the EU Presidency is a matter of protocol that would be carried out regardless of the political party and prime minster in power (although Janša, of course, believes that he alone is capable of it).

Janša’s politics are determined by ideological positions and permanent conflict. For example, the war with the media is the essence of his individuality, which means he will never stop with the politics of conflict. Throughout his career, Janša has been addressing the most paranoid elements of the Slovenian society with simplified conspiracy theories with the aim of creating general mistrust and paranoia, which will develop an environment for action and increase his own privileges. He communicates by selectively choosing the arguments he uses to form his own truth. Regardless of Slovenia’s EU presidency, he will continue to do this.

What can the EU do to help Slovenia’s democracy?

First, the EU should have zero tolerance for Janša’s policies that encroach upon the field of independent media and the judiciary, or that undermine other state institutions. Secondly, the EU should categorically defend the rule of law and democracy in Slovenia. Janšism builds on the actions of an individual or organised groups that, without objective criteria and legal basis, take matters into their own hands. Whenever they try to do so, the EU should clearly condemn it.

It would also be useful for the Slovenian people for Janša and his actions to be closely scrutinised during the Slovenian presidency. It is necessary to finally reveal who he is and what his policy is.

The governing SDS is a member of the European People’s Party (EPP) in the European Parliament. Is this a source of conflict in Brussels, or does it rather provide shelter for SDS?

I am convinced that important changes will take place in this area in the future. The EPP’s policy is becoming too narrow a framework for Janša and his SDS. For example, while preparations for the presidency of the Council of the EU were in full swing, Janša and his party were preparing a congress resolution entitled “For the defence of the constitutional foundations of the Slovenian State” – a cheap populist pamphlet in which Janša and his party colleagues deal with an imaginary opponent: “cultural Marxism, Leninism, Kardeljism (roughly: Yugoslavism), and the deep state, which is connected with foreign networks and movements (Antifa, Black Lives Matter and Woke ideology)”.

The memory of World War Two is still a more useful mobilising tool than the protection of the environment and the planet.

All of this is the ideological underpinning of Orbán, Matteo Salvini, and other people who believe the world is one big conspiracy. Janša actually believes that Slovenia is ruled by a deep state; that the world is led by George Soros through non-governmental organisations; that Hitler and the Yugoslav president Josip Broz Tito are equal criminals; that in Antifa the fascists are disguised as communists. All this is the basis for a new group of parties in Europe that are turning the political space and history upside down.

How do you see the role of progressive parties such as the Greens (both on the European and the national level) in fostering change or protecting democratic institutions in the country?

The result of the election in Slovenia (or in other democracies) is influenced by more than just party programmes, depending on the political context in which elections take place. Of course, a wide variety of ideological options are welcome in a democracy, as they enrich the democratic process. I am not convinced that in the abundance of parties in Slovenia (the current Parliament is made up of nine parties, five of them in opposition), the Green parties will succeed in addressing their voters. The integration of Green parties with the EU level is definitely a good starting point for success. It should be noted that national issues prevail in the national political arena, which are often related to ideological topics for domestic voters. In this sense, the memory of World War Two is still a more useful mobilising tool than environmental protection and the protection of the planet. It is sad, but that is our reality.

Occasional meetings of the opposition bloc are not enough. Debates on a green and digital future will also not help. The conciliatory discourse of the President of Slovenia Borut Pahor is also not the right path. It is necessary to set up a political platform for the categorical rejection of everything that comes from the SDS party and its satellites. We need a clear political platform that will condemn Janšism and all the practices of this ideology and will change the structure of the Slovenian state and society day by day. We need anti-Janšism as a political platform.

Europe’s Foreign Policy: A Catalogue of Errors

From diplomatic mishaps to national leaders undermining the bloc’s position, the EU’s foreign relations have been rocky for some time. Instead of being led by its principles and taking up opportunities to reinforce its alliances, the EU’s tendency to trip itself up and hinder its own efforts has become increasingly apparent. It’s now time for the EU to reassert its credibility on the global stage, Reinhard Bütikofer argues, by not only speaking the language of power but also acting on it.

Winston Churchill is reported to have said about Unites States foreign policy that, “Americans will always do the right thing – after exhausting all the alternatives.” In other words, in foreign policy the US always finds a way out, but only after it has thoroughly investigated all blind alleys and faux pas. If only it were possible to speak of the EU’s foreign policy with such optimistic sarcasm. Instead, only cynical remarks come to mind: “EU foreign policy is always able to come up with a brilliant strategy while making sure that nobody takes it the least bit seriously;” “EU foreign policy has invented the perfect perpetual motion machine, gaining energy from every defeat for future failures;” “The louder the EU calls for a unified foreign policy, the more certain it is that nothing of the sort will happen.”

The EU’s habit of getting in its own way

An example from this year is the humiliation served up to EU Foreign Policy Commissioner and EU Commission Vice-President Josep Borrell during his February 2021 visit to Moscow. Borrell had, contrary to advice from various quarters, travelled to the Russian capital ill prepared and from a position of weakness, only to be scolded like a schoolboy. Adding insult to injury, the Russian government subsequently declared that it no longer had political relations with the European Union. This move signalled starkly that Russia perceives the EU as weak. More followed in April: Moscow placed sanctions on European Commission Vice-President Věra Jourová and European Parliament President David Sassoli in retaliation for European sanctions over the poisoning of opposition activist Alexei Navalny. Almost without exception, you would have needed a magnifying glass to see any reaction from the European capitals. Only Jourová showed any emotion, while the rest remained impassive as ever.

By imposing mild EU sanctions on China for serious human rights abuses against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang in March 2021, Brussels at least initially appeared willing to take symbolic action. Faced with the harsh reaction of the Xi Jinping regime, it was able to agree on a unified position. In the European Parliament, only the left-wing GUE/NGL group, which includes Germany’s Die Linke, stuck to the argument that economic interests, no matter how short-sighted, must take precedence. However, even here the German government – and above all the chancellor herself – proved to be a massive obstacle to much needed European unity. Merkel seemed intent on apologising to China’s dictator for the fact that the EU, against Xi’s and Merkel’s will, had found the human rights violations in Xinjiang sufficiently atrocious to merit sanctions against several of the individuals responsible. In passing, the chancellor’s office said that the oft-invoked “common values” were of no operational significance for German foreign policy.

April brought further stumbles when Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Council President Charles Michel indulged in their own special piece of theatre with “Sofagate” during an official visit to Turkey. The background to this inglorious drama, which will go down in the annals of EU history, was the bad-natured competition between two presidents who begrudge each other their rank. This rivalry had already been demonstrated in the very first year of their respective terms of office, during a veritable race to the African Union in Addis Ababa, which briefly gave the impression that the EU might actually be interested in strengthening ties to the African Union. But that wasn’t the point; it was about presidential bingo: who could shake more hands with the heads of which delegations? In Turkey, the two presidents were obliged to operate as a pair because, while overflowing with confidence individually, they didn’t trust each other an inch. Charles Michel who, unlike von der Leyen, had a protocol officer, used this occasion to place her on a side sofa instead of an equally powerful armchair, and to humiliate her in the seating arrangement at the lunch table and elsewhere as well. Von der Leyen could have turned this faux pas to her advantage had she focused on the reason behind the visit – the EU’s policy towards Turkey – rather than on her own bruised feelings. She then miscalculated by blaming the incident on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, certainly responsible for his fair share of blunders but here simply a gloating observer.

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The list of recent failures is so extensive that many of the missteps have faded from memory. The cancellation of an important August invitation to Ukraine by President von der Leyen’s chef de cabinet, in breach of protocol and on the implausible grounds that they would be too busy during the Brussels holiday month to send a signal of solidarity with Ukraine, nearly sank without trace. The fact that von der Leyen’s commission – who exactly was responsible remains unclear – poured oil on the flames of the long smouldering Northern Ireland conflict in a misguided attempt at a show of strength vis-à-vis Boris Johnson in the turmoil of Brexit back in January 2021 has been largely forgotten. The fact that the EU was a helpless observer of the military conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh in the summer of 2020 and was unable to dampen the conflict was again forgotten – after Presidents Putin and Erdoğan had exploited the situation for their own benefit.

Merkel and Macron have both wasted too much time talking about autonomy without proving their own ability to act.

Jump-starting a stalled transatlantic partnership

Throughout this period of geopolitical error and absence, Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Emmanuel Macron had largely turned a cold shoulder to US President Joe Biden’s efforts to revive the transatlantic relationship; Europe must not remain indifferent to this. Tremendous distrust of the US reigns in Merkel’s chancellery, while Macron is clearly intoxicated by his own concept of European strategic autonomy but has not ultimately identified to whom this is addressed: the EU as a whole, “core Europe”, or simply “la France éternelle”? Unfortunately, the fact is that Merkel and Macron have both wasted too much time talking about autonomy without proving their own ability to act.

Moreover, they seem unaware that Biden needs to work quickly if he wants to avoid becoming a lame duck president after the 2022 midterm elections, and he won’t wait for Europe forever. He is already actively engaged. The three recent summits – G7, NATO, and the EU-US summit – highlight his determination to bridge divides and bring like-minded partners together in solving the challenges of the 21st century.

A new beginning in the transatlantic relationship is emerging. The EU-US summit has made some progress. The fact that the wretched Airbus-Boeing dispute is finally to be buried after 17 years is satisfying, even if it triggers some head shaking about how the US and the EU have been able to deal with this strategic stupidity for so long. There is also an agreement on the EU’s proposed Trade and Technology Council (TTC), which is a step in the right direction. Progress has been made, but a lot of work remains ahead of us. Other trade disputes, such as US tariffs on European steel and aluminium, have unfortunately not been resolved. And in spite of all the summitry that took place, there was a glaring lack of progress when it comes to climate change. This is not a time for complacency. The transatlantic partnership is moving forward again, but it mustn’t lose momentum in tackling the pressing issues of our times.

Biden has understood that we cannot simply return to the status quo ante Trump, ante Obama. Too much has shifted in the world and the transatlantic relationship to simply recycle old formulas. US “leadership” must be redefined as “partnership in leadership”. Europe need to spell out the path to forming a common camp of democracies against authoritarianism with the US and other partners without merely subordinating itself to the hegemonic struggle between the US and China. It will not be at all easy to bring the bilateral relations between individual European nations and the US, woven of varying strengths, down to a common EU denominator. But if the EU’s two strongest countries, France and Germany, refuse to take on integrative leadership responsibilities in the EU in the process, all that will remain in the end is frustration and fragmentation.

Even when the EU has the instruments it needs for new approaches, it seems no one is willing to use them.

Speaking power, wielding power

Relations with China will be a litmus test of all parties’ abilities to hold their own on the global stage. Unfortunately, it often seems as if a self-deceiving fatalism prevails in the face of this challenge, as it does with climate change. Some still ignore or deny the magnitude of what must be done, while others have fallen prey to resignation, believing that they cannot effectively influence the direction of developments anyway. This position is not suicide out of fear of death but infirmity out of fear that a cure might not work. In the face of massive upheavals, only consciously designed change can create stability and yesterday’s failures cannot simply become justifications for continued apathy. Borrell rightly said that the EU must learn the language of power. There is hardly anyone who hasn’t quoted this true phrase. But even when the EU has the instruments it needs for new approaches, for instance the Connectivity Strategy, it seems no one is willing to use them.

Biden, on the other hand, is moving ahead and has used the G7 summit to push forward his proposal of an international infrastructure initiative – “Build Back Better World” – in response to the Chinese Silk Road. Still, so far it is little more than a strategic idea agreed upon by like-minded partners. It must be filled with action, but apparently the EU still can’t get its act together to use its Connectivity Strategy and move from conceptual work to a more concrete contribution to international governance.

The EU is not currently meeting the full potential of its foreign policy capabilities, nor has its power been sapped to the extent that recent events suggest. It would be a positive development if parliaments, often more sensitive to current challenges than entrenched executives, could play a more important role in foreign policy. Moreover, Germany also has an important role to play in a renewal that has been a long time coming. I hope that “where the danger lies, also grows the saving power”. The expectations currently projected onto the Greens reflect the aspirations of many to do better than the miserable status quo.

Everyone’s Problem: Tackling Air Pollution in Europe’s Cities

Air pollution is estimated to lead to about 400,000 premature deaths across Europe every year and awareness is growing about its nefarious effects on people’s health. Thanks to the work of campaigners and high-profile cases such as the tragic death of a young girl in the UK – public authorities across Europe seem to be taking action at last. But exactly how are these commitments being converted into real action in cities around Europe? And are the measures being taken sufficiently tough to protect those most at risk?

In December 2020, air pollution was ruled to have played a part in the death of a nine-year-old asthma sufferer, Ella Kissi-Debrah, in February 2013. The inquest into Ella’s death found levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) near her home in London exceeded World Health Organization (WHO) and European Union guidelines. The coroner concluded Ella had been exposed to “excessive” levels of pollution, the main source of which was traffic emissions.

This ruling marked a watershed moment in the fight against air pollution in the UK. Following her daughter’s death, Ella’s mother, Rosamund Kissi-Debrah, launched a campaign to prevent other families from experiencing similar tragedies, raising awareness of the dangerous impact and risks of air pollution for health and calling for a clean air act in the wake of the landmark ruling.

In a report dated 21 April 2021, the coroner, Philip Barlow, wrote that during Ella’s illness between 2010 and 2013, “there was a recognised failure to reduce the level of nitrogen dioxide to within the limits set by EU and domestic law which possibly contributed to her death. Ella’s mother was not given information by health professionals about the health risks of air pollution and its potential to exacerbate asthma. If she had been given this information, she would have taken steps which might have prevented Ella’s death.” Barlow called on the UK government for a law to prevent future deaths. “The national limits for particulate matter are set at a level far higher than the WHO guidelines. The evidence at the inquest was that there is no safe level for particulate matter and that the WHO guidelines should be seen as minimum requirements. Legally binding targets based on WHO guidelines would reduce the number of deaths from air pollution in the UK,” he wrote.

Ella’s mother, Rosamund Kissi-Debrah, launched a campaign to prevent other families from experiencing similar tragedies.

Responding to the coroner’s recommendations, the government announced on Clean Air Day 2021 that it would take action, aiming to have new legal air pollution limits in place by October 2022. Kissi-Debrah welcomed the move but said the new legal limits should come into force sooner and criticised the lack of urgency in the government’s actions.

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EU law to reduce national emissions

Beyond the UK, air pollution is also moving up the agenda in other countries and at the European level. Data from the European Environment Agency shows that almost all Europeans still suffer from air pollution, leading to about 400,000 premature deaths across the continent.

Before Britain left the European Union, it was part of a major piece of EU legislation called the National Emissions Reduction Commitments Directive. Under the EU Directive, EU member states have made commitments to reduce their emissions of pollutants by 2030. The EU’s expectation is that, when fully implemented, it will reduce the negative health impacts of air pollution by almost 50 per cent by 2030.

However, a European Commission report in June 2020 has sounded the alarm bells about failings in its implementation, pointing out that “most Member States are at risk of not complying with their 2020 or 2030 emission reduction commitments.” In its press release, the Commission adds that “effective implementation of clean air legislation forms an essential contribution to ‘a zero-pollution ambition for a toxic-free environment’ announced by the Commission in the European Green Deal and related initiatives.”

By adopting the EU Directive, EU member states agreed to reduce their emissions of five pollutants (nitrogen oxides (NOx), non-methane volatile organic compounds (NMVOC), sulphur dioxide (SO2), ammonia (NH3) and fine particulate matter (PM2.5)) by 2020 and 2030. EU legislation requires them to prepare a national air pollution control programme outlining how they will meet their emissions reduction targets in all sectors, including domestic heating and agriculture.

Only Belgium and Slovakia on track to meet their commitments

In a report released in December 2020, the European Environment Bureau (EEB), a network of environmental citizens’ groups with 160 members in more than 35 countries, paints a bleak picture of the situation. The EEB’s analysis shows that only two member states (Belgium and Slovakia) are on track to meet the targets for the decade between 2020 and 2029, while only Belgium is on course to satisfy its 2030 commitments. The EEB therefore wants the European Commission to exert maximum pressure to rectify this situation.

“With our health and our environment at stake, it is a scandal that all but two member states have fallen so short of their commitments to reduce air pollution over this critical decade,” said the EEB’s Senior Policy Officer for Air and Noise Margherita Tolotto. “We call on the European Commission to start infringement procedures against all the member states which have failed to submit a lawful programme.”

With regard to infringement procedures, Stefan Šipka a policy analyst at the European Policy Centre, a Brussels-based think tank, explained that, where EU member states do not meet mandatory EU rules, the European Commission can take the case to the European Court of Justice, where national governments could face fixed fines or daily penalties if they were to be found in breach of the rules.

This is very important for many reasons. Firstly, driving up standards of air quality helps ensure that people are healthier, which is good for them as individuals but also good for the economy as they will be less likely to be off sick. Secondly, national governments across the EU need to comply with an EU law that they signed up to or they risk losing credibility vis-à-vis citizens.

On the plus side, there have been improvements in air quality in Europe, as noted by the European Environment Agency (EEA). In its 2020 Air Quality in Europe report, the EEA writes that: “Thanks to better air quality, around 60,000 fewer people died prematurely due to fine particulate matter pollution in 2018, compared with 2009. For nitrogen dioxide, the reduction is even greater as premature deaths have declined by about 54 per cent over the last decade. The continuing implementation of environmental and climate policies across Europe is a key factor behind the improvements.” The EEA adds that, “since 2000, emissions of key air pollutants, including nitrogen oxides (NOx), from transport have declined significantly, despite growing mobility demand and associated increase in the sector’s greenhouse gas emissions.”

Brussels: NGOs push for more ambitious targets

Belgium, as we saw earlier, is on track to meet its emissions reduction targets. According to EU law, the annual average concentration of NO2 must not exceed a specific measurement, i.e. 40 µg/m³. A Belgian NGO called Les Chercheurs d’Air [literally the “air seekers”] says that, in 2020, it was the first time the limit hasn’t been breached in any of the official monitoring stations, mainly because of the lockdown and teleworking measures taken due to COVID. Yet, as the only safe level of air pollution is 0, the NGO argues that this limit should be brought down to 20 µg/m³.

Generally speaking, the reduction in nitrogen oxides (NOx) in Europe is clearly a positive development given that, as noted by Les Chercheurs d’Air, the pollutant, which comes from road traffic, has particularly damaging effects on health such as weakening lung functions, risks related to asthma and chronic bronchitis and an increase in the risk of obesity and diabetes.

Les Chercheurs d’Air is campaigning hard for better air quality along with organisations such as Greenpeace Belgium and Client Earth. Pierre Dornier, the founder of the NGO, explained that his organisation works hard to ensure that air pollution issues stay on the agenda of politicians and in the public eye, helps people understand the issues and follow the latest political discussions. The NGO works with other organisations to mobilise citizens and does things like lobby for the creation of a zero-emission zone, more cycle lanes and lobby for car parking spaces to be removed.

He said that under the current plan in Brussels, which will be reviewed soon, vehicles powered by diesel will be banned from 2030 and vehicles powered by petrol will be banned from 2035, which is not at all ambitious in his opinion (in Paris diesel vehicles won’t be allowed anymore from 2024 and petrol ones from 2030). He also said that discussions were ongoing, including with Wallonia and Flanders authorities and other stakeholders such as car lobbies, for the Brussels Region to introduce a “distance tax” (based on a vehicle’s emissions, with the principle being that the further you drive, the more you pay) via a so-called “Smart move” programme.

Les Chercheurs d’Air itself is running a public awareness project where it gives “citizen scientists” equipment to measure air quality in various parts of Brussels (e.g. near schools). The project began in October 2020 and will end in October 2021. It is not yet known when and how the results will be released.

London: Voters signal tackling pollution a priority

The British government has put the EU’s National Emissions Ceilings Directive into UK law. However, now that Britain is outside the European Union, the crucial enforcement part of the EU law will no longer apply, says Ian Wingrove, press spokesperson for Jenny Jones, a Green member of the second chamber of the UK’s Parliament, the House of Lords, where she has introduced a Clean Air Bill. That clearly removes one avenue for legal redress where the UK does not meet its commitments.

Now that Britain is outside the European Union, the crucial enforcement part of the EU law will no longer apply.

As Wingrove explained, in the early 2000s, air pollution was not much of an issue in London politics. “It was in the 2012 London mayoral elections that air pollution started registering as a very important issue in London,” he said. “For years, the Green party were the only politicians campaigning strongly on this issue. Air pollution was a key issue in the London elections, with the results showing the clear desire of the voters for action.”

Among the major achievements of air pollution campaigners so far has been Transport for London’s “ultra-low emission zone”, which currently covers central London. The principle is that vehicles not meeting the ultra-low emission zone (ULEZ) standards must pay a daily fee to drive in the zone. Sadiq Khan, the recently re-elected mayor of London, has recommitted to expanding the world’s first Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ) in October this year to reduce toxic air pollution and protect public health. However, Khan is still determined to push ahead with massive road projects for the capital, such as the Silvertown Tunnel – which Green members of London’s local assembly strongly oppose.

A key player in what London has achieved in improving its air quality is Simon Birkett, Founder and Director of Clean Air in London. Birkett has also represented air pollution stakeholders on the steering group for the United Nations Environment Programme’s sixth global environment outlook.

“In the past, London’s Clean Air Act [of 1956] was about getting rid of the ‘great smog’ caused by domestic coal burning and factories in London. In the period up until now, the evidence about the negative effects of pollutants such as particulate matter and NOx [from diesel] has built up. The “dieselgate” scandal [where Volkswagen was caught faking emissions data] has increased the appetite for action and has been effective in making people upgrade their vehicles,” says Birkett. He explained that the key for success in campaigning has been to build up public understanding via articles and blogs plus legal pressure from organisations such as Client Earth.

London’s May 2021 mayoral elections were, as local, regional, national, and European elections will be in the future, key moments for voters to move the air pollution agenda forwards. In a video ahead of the elections, Birkett called on mayoral candidates to commit to new World Health Organisation guidelines (due out in July), build public understanding of air pollution and climate change, ban diesel and promote walking and cycling, support a new Clean Air Act that takes account of modern fuels and technologies and show leadership on air pollution at the next UN climate change talks, the COP 26, later this year. That seems to be a good blueprint for other campaigners looking to have an influence on future elections.

Post-Covid?

Looking to the future, solutions relating to cycling and taxing cars are not the only ones. Governments and municipal authorities can and should also invest in public transport (e.g. buses running on renewable energy), green spaces or heating and insulation.

Long-term exposure to air pollutants causes cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, which have both been identified as risk factors for death in Covid-19 patients.

In terms of the links between the coronavirus pandemic and air quality, the European Environment Agency 2020 report notes “60 per cent reductions of certain air pollutants in many European countries where lockdown measures were implemented in the spring of 2020”. Whilst the report states that more research is needed on the link between air pollution and the severity of Covid-19 infections, it notes that long-term exposure to air pollutants causes cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, which have both been identified as risk factors for death in Covid-19 patients.

Stefan Šipka noted that the cleaner air may be linked to people changing their transport habits but added: “When we go back to ‘normality’, will this be an old [pre-Covid] normality or a new normality where the air we breathe is clean. That’s an issue for municipalities, as well as the EU and national governments.” He also drew attention to the potential link between higher pollution levels and lower immunity/more exposure to disease.

And, without going into specific details of specific pollutants, he argued that the EU needs to move its air quality standards, which are currently less stringent than World Health Organisation (WHO) standards, closer to the latest WHO standards.

As can be seen, whilst there have been improvements in air quality across Europe, there is still much to be done. The European Commission is pushing for more to be done. In May, the Commission adopted an EU Action Plan entitled Towards Zero Pollution for Air, Water and Soil. Its sets out a vision for 2050 for a world where pollution is reduced to levels that are no longer harmful to human health and natural ecosystems, as well as the steps to get there.

Improving air quality to reduce the number of premature deaths caused by air pollution by 55 per cent is one of the EU Action Plan’s key 2030 targets in the context of reducing pollution. And one of the Action Plan’s flagship initiatives is to align air quality standards more closely to the latest recommendations of the World Health Organization. Making the transition towards environmentally sustainable energy and mobility solutions will of course need considerable financial investment but the potential benefits are huge. This is a golden opportunity to make cities healthier and safer.

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