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.

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.

Penser la Démocratie pour une Europe Souveraine

Les déficits démocratiques – réels et perçus – sont depuis longtemps le talon d’Achille de l’Union européenne. À mesure que le rôle de l’Union s’élargit, les débats autour de ses mandats démocratiques et constitutionnels ne feront que croître. Est-ce là le signe d’une émergente appartenance à une communauté politique, elle-même condition essentielle à toute démocratie ? Compte tenu des différences profondes qui perdurent entre les pays en termes de traditions et de processus politiques, mais aussi en ce qui concerne les conceptions de la souveraineté et de la démocratie, le développement d’une vision commune reste un exercice délicat.

Edouard Gaudot : Participation électorale en hausse, figures transnationales, Brexit, des signaux faibles montrent que notre vie politique nationale devient de plus en plus européenne. Que signifie pour vous cette dynamique pour le futur de l’Union et sa démocratisation?

Shahin Vallée : C’est un peu étrange à dire, mais j’ai quand même un sentiment d’optimisme nourri par les crises récentes. La crise de la zone euro mais pas seulement, la crise migratoire ensuite, et puis les différents troubles géopolitiques qu’on a vécus ces dernières années, ont aiguisé la conscience de débats transnationaux. C’est la première fois qu’on s’intéresse autant à travers l’Europe à un référendum en Grèce, à une élection allemande, à la possibilité que Le Pen gagne la présidentielle en France.

Ce qui est frappant, c’est que cela émerge alors que nous n’avons ni les organes de presse, ni des partis politiques adaptés à cette une nouvelle réalité. Par exemple, c’est assez étonnant qu’aux dernières élections européennes il y ait eu, au fond, si peu de tentatives de véritables nouvelles expériences politiques transnationales en dehors de cas comme DiEM ou Volt qui ne me paressent pas d’ailleurs particulièrement concluantes. Donc moi j’ai un brin d’espoir parce que la transnationalisation est réelle, et elle est en marche.

Je suis d’accord qu’il y a bien eu une amélioration, mais est-ce vraiment allé si loin ? Quand je regarde les élections américaines qui ont dominé pendant six ou sept mois les médias en Allemagne, avec tous les jours une histoire sur l’Ohio, le Texas etc. … alors qu’on a que très peu entendu parler de la nouvelle formation d’un gouvernement italien ou des élections néerlandaises, et encore moins des questions politiques de ces pays. Ou la situation en Slovénie par exemple : il y a très peu d’attention pour ce qui s’y passe de terrible, alors qu’il s’agit de la prochaine présidence de l’UE. C’est pourquoi je ne vois pas d’avancée majeure vers une approche européenne des informations.

En revanche ce qui m’inquiète, c’est de voir les mêmes désinformations diffusées sur tous les réseaux sociaux et médias partout en Europe. Ce qui contribue à former une opinion publique européenne alternative, basée sur les mêmes informations erronées ou faussées. Pendant la pandémie, le complotisme à propos des vaccins était visible un peu partout, avec des fakes news répandues dans toute l’Europe et qui plus est à une vitesse incroyable. Il y aurait bien une opinion publique européenne mais qui me fait plutôt peur.

Quant à l’espace médiatique et aux partis politiques européens, je pense qu’on n’y est pas encore. Et c’est d’ailleurs pour cela qu’on se bat pour une coopération beaucoup plus étroite entre les médias publics, pour les soutenir, les réformer, créer une plateforme commune. Il y aura un enjeu très important sur le futur de l’espace médiatique en Europe avec le Digital Service Act. Si on n’arrive pas à gérer cela ensemble, on sera perdus.

J’ai un brin d’espoir parce que la transnationalisation est réelle, et elle est en marche.

– Shahin Vallée

Edouard Gaudot : La deuxième leçon de cette décennie de crises est ce que Luuk van Middelaar appelle la « politique de l’évènement » qui a accompagné l’affirmation du Conseil européen comme l’acteur politique central du jeu institutionnel. Au détriment du Parlement qui est marginalisé dans la prise de décision et au détriment de la Commission qui cherche sa place entre « secrétariat du Conseil » et initiatives communautaires. Est-ce que c’est une tendance problématique pour la démocratie européenne ?

Shahin Vallée : En fait, il y a un accident de l’histoire qui a transformé la théorie institutionnelle en une pratique différente de ce qui était originellement attendu. Quand le traité de Lisbonne entre en vigueur au début de la crise de la zone euro, on crée à ce moment le Conseil européen avec pour la première fois des pouvoirs clairs, notamment cette présidence permanente. Dans la crise, le Conseil va jouer un rôle déterminant et se substituer à la Commission dans le rôle d’exécutif européen. Et ça c’est un peu fortuit. Je pense que si le traité de Lisbonne était entré en vigueur à un autre moment, on n’aurait pas eu autant cette « exécutivisation » du Conseil européen.

Cette dérive s’est ensuite solidifiée à travers plusieurs crises successives et crée un précédent dont il va être assez dur de se défaire. Le génie est sorti de la bouteille et j’imagine mal qu’on puisse l’y remettre, pour être honnête, même avec une chancellerie verte en Allemagne et un président de la République vert en France. Je pense que le seul moyen de remettre à plat cette organisation institutionnelle ne se fera que par un changement de traité, et pas un changement cosmétique, mais une modification profonde qui rendrait des prérogatives exécutives plus fortes à la Commission et surtout un contrôle démocratique renforcé du Parlement européen.

Franziska Brantner : En fait, on a le même effet au niveau des États membres. En Allemagne, ce qu’on a vu pendant toute la crise sanitaire, c’est Merkel et les 16 chefs des Länder en réunion toutes les 2 ou 3 semaines pour tout décider. C’est la même logique que pour le Conseil européen. À mon avis, il faut se poser plus précisément la question : pourquoi a-t-on cet effet-là ? Une des raisons est que le mode d’organisation de nos gouvernements nationaux, avec une démocratie libérale classique, divisés en ministères classiques n’est tout simplement plus à la hauteur des crises internationales devenues très complexes. On ne peut plus aujourd’hui dire « c’est le Conseil des ministres de l’environnement qui fait ci, c’est le Conseil des ministres de la santé qui fait ça » : ce n’est juste plus assez pertinent parce que ça n’aide pas à résoudre les crises que nous affrontons. Les enjeux sont devenus trop complexes face aux pesanteurs de nos approches institutionnelles et demandent une rapidité de réponse qui est absente aujourd’hui.

Et dans les parlements c’est pareil : entre la commission des affaires européennes, la commission de la santé etc., ces commissions se chamaillent pour savoir qui aura le droit d’inviter la Commissaire européenne à la santé. Comment voulez-vous que les parlements soient efficaces et rapides quand ils sont eux-même prisonniers de ces structures-là ?

In Frankreich gibt es nur einen Conseil des ministres der alle Ministern versammelt und der auch nur Conseil des ministres heißt. Vielleicht ist hier aber auf Deutschland verwiesen? Wenn nicht könnten man es auf folgender Weise umformulieren: „c’est le ministre de l’environnement qui décide ceci, le ministre de la santé cela ».

Edouard Gaudot : Justement, les parlements : on appelle généralement au renforcement des pouvoirs du parlement européen – voire des parlements nationaux. Est-ce la clé pour renforcer la démocratie européenne ?

Franziska Brantner : Les deux niveaux sont nécessaires. Par exemple, il est clair qu’en France le Parlement devrait être renforcé. Dans la coopération entre l’Assemblée Nationale et le Bundestag, je vois régulièrement à quel point l’Assemblée Nationale est faible. « On ne peut pas faire de injections au président », c’est une phrase courante quand je parle avec nos collègues français. Ils n’osent même pas prendre de décisions communes parce que d’après leur interprétation, la Constitution ne donne pas ce  rôle au parlement. Mais du coup, s’il faut sans doute renforcer et moderniser le niveau national, c’est pareil au niveau européen. Et puis, il faut réinventer nos parlements, avec des dynamiques comme les conseils citoyens tirés au sort et ajuster les commissions pour travailler beaucoup plus de manière interdisciplinaire.

Shahin Vallée : C’est vrai que cette faiblesse est en partie inscrite dans la constitution française mais c’est aussi en partie une dérive historique de la Ve République. Nous pourrions avoir, à constitution inchangée, un Parlement plus actif. D’ailleurs, chaque président français promet des réformes constitutionnelles, ou a minima des réformes électorales qui pourraient permettre de renforcer à la fois la représentativité du Parlement et ses pouvoirs. Mais à chaque fois on est déçu. C’est aussi une des raisons de la crise politique si aiguë en France.

Même si aucun système politique n’est parfait, une des forces fondamentales de la stabilité politique allemande, c’est son parlementarisme et son système de vote largement proportionnel. Ça reste pour nous écologistes français un point d’horizon même si je comprends que pour un écologiste allemand ce ne soit pas l’alpha et l’omega. C’était d’ailleurs pendant un moment un grand combat des Verts français une VIe République parlementaire, mais on en entend plus autant parler, c’est assez étrange.

Edouard Gaudot: Et au niveau européen ?

Shahin Vallée : A défaut de pouvoir changer les traités – et je pense que l’on peut et qu’on doit changer les traités – il y a aussi des pratiques qu’il serait important d’établir ou rétablir comme l’élection du président de la Commission. En 2014, le processus de désignation du président de la commission dit Spitzenkandidat qui donnait au Parlement un rôle prépondérant dans le choix du président de la Commission européenne était un processus un peu bricolé puisqu’il n’est pas inscrit dans les traités. Mais cette pratique a été remise en cause de manière assez unilatérale par Macron en 2019. Je pense que c’est quelque chose sur lequel on devrait revenir. Il fallait avoir une lecture plus fine du processus de Spitzenkandidat. Dans un système de coalition à l’italienne par exemple, il ne suffit pas de gagner l’élection pour devenir président du Conseil mais le fait d’arriver en tête vous donne la première chance pour essayer de construire une majorité. Un principe de ce genre pourrait souligner l’importance du Parlement européen dans la désignation du chef de l’exécutif européen et lui permettre d’exercer un contrôle plus fort sur ses actions.

Vu d’Allemagne, on a l’impression que le Parlement européen est la grande force de proposition et qu’on l’utilise trop peu.

– Franziska Brantner

Franziska Brantner: Pour nuancer, rappelons qu’en 2019 le Parlement européen n’était pas uni sur une candidature non plus, comme il l’était en 2014. Mais pour revenir à la question, je pense que le Parlement européen fait déjà un assez bon travail. Bien sûr il lui faudrait plus de prérogatives sur le budget, ou bien sur les questions de politique étrangère. Mais en attendant, ce qui est important c’est qu’il puisse porter les sujets du futur. Montrer qu’on est collectivement à la hauteur des attentes des citoyens, qu’on s’occupe des nouveaux sujets. Là, je pense que le Parlement européen fait un meilleur job que le Bundestag. Vu d’Allemagne, on a l’impression que le Parlement européen est la grande force de proposition et qu’on l’aperçoit trop peu : une force du futur, même avec des pouvoirs encore trop moindres.

Edouard Gaudot : La conférence sur le futur de l’Europe est maintenant lancée. Peut-on considérer que c’est une chance pour le débat citoyen ? Que peut-on en attendre ? Des listes transnationales, des changements institutionnels ou quelque chose d’autre, le « futur » comme disait Franziska ?

Franziska Brantner : J’espère qu’elle ne se résumera pas simplement à la question institutionnelle ou aux listes transnationales – certes, ce sont des sujets importants, mais, si on fait tout ce débat pour aboutir à cela, ce serait vraiment dommage, parce que les citoyens attendent davantage et ce ne sont pas là leurs premières préoccupations. Ce qui va être important, c’est de traiter par exemple la santé et du coup les questions de compétences dans ce domaine. Tout le monde comprend en ce moment les limites, avantages et inconvénients de l’UE dans cette crise sanitaire. Un deuxième sujet urgent serait la question du rôle des frontières dans une crise. Comment gère-t-on les régions transfrontalières ? Il y a plein de thèmes qui sont à la hauteur des enjeux et qu’il faudrait essayer d’aborder :  Climat, justice, défense de nos libertés.

Shahin Vallée: Sur la conférence, j’étais assez optimiste au départ. Je pensais que cet objet politique inventé au moment des élections européennes était utile. Maintenant force est de constater que deux ans exactement après, cette conférence sur l’avenir de l’UE est largement sans objet. On ne connait pas précisément son objectif et elle est dotée d’une gouvernance baroque qui entame sérieusement sa capacité à délivrer quoi que ce soit. Plus le temps passe, plus elle me rappelle un autre objet politique mis dans l’atmosphère et qui s’est crashé assez lamentablement, qui était les conventions démocratiques lancées en 2017 après l’élection présidentielle française, prises en charge par la Commission européenne et les services diplomatiques de la France et qui ont produit à peu près rien du tout.

Franziska Brantner : Zero, que de la frustration !

Shahin Vallée : Et je crains que cette conférence sur l’avenir de l’UE soit la même chose. Cela dit, je reste optimiste malgré tout. Depuis 2019 les bouleversements assez profonds en Europe comme la crise sanitaire qui pose la question des compétences de l’union mais aussi la réponse économique, de nouveaux enjeux politiques comme la capacité d’endettement ont pris forme, ce qui fait qu’on n’a plus besoin de cette conférence artificielle sur l’avenir de l’UE pour parler du futur. Mon parti pris aujourd’hui c’est de laisser la conférence mourir de sa belle mort, dans son couloir quelque part et attelons-nous par contre à remettre de la politique dans les chantiers institutionnels et constitutionnels qui ont émergé ces derniers mois. Quel avenir pour les ressources propres de l’UE ? Quel avenir pour les règles budgétaires européennes ? Quel avenir pour la capacité d’endettement commun ? Voilà les sujets qui doivent animer le débat public et politique européen.

Tout le monde comprend en ce moment les limites, avantages et inconvénients de l’UE dans cette crise sanitaire.

– Franziska Brantner

Edouard Gaudot :Mais alors, même-si nous admettons que cette conférence ne soit pas à la hauteur de nos espérances, il y a quand même un processus derrière pour impliquer les citoyens.

Franziska Brantner :  Pour ma part, je ne suis pas si négative sur la conférence, si on mène les vrais débats sur le climat, l’euro, l’international, la santé, cela peut donner des impulsions. Après, arrivera-t-on à les intégrer dans le débat politique ? C’est à nous de prouver qu’on est à la hauteur. Le processus est nouveau aussi : les participants seront des citoyens tirés au sort avec des experts ajoutés. C’est une nouvelle méthode et on verra si elle aboutit à autre chose.

Shahin Vallée : Le seul aspect a priori novateur de cette conférence, c’est une volonté affichée d’implication citoyenne. Je ne suis pas encore convaincu que ce sera plus qu’un symbole, donc je demande à voir, mais en tout cas dans l’esprit, vouloir impliquer la société civile me parait être une bonne chose. Mais pour que ça marche il faudrait qu’on accepte de donner du vrai pouvoir à ces instances ce qui ne me semble pas être le cas. Je repense avec inquiétude aux déceptions de la Convention citoyenne pour le climat en France, où il était promis aux participants que leurs propositions seraient reprises in extenso, ce qui n’a pas été le cas. Pire que pas de démocratie délibérative, c’est la fausse démocratie délibérative et j’ai un peu peur que cette conférence mette le pied là-dedans. Mais j’espère avoir tort.

Franziska Brantner : C’est une nouvelle méthode et il convient de lui donner une chance. Par exemple dans le Baden Württemberg, nous voulons faire une convention de citoyens franco-allemands de la région transfrontalière commune comme input de la grande conférence. Avec des citoyens tirés au sort côté Alsace et côté Baden Württemberg. Dans cette période où l’on se demande « c’est quoi l’Europe ? » et si cela sert encore à quelque chose d’avoir un tel fonctionnement, je pense que cela peut aider. J’espère que la région du Grand Est sera prête à travailler avec nous. Si on arrive à à aller au-delà d’une simple conférence, vers un véritable processus sur quelques mois avec une expertise et des citoyens tirés au sort, je pense que cela peut faire avancer le projet. Et s’il y a pleins d’autres acteurs qui font pareil, il serait judicieux de lancer des initiatives et dynamiques qui nous aident. Dans le cas contraire, je ne vois pas, Shahin, d’où viendraient la force politique et la dynamique pour ces réformes dont tu parlais.

Shahin Vallée : De vous (rires).

Franziska Brantner : En tout cas, il nous faudra plus de dynamisme dans ces débats.

Edouard Gaudot :Justement, on compte souvent sur le changement de la donne politique en Allemagne. Est-ce que l’idée d’une Europe propulsé par le moteur franco-allemand est encore pertinente?

Franziska Brantner : En Allemagne, tout le monde dira que le franco-allemand est très important. Aussi chez les écologistes. Mais au-delà, est-on prêt à donner une priorité à ce couple ? Pas tous. Même au sein des Verts, il y a une certaine méfiance vis-à-vis de la politique française en générale. Quel est vraiment l’objectif de la politique européenne de la France : juste la France ? vraiment l’Europe ? comment décliner une Europe souveraine avec une alliance forte  avec les Américains ?En plus, aujourd’hui le franco-allemand est toujours nécessaire, mais jamais suffisant.

Shahin Vallée : Je suis content de parler après Franziska sur ce point-là, parce que je crois aussi en effet que le franco-allemand est une condition nécessaire au progrès européen, mais absolument pas une condition suffisante. L’erreur de la politique européenne de la France a trop souvent été de faire du franco-allemand à tout prix, parfois au prix d’accords insatisfaisants, ou de refus voire d’abandon d’autres alliances possibles. En Allemagne, il n’est pas évident pour tout le monde, y compris chez les Verts que le couple franco-allemand reste le moteur de l’UE. C’est une leçon importante. Rappelons que l’accord européen de Sibiu en 2019, pour fixer la neutralité carbone en 2050 a été obtenu par un ensemble d’Etats membres menés par la France contre la volonté de l’ Allemagne, qui a dû s’y rallier.

Ensuite le doute allemand sur le moteur franco-allemand ancré dans le fait qu’il y a des soupçons sur la politique européenne de la France est compréhensible. Macron a trop longtemps et souvent laissé croire que la politique européenne de la France c’était d’utiliser l’Europe comme un tremplin pour ses intérêts. Je comprends bien que nos camarades Allemands ne veuillent être ni le levier ni le tremplin des intérêts géopolitiques de la France. C’est là où il y a un vrai dialogue à reconstruire et une confiance à rétablir. Je pense qu’elle peut être rétablie, notamment entre Verts français et allemands : oui nous avons une véritable ambition européenne, qui n’est pas de faire de l’Europe une « France en grand ». Réussir à convaincre nos alliés et en premier lieu les Allemands est un exercice absolument nécessaire.

Edouard Gaudot : Vous êtes tous les deux en fait en train de dire qu’une des clés de la construction de la démocratie européenne, c’est de faire de la politique transnationale. En même temps, l’appel à la souveraineté, européenne et nationale est récurrent dans les débats. Peut-on pourtant envisager une démocratie souveraine européenne, malgré des institutions relativement bancales et l’absence de demos continental ?

Shahin Vallée : C’est vrai que pour les Allemands, il ne peut pas y avoir de souveraineté sans démocratie. Alors que pour les Français, habitués à un régime exécutif fort, au fond la souveraineté c’est la capacité de décider. Donc nous, on envisage bien une « Europe souveraine » qui serait capable de décider d’une intervention militaire armée, d’un endettement de 1000 milliards, d’une nouvelle campagne vaccinale. Pour nos camarades Allemands, ce genre de décisions existentielles, ne peut pas exister sans cadre démocratique et sans contrôle parlementaire associé.

Pour les Français, habitués à un régime exécutif fort, au fond la souveraineté c’est la capacité de décider.

– Shahin Vallée

Le seul moyen de réunir ces deux visions, c’est à la fois de renforcer les pouvoirs exécutifs dont dispose l’Europe, augmenter les compétences en matière sanitaire par exemple, mais aussi, pour répondre aux anxiétés françaises, les compétences en matière militaire. Mais en face de ça, il faut renforcer aussi les contrôles démocratiques et parlementaires qui vont avec ces compétences. C’est là où les Français, à mon avis, ne sont pas clairs encore sur leur capacité à transférer les pouvoirs exécutifs et leur associer un contrôle parlementaire. Au fond ce dont les Français rêvent, c’est d’une Europe qui déciderait comme la France, c’est-à-dire par la volonté de Jupiter. Et ça je pense que ce n’est pas une Europe acceptable pour les Vingt Six autres pays avec lesquels on la partage.

Franziska Brantner : La question de la souveraineté, en fait, revient à celle de la redéfinition des intérêts nationaux – et de vraiment parvenir à les définir comme des intérêts européens. J’ai souvent du mal à voir comment on arriva à une souveraineté européenne, avec un intérêt européen, si on n’est pas capable de mieux définir nos intérêts communs pour les mettre à un niveau plus élevé que les intérêts économiques nationaux.

Pour ça, il faudrait se recentrer sur les droits fondamentaux des citoyens. La charte des droits fondamentaux doit être la base de cette souveraineté européenne, afin que ces droits deviennent ainsi applicables à toutes les lois nationales. C’est plus qu’une question de revalorisation du Parlement européen. La souveraineté est quand même basée sur un intérêt à défendre. S’il n’est pas territorial, au sens  historique de la défense du territoire national, c’est quoi l’intérêt de la souveraineté ? Ce doit être un autre intérêt, supérieur. Et à mon avis cet intérêt, ce sont les droits fondamentaux des Européens. Mais pour cela, il y a encore du chemin à faire et si on se limite à la question de la défense on aura déjà perdu.

Penser la Démocratie Ecologique avec Benoît Lechat

Six ans après son décès, Benoit Lechat, fondateur du Green European Journal et chargé des publications d’Etopia, continue à nourrir notre société à travers sa pensée. Dans ses dernières publications, Benoit Lechat insistait particulièrement sur un « Green Democratic Reboot » devant combiner efficacement démocratie et écologie. Ce Green Democratic Reboot devait être logiquement porté par les partis verts européens. Cependant, ces derniers se devaient de comprendre les mutations en cours dans leurs sociétés.

En 2014, Benoit Lechat constatait que « Between 1980 and 2014, not only has the scale of the ecological problems dramatically expanded, but the social and anthropological conditions of political commitment have also been deeply transformed by the cultural evolution of our post-industrial societies. Any proposals of reforms of the current democratic institutions towards more sustainability or more participation that would not integrate these structural changes would be doomed to fail. »

Sept ans plus tard, cet enseignement reste d’actualité. Au moment où de plus en plus de questions sont posées quant à la capacité réelle des démocraties représentatives à empêcher la survenue des crises écologiques ou tout simplement à y faire face, certains auteurs ou groupes environnementaux sont poussés à proposer des réformes pour leur permettre d’enfin mieux intégrer les contraintes de l’écologie[1]. Mais quelque soit l’intérêt de ces propositions et les questions qu’elles soulèvent, la situation politique contemporaine et singulièrement la crise de légitimité qui frappe les institutions démocratiques nous indiquent qu’il ne s’agit plus seulement de rendre la démocratie éco-compatible, mais de la sauver purement et simplement.

Expertocratie versus défiance sociétale

Certes, une prise de conscience des enjeux environnementaux est aujourd’hui en cours. Les débats sont en effet récurrents dans les médias. Les marches pour le climat se succèdent et même les entreprises commerciales invitent « aux gestes qui sauvent ». Cependant, l’approche de la question environnementale ne reste, précisément, qu’au seul niveau environnemental et souvent sous le seul angle des nuisances. La question écologique n’est abordée que comme un instrument à prendre en compte pour stabiliser le système actuel mais guère le transformer. L’autre élément est celui de la pandémie du Covid-19. L’écart entre les experts, les politiques et le public s’est matérialisé tout au long de la gestion de la crise, entraînant une perte supplémentaire de confiance. La « tentation expertocratique » qui préoccupait Benoit Lechat est apparue, obligeant à réfléchir aux mécanismes pour prévenir son implantation au détriment de la démocratie.

La question écologique n’est abordée que comme un instrument à prendre en compte pour stabiliser le système actuel mais guère le transformer.

Les facettes de la crise contemporaine de la démocratie sont multiples. Mais ont-elles vraiment quelques racines communes avec la crise écologique ? De prime abord, il apparaît que les dispositifs de concertation mis en place à partir des années septante et quatre-vingt pour empêcher des projets industriels polluants ont débouché sur des processus administratifs parfois lourds qui mobilisent une part importante des énergies des associations de défense de l’environnement ou du cadre de vie comme Benoit Lechat l’avait mis en évidence dans son ouvrage sur l’histoire du parti francophone belge, Ecolo[2]. Une « bureaucratie environnementale » est née, incapable d’agir pleinement sur les causes des problèmes. Du reste, ces mêmes processus peuvent être utilisés contre la mise en œuvre de politiques écologiques, lorsque par exemple des comités de riverains s’opposent par exemple à l’implantation d’éoliennes. Les processus de concertation sociale et environnementale se superposent et entrent parfois en tension. Et même lorsque les politiques semblent à l’abri des contraintes de concertation, l’éclatement de la représentation politique complexifie à outrance les négociations, ce qui conforte, en retour, l’impression d’un monde politique à la fois incapable de gouverner et coupé des réalités de la société.

Ces éléments démontrent l’importance d’une démarche de sociologie politique pour comprendre ces blocages :  « We must ask ourselves the question: how are the social dynamics in place in our societies not actually conducive to the political dynamics that the Greens would like to create to meet their objectives. »

Pour les écologistes, se pose dès lors la question suivante : comment être efficaces politiquement ? Devenir majoritaires, oui, mais pour quoi faire ?

Sortir de la démocratie insoutenable

Comme Benoit Lechat l’expliquait, la radicale-démocratie doit être à l’ordre du jour des priorités des écologistes. La démocratie restera évidemment un régime anthropocentré, consacré au débat entre humains, sur la meilleure manière de « s’opposer sans se massacrer ». Mais contrairement aux premières idéologies de la modernité comme le socialisme et le libéralisme, il ne s’agira pas d’organiser cette pacification sur le dos des générations futures, des éco-systèmes et des non-humains qui l’habitent. Ni de faire de l’environnement une variable d’ajustement des politiques traditionnelles. Il s’agira de rendre les institutions écologiques et de veiller à leur décentralisation. L’enjeu n’est évidemment pas de faire voter les hirondelles ou les enfants qui ne sont pas encore nés, mais de mettre en place des dispositifs démocratiques qui permettront d’intégrer davantage les signaux qui nous parviennent de la nature ou de l’anticipation de l’impact de nos actions sur les conditions de vie future.

Une « bureaucratie environnementale » est née, incapable d’agir pleinement sur les causes des problèmes.

Les politiques écologiques doivent articuler un renforcement de la participation locale – une décentralisation – à la mise en œuvre de plans de transition écologique de l’économie plus ambitieux – une centralisation. Cette articulation implique de renforcer la démocratie à tous les niveaux en développant des espaces publics de débats qui alimentent les processus décisionnels. À chaque fois, ces processus de fédération doivent s’appuyer sur le dynamisme d’espaces publics animés par des médias pluralistes et qui privilégient le débat et l’analyse au sensationnalisme ou à la polémique superficielle. Le travail démocratique est indissociable du renforcement de véritables espaces publics du niveau local au niveau européen.

Cet avènement démocratique ne peut se réaliser sans aborder la question culturelle, à savoir l’institutionnalisation de l’éducation et le partage du savoir, point sur lequel Benoit Lechat a insisté à de nombreuses reprises dans ses publications pour la Revue Nouvelle. Une disjonction entre le projet écologique et le projet culturel qui s’est opérée au sein du programme institutionnel écologiste depuis la fin des années quatre-vingt. Or, la transformation écologique doit mobiliser l’ensemble des ressources d’une société, en ce compris ses ressources éducatives et culturelles. Elle ne relève pas seulement du choix de techniques ou de politiques économiques, mais du lancement de dynamiques citoyennes et sociales. « La culture, c’est la capacité d’une société à agir sur elle-même en modifiant ses représentations sociales. Les territoires ne peuvent pas se transformer dans un sens écologique sans s’appuyer sur des politiques culturelles qui articulent l’histoire, la créativité, l’expression artistique et la cohésion sociale de leurs habitants[3] ».

Enfin, la démocratie écologique ne peut se réaliser sans la mise en place d’un État social-écologique répondant aux inégalités mais poussant plus loin la logique de l’État. L’État doit sortir de sa matrice libérale-productiviste pour placer la dynamique environnementale en préalable de toute politique : « Productivism, which neo-liberalists have in common with Marxists and social democrats, rests on the belief that the growth of productive forces is essential to the resolution of conflicts inherent in society. To be brief, according to Lipietz, the current ‘systemic’ crisis is a result of the permanent interaction of the social, economic and ecological elements of this liberal-productivism. » Pas de social-écologique sans mouvement pour la démocratie et sans redéfinition post-matérialiste et cosmopolite de la solidarité. À moins de s’enfermer dans la conviction que les projets proposés correspondent au désir de chacun, l’institutionnalisation de la transition devra se réaliser en lien avec une nouvelle conception de la démocratie, en vue de son élargissement.

Un nouveau paradigme démocratique

Dans chacun de ces cas de figure, la confrontation du savoir expert et de la délibération démocratique est indispensable si nous voulons éviter la dérive vers une expertocratie qui ne pourrait que susciter un rejet de la part de groupes sociaux de plus en plus larges. La gestion de la pandémie du Covid-19 nous avertit de la montée de ces périls. Face au temps long de la crise climatique, nos institutions doivent se transformer.

Traduit en coopération avec la Heinrich Böll Stiftung Paris, France.


[1] À l’image, notamment du philosophe franco-suisse Dominique Bourg. 

[2]Benoit Lechat, Ecolo, la démocratie comme projet, t.1, Namur, Etopia, 2014.

[3]Benoit Lechat, Jonathan Piron, Ecolo, l’écologie de l’action politique, t.2, Namur, Etopia, 2021.

Une Toute Jeune Démocratie Incomparable

La Suisse est une « démocratie pleine » depuis 50 ans. Le 7 février 1971 en effet, 65,7 % des citoyens masculins et la majorité des cantons acceptent d’octroyer aux femmes les droits politiques au niveau fédéral. En cette année de célébration du cinquentenaire des droits politiques de femmes, il n’existe meilleure illustration de la démocratie directe suisse. La votation de 1971 permet en effet de poser une base, souvent méconnue : dans le régime suisse, la constitution occupe une place prépondérante dans la vie politique, en sus de sa fonction matérielle dans l’ordre juridique[1].

Contrairement à d’autres régimes, les constitutions en Suisse (au niveau fédéral tant qu’au niveau cantonal) contiennent des droits et des tâches de l’État. Elles constituent un socle politique.

Toute modification de la constitution, quelle que soit la partie concernée, nécessite une double majorité du peuple et des cantons (article 194, alinéa 1 in fine, constitution fédérale). Il en fut ainsi en 1971 : l’arrêté fédéral visant à une révision partielle de la constitution a été soumis au peuple et aux cantons qui l’ont adopté.

La proposition de modification dans cette configuration, à l’initiative donc du gouvernement ou dont l’origine peut remonter à une proposition parlementaire, est l’unique scénario dans lequel un vote populaire est déclenché par « en haut », à l’image de l’utilisation du référendum dans d’autres pays.

Bien plus représentatif de la démocratie directe est l’initiative populaire. Sous sa forme la plus usitée, 100’000 citoyennes et citoyens ayant le droit de vote peuvent, dans un délai de 18 mois à compter de la publication officielle de leur initiative, demander une révision partielle de la constitution (article 139 et suivants, constitution fédérale).

L’initiative populaire est l’instrument qui peut être actionné par les citoyennes et citoyens pour modifier la constitution. Les sujets ne connaissent de limites et il peut en aller de l’interdiction de l’énergie nucléaire, réglementer plus fermement la possession d’armes à feu, abolir l’armée suisse ou interdire l’achat d’avions militaires, un revenu universel de base ou encore la dignité des animaux, les aliments équitables et écologiques, une économie verte. Les initiatives visant à restreindre l’accès des personnes de nationalité étrangère en Suisse ont aussi fait foison, ainsi que celles visant des minorités, telle que par l’interdiction de la construction de minarets.

La modification de la constitution n’est pas l’outil unique que les citoyennes et citoyens peuvent utiliser pour influer sur la vie politique fédérale. Cette force de proposition connaît son corollaire dans la capacité de s’opposer aux lois votées par le parlement.

Ainsi, 50’000 citoyennes et citoyens ayant le droit de vote ou huit cantons peuvent demander dans les 100 jours à compter de la publication officielle de l’acte que celui-ci soit soumis au vote du peuple (article 141, constitution fédérale).

On pense que ce référendum facultatif est un outil imaginé pour protéger les minorités. Introduit en 1874, il vise surtout à « contrebalancer l’attribution à la Confédération de nouvelles compétences »[2]. La droite et l’extrême droite en feront usage jusqu’au début du XXème siècle. Le Parti socialiste en fait largement usage jusqu’à son accession en 1942 au gouvernement.

En politique suisse, où à ce jour tous les partis représentés au parlement fédéral, à l’exception notable des VERT-E-S suisses et du petit parti Vert libéral surtout présent en Suisse alémanique, le référendum demeure surtout un outil de pression de forces non-parlementaires sur le gouvernement.

Si pour un parti politique suisse, l’élection n’est qu’un des rendez-vous, ayant quatre fois par année une ou plusieurs votations à gagner, par exemple en juin 2021 avec deux initiatives visant les interdictions de pesticides et un référendum sur la loi sur le CO2, ce n’est pas le seul élément qui distingue la vie politique suisse de celle de ses voisins européens.

Nous avons 27 constitutions, pour chacune des cantons et la Confédération, nous n’avons pas de présidence à l’autrichienne ou la française, connaissons les Länder à l’Allemande mais avec la démocratie directe, notre démocratie de représentation fonctionne sur un principe de milice[3].

Dans ce contexte, une comparaison avec les États de l’Union européenne – ou l’Union elle-même – est toujours délicate. Au Général de Gaulle en 1949 au Chancelier Wolfgang Schüssel en 2006, en passant par la Convention pour l’avenir de l’Europe en 2003 et par de multiples résolutions au Parlement européen, l’idée d’un référendum européen est régulièrement évoquée et tout aussi régulièrement rejetée.[4] Si l’on peut imaginer des moyens pour éviter les « pièges » qu’ont été pour l’Union européenne les référendums des 29 mai et 1er juin 2005 sur le traité constitutionnel,[5] la question qui reste ouverte de cette contribution est si un lien pourrait être établi entre la création d’une citoyenneté suisse grâce à l’instrument de démocratie directe et le renforcement de la citoyenneté européenne.

Une autre distinction fondamentale qui est une menace sur la crédibilité du système politique suisse demeure le manque de réglementation et de transparence de l’argent en politique. Avec autant de campagnes de votation et en l’absence d’un financement étatique de la vie publique, les disparités se creusent entre les campagnes bénéficiaires aux milieux économiques et financiers et celles lancées en vue de la protection du bien commun, typiquement sur des enjeux écologiques. La Suisse est ainsi régulièrement critiquée par le Groupe d’États contre la corruption du Conseil de l’Europe. Une initiative sur la transparence du financement politique sera soumise au peuple et aux cantons prochainement. Demeure la question de la durabilité et la crédibilité d’un système financièrement opaque.

Traduit en coopération avec la Heinrich Böll Stiftung Paris, France.


[1] Andreas Auer, Giorgio Malinverni, Michel Hottelier, Droit constitutionnel suisse, volume 1, Berne, Staempfli Éditions SA, 2000, pages 455 et suivantes.

[2] Andreas Auer, Giorgio Malinverni, Michel Hottelier, ibid., page 253.

[3] Markus Freitag, Pirmin Bundi, Martina Flick Witzig, Milizarbeit in der Schweiz. Zahlen und Fakten zum politischen Leben in der Gemeinde, Zurich, NZZ Libro, 2019.

[4] Simon Hug, Voices of Europe: citizens, Referendums and European Integration, Lanham, Rowman & Littlefield, 2002.

[5] Andreas Aurer, « La démocratie directe comme piège et comme chance pour l’Union européenne », in Andreas Aurer, Alexandre Flückiger, Michel Hottelier, Les droits de l’homme et la constitution. Études en l’honneur du professeur Giorgio Malinverni, Genève, Schulthess Médias Juridiques SA, 2007, pages 57 et suivantes.

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 published 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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