Plenary week at the European Parliament

November 25th 2024

Phone to his ear, panting slightly, Emile pushes his way through the crowd streaming out of the Hemicycle and already packing the Flower Bar. “Yeah, yeah, political but neutral – don’t worry …”

He stops to catch his breath – there’s fidgeting on the other end of the line.

“Yup, fine … I understand. I promise I won’t go overboard with my old comrades. … No. … Listen, how about I send you a first draft around 7 PM, and you tell me where I’m not being objective? How does that sound, boss?”

He hangs up, a bit irritated by his editor’s paternalistic insistence, yet amused to note his frustration. There is excitement in the air, the kind you sense at historic moments. A European Commission investiture always makes for good material, if a bit slow going. Given the predictability of voting and power dynamics in the Parliament, suspense can be lacking. But since Europe’s political centre collapsed in the 2019 elections, fault lines have shifted significantly. In the crisis years, an all-conquering radical right emerged. Led by a new generation of charismatic leaders, it flourished amidst the ruins of social democracy, upending the old order. With 86 MEPs, they now represent the fourth largest group in the European Parliament, just ahead of the vanquished Social Democrats. As in 2019, July’s election of Ursula von der Leyen as President of the Commission came down to just a handful of votes.

A World Alive: Green Politics in Europe and Beyond
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A World Alive: Green Politics in Europe and Beyond
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At the start of this “brown wave”, a Greek friend, an intellectual who teaches at the LSE, predicted their success over a couple of pints in central London. “Seriously, Emile, you need to stop with this old-fashioned Europeanism. These fascists are like you Greens. They’re strong because they offer a bold, coherent, and well-articulated vision of Europe and the world. Granted, theirs is of an ancient, white, Christian civilisation of sovereign nations steeped in history and tradition. They jealously guard their interests but are prepared to cooperate to fight the threat of barbarian invasions and globalist dissolution. Islam and Brussels. But it’s simple and it works. It ticks all the boxes: identity, economics, inequality, and security.”

Indeed. The funniest thing, Emile ponders, noticing the growing number of accredited journalist colleagues, is that these neo-fascist forces have done Europe a favour. By re-politicising Europe, they have mobilised a new generation and made European politics a bit more exciting and unpredictable.

Anyway. Of course, his editor would have preferred to cover this important session himself. Unfortunately, kept in Brussels for the imminent birth of his second child, he had to send the newbie. Who’s running bloody late, for that matter.

Yet, after two years writing for Contexte in Brussels, this newbie is no longer new. Thanks to a frenetic news cycle and a lack of staff, journalists in the Brussels bubble mature fast. But, in a tired running gag, his boss continues to joke that he found Emile “a bit green”. The implication being that his 10 years as assistant to a French Green MEP, then as advisor to the Green Group in the European Parliament, influences the way he sees things.

Explain how, bit by bit, the Council got a fresh makeover. How the Greens were better able to counter the far-right threat than traditional forces by embodying a different form of radical protest against the way the world is heading.

Clearly, it does – but that’s also why he was hired. Media, lobbyists, embassies: all players on the Brussels stage have had to gradually green their staff. Because over the past five years, Ursula von der Leyen’s Green Deal has placed environmental issues front and centre, resulting in growing clout for Greens in European politics.

“Coffee please.” Of course, the organic blend is twice the price… We’re not there yet, he complains to himself. With his legal poison burning his hands, Emile looks for a free table somewhere out of the way. He mentally runs through the key ground for his series on the new Commission. Not easy. Especially with short deadlines and an uptight boss.

He’ll have to condense things. Green tides versus brown waves. Explain how, bit by bit, the Council got a fresh makeover. How the Greens were better able to counter the far-right threat than traditional forces by embodying a different form of radical protest against the way the world is heading. How Austria’s Conservative-Green coalition, which tested the country’s Green party’s limits, got 2020 underway and set the tone for the years to come. The successes, from Benelux right up to the latest election in 2023, when Denmark and Finland continued the trend begun in 2019 by installing governments led by female Green 30-somethings.

Fortunately, what happened in 2021 is more famous – the autumn when another wall came down in Germany. With 25.7 per cent of the vote, the Grünen pipped the Christian Democrats to the finish line. A Green chancellery to succeed Angela Merkel – the winds of history were blowing strong. The soundtrack to this momentous shift was provided by ecofeminist Grün-Rock bands, just as the Neue Deutsche Welle had done for Berlin’s alternative left in the 1980s.

Emile remembers well. A mixture of love and politics saw him leave the Green Group and swap Brussels for Budapest. But travelling often to Berlin or Prague for the Heinrich Böll Foundation, he had followed the election at close quarters. He had watched the small counter-cultural movement born during the protest years in a German society oppressed by its past become the driving force for change. With the worrying rise of the AfD, flitting around 20 per cent of the vote, and the historic collapse of an anaemic SPD, only one coalition was possible. Negotiations were fierce but fast – and Germany’s face and attitude changed. To the benefit of Europe at large.

“Emile – hey, mate! Over here!” At a table, gesturing for him to join them, two former colleagues, recently elected MEPs last May, and another he’s not seen before. Emile sits down with the three Greens. Céline is from Liège, Kari is German with Estonian roots (she was elected in Tallinn), and he’s introduced to Cristina, from Bucharest. She is the campaign director for the new eco-citizen movement that just broke through in Romania’s European elections.

Emile knows very well that behind the outward signs of radical enthusiasm lie sharp political minds with a strong grasp of the issues.

He turns towards his friends, “So, ready to govern Europe?” Their winning smiles and steely gazes say it all. “We are Europe now, man!” chides Céline.

“Von der Leyen as Commission President was one of the keys to the deal in 2021,” adds Kari. “It sugared the pill for the CDU. And anyway, we’ve got the finance ministry in Berlin. I mean, that’s basically the ministry of European affairs.” She goes on enthusiastically, “In total, we’ve got seven EU commissioners.”

“Plus the Czech commissioner from the Pirates,” Céline chimes in. “With some good portfolios. We’re gonna change this Europe, damn it. With agriculture, transport, the internal market, digital, and home affairs, we’ve got some room to manoeuvre. With us, the greenwashing stops.”

Emile concurs, “Hmm. Poor Timmermans, he didn’t do a bad job. But it’s his rival from GroenLinks there now.” Before countering, “But VDL’s Green Deal, it wasn’t all waffle, right? After all, she gave a bit of punch to Europe’s climate leadership thing. Isn’t that what saved the Paris Agreement?”

Mensch! Business as usual. There was nothing systemic. She backed down on trade deals, the CAP …” Kari begins her list of indictments of the previous term.

“Transport!” interjects Céline. “She remained very German,” she continues with a cautious glance at Kari, “and did everything she could to look after the carmakers, instead of reckoning with an industry in structural crisis. 14 million jobs threatened in Europe and we prop it up and pretend like it can carry on like nothing’s changed. It was steel in the ’70s all over again. Of course, there were the lorry fanatics in Central Europe, and Romania especially …” she shoots a furtive glance at Cristina, who immediately corrects her, “And in the West, Céline – above all in France!”

“… She rejected our proposals to switch to rail freight. Seriously, carbon neutrality by 2050 with no help from transport? It’s a joke, right?” It’s a rhetorical question. In any case, Emile knows very well that behind the outward signs of radical enthusiasm lie sharp political minds with a strong grasp of the issues.

This expertise had long been an institutional strength, allowing the “little” Greens to play with the big boys and girls. But it was also a weakness in polarised politics where recognising complexity can marginalise you. Everywhere, or almost everywhere, the Greens’ widely acknowledged competence had been equalled by their lack of charisma and figureheads. Not to mention their repeated difficulties in reconciling radical convictions with political realism.

As it happens, the German experience of transcending the age-old divide between Fundi and Realo really did change everything. A journalist colleague from the TAZ had explained it to him one day, “You see, Emile, here, unlike in France, generational change has been reflected in the political culture: the Grünen have moved from a compromise of varying degrees of sincerity between two competing wings to a hybrid that keeps the best of both.”

He wasn’t wrong. A pure product of West German post-1945 identity, a mixture of pacifism, feminism, and environmentalism, the Grünen were the only acceptable and tolerated force for social protest. They were able to mature, to move beyond the fiery libertarianism and cultural leftism of its founding generation of soixante-huitards. And, thanks to German federalism, they managed to create different shades of green, from the more conservative Baden-Württemberg variety to that of the hipper federal capital.

Emile’s thoughts turn to the French Greens. Torn apart by the Pavlovian reflexes of a political landscape polarised between Right and Left (including among themselves), arguments about ideological purity and the continuous need for a “greening” of French politics and society, “The French Greens are a bit like Sisyphus,” his German colleague had added with his penchant for quoting Camus. Prisoners of an absolutist political system, they were unable to break through in the shouting match between opponents of the Establishment. In any case, Macron’s re-election in 2022, which saw him defeat a candidate from the Left, was confirmation that the culture war was far from won in France.

The Greens became the second largest group in the 2024-2029 parliament. A group renamed the “European Ecologists” because, although Greens made up its backbone, they were no longer the only organised members.

Emile had covered this traumatic episode as a journalist and activist. By some sort of miracle, most personalities and political parties to the left of Macron had quickly agreed on Christiane Taubira as a joint candidate. The former justice minister just squeezed through to the second round, beating Marine Le Pen by only a few thousand ballots as the radical right-wing vote split between rival candidates.

On the sidelines, the extreme right whipped itself into a frenzy deciding who they hated most: the bankster president or the black poster child for same-sex marriage. The atmosphere between rounds was stifling and, in the end, Macron won by a hundred thousand votes. In this horribly divided country, the French Greens only managed to make an impact in proportional elections, as the 2020 local elections and their historic return of 20 MEPs at the 2024 European elections underlined.

“OK, you’re going to have institutional levers. But will that be enough? In Germany, you still haven’t shut down the coal power stations. Your Scandinavian partners certainly aren’t impressed. And in Austria, migrant NGOs–”

Kari interrupts him abruptly. “Hold on, Emile, don’t overdo it. First of all, you know that a coalition with the Right isn’t a marriage of love. And we’re not mining coal anymore, which is a start, right? Then look what made the difference: climate diplomacy. You said it yourself, the first consequence of 2021 was that Ursula and the EU credibly took back control by implementing the Paris Agreement. Have you noticed how Brussels has changed its tone with Beijing and Washington? Our Scandinavian friends play Greta with us, which isn’t fair, but what do you expect? At the end of the day, you know what? It helps too. The pressure from our European partners wins us concessions in the coalition.”

“Also, this time we’re in charge of budgets.” Céline lists them. “Luxembourg, Helsinki, Copenhagen, Dublin, Berlin … We are finally credible on public finances. Like good shopkeepers,” she jokes, easing the tension.

“Be that as it may, you’re going mainstream. Power means the end of innocence, and–”

Silent until that point, Cristina cuts him off. “Civil society, Emile,” she says, in a calm and firm voice, whose accent immediately sends Emile back to his attachment to that part of Europe.

“You see, Emile, Romania is a good example. The institutions there are corrupt. Parties survive thanks to clientelism and, most of all, because the disconnect between the institutional and the citizen side of politics has become structural. That’s why the various environmental movements of the past 15 years against shale gas in Punghesti or the gold mine in Rosia Montana, not to mention pollution, never became lasting political vehicles. Plus, as you know, Green parties in this region just aren’t that representative. They are small, weak, and based on the Germans or the Austrians – or even the slightly conservative agrarian model of the Baltics. But there is the potential to bring together certain progressive urban elites and the more enlightened elements of rural communities – like in Poland, for example.”

“What we’ve seen emerge in Romania is actually quite new. Greta didn’t make much of an impact. In any case, those who might’ve spread her message have left, en masse, for the West. But Australia burning did it. I’ve seen farmers faced with parched harvests making connections for the first time. That’s how our Movement for the Earth took root in Romania – because in ’earth’ farmers saw land and city-dwellers the planet.”

By shifting the Overton window – the range of politically acceptable ideas – extremist environmental movements have moved the political centre towards the Green parties, without having to become less radical.

“Exactly,” agrees Céline, with renewed enthusiasm. “And on this side of Europe, Greta killed it. Especially when she refused to stand for office last year in Sweden, while still calling on people to vote for those ’who take the climate seriously.’”

Emile interrupts, “But she also inspired radical environmentalist movements and parties that competed with the Greens, who were accused of being too centrist, right?”

“That’s true,” Cristina replies. “But, paradoxically, in politics, the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts. It’s one of the mysteries of electoral arithmetic. At the outset, it’s better to have three movements at 5, 10, and 15 per cent, rather than a single party at 20, especially if you can bring them together later. The competition helped the common cause. By shifting the Overton window – the range of politically acceptable ideas – these extremist environmental movements have moved the political centre towards the Green parties, without having to become less radical. ”

“I don’t completely agree,” objects Kari. “Fragmentation can mean weakening. In our proportional systems, it’s the ability to sustain radical proposals in a hostile political environment that matters. Just like the Grünen, the Nordic and Benelux Greens stuck to their guns all the way. That’s why they’re in government now. This window might have been a factor, but much less so than our call for action as the world was confronted with catastrophe.”

Emile smiles – these are familiar debates. Debates in which he had often participated. And he must admit that Cristina is right. Something has reconnected the institutional and civic spheres. Hence the increased turnout at the last European elections, exceeding 65 per cent, the high-water mark from 1979, when the then-European Economic Community only had nine members and the Parliament was essentially decorative. The politicisation of European affairs had accelerated and the Europeanisation of domestic politics was gathering pace. Yet Kari is right too. The context favoured those who “take the climate seriously”.

In the countries of North-Western Europe, it was, naturally, Green parties, but elsewhere, it was other movements. Pirate parties, not only Czech but French too. There was the Volt movement, with German, Bulgarian, and Belgian MEPs. Then there were MEPs from countries where social struggle remains the dominant political cleavage: in the convergence of health, work, and wellbeing, environmental concerns finally had found common cause with the Left and gained the support of unions and activists. The result was the election of a handful of parliamentarians from Spain and Greece, as well as a few representatives from a renewed green-left alliance in Croatia, Slovenia, and Poland. It’s this relevance and appeal that saw the Greens become the second largest group in the 2024-2029 parliament. A group renamed the “European Ecologists” because, although Greens made up its backbone, they were no longer the only organised members. It was now a truly continental group, which only two large countries, Italy and Poland – and Spain in some way – still partially shunned.

Tomorrow, after Ursula von der Leyen’s speech, the group’s female Swedish co-president, rather than its male French co-president, will speak on behalf of the group. Now part of the majority that governs the EU, they are there to change the direction and substance of its politics.

Emile has his angle: “radical and responsible”. He’ll leave it to his editor to find the title.

This article is part of our latest edition, “A World Alive: Green Politics in Europe and Beyond”.

A World Alive: Green Politics in Europe and Beyond
A World Alive: Green Politics in Europe and Beyond

This edition explores the different worlds of green politics today. From concepts such as ecofeminism and the Green New Deal to questions of narrative and institutional change, it maps the forces, strategies, and ideas that will power political ecology, across Europe as around the world.

Order your copy

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