Greens are impatient people. The sentiment of urgency has been fuelling their calls for radical change over the past four decades. When they make it to the institutions, it is primarily with the intention to “make a difference” – and bring systemic changes to a model they rightly deem unsustainable. A tentative political assessment of the past European legislature.
Spring 2104 – as Parliament heads towards recess and its Members towards the European voters, the time has come for most of the political forces seeking re-election to reflect on the past five years. This exercise, hovering between honest self-assessment and shameless political communication, is like walking a tightrope. A sentiment of self-inflated importance might drive you to present anything you’ve done in the exercise of your individual and collective mandate as an achievement – and face either public ridicule or self-delusion. But measuring achievements relative to the ambitions of origin might be a cause of severe depression and further lack of mobilisation for your candidates, your supporters and your voters.
Changing the World?
Truly, on the one hand, organising nice outreach conferences and serious professional network building can hardly pass as actual legislative work – and let’s not even mentioning the numerous side-events, ranging from pure window-dressing to obvious complacent promotion of friends and clients. On the other hand, it might prove difficult to convince reluctant voters that you actually changed the world (or at least their daily life) in the framework of your strictly defined legislative activity, made of countless shadow meetings (where you discuss and negotiate on a text with other political groups), exhausting trilogues (conciliation meetings between Parliament, Council and Commission to strike deals once each institution has reached an initial position), and tedious debates and votes in Committee or in Strasbourg-based plenaries.
Indeed, the plight of any member of a parliamentary assembly is to strike a fair and legitimate balance between effective work, which is the purpose of the mandate, and visible activity, which is often the justification of the election. And it’s not unusual, especially in countries like France, Italy, Poland, Romania, etc., where European politics remain a strange, far, far away realm, that no matter the good work, some deserving politicians have to give way to party cronies, favourites or exiles when the lists are made – or to be voted out by a volatile electorate, with little to no interest for the EU institutions.
The Parties That Do Not Need to Even Defend Their Record…
Paradoxically, for the bigger political families as well as for the Eurosceptic parties, this is not really a problem. For completely different reasons, they do not have as much of a need to defend their “record”. Although the Socialists and the Conservatives are in competition, their major concern or what they have at stake is which of the two will come first and claim the lion’s share of the EU’s top jobs. At the other ends of the spectrum, the radical left and the extreme-right parties have no need or interest in concerning themselves with actual achievements. As a matter of fact, running on the denunciation and rejection of the EU saves you the burden of putting together an actual action plan for the it – why fix something you’re promising to the dust bin?
Some clever politicians even decided to shun the legislative part of the work in favour of an overactive production of vote-explanations, trying to shift the focus from a framework they view with contempt in favour of their own representation of the EU – French radical-left MEP Jean-Luc Mélenchon has made an art of this kind of magic, going even as far as denying any legitimacy to websites that call him out on his legislative no-shows.
When Others Really Care About It
But some political families take this exercise of counting gains and losses quite seriously. For the Greens it is in fact representative of their views of politics. Greens are impatient people. The sentiment of urgency has been fuelling their calls for radical change over the past four decades. Yet with somewhat limited impact – still few easily welcome the inconvenient truth, even from serious people like a former US Vice-President or a British Lord like Sir Nicholas Stern. Anyway, when Greens make it to the institutions, it is primarily with the intention to “make a difference” – and bring systemic changes to a development model they rightly deem unsustainable.
In addition, it is a necessity imposed by their modest size. Although covering the whole continent with sister parties in every Member State, the European ecologists are serious contenders only in half of the EU – give or take a few surprises. This limited scope doesn’t provide them with the comfort of an electoral mattress like the Socialists who can always count on being the biggest political left-of-centre group, even in lean times. Stability of representation is thus essential to the green agenda of change. And it gives particular relevance to the track record. Achievements become synonym for political relevance. It’s like having to justify your existence every five years.
Six Green Priorities
Over the past five years, in addition to the daily business of reacting to global developments, the Greens present their action in the European Parliament (EP) around six major priorities:
- Promoting crisis resilience through social justice;
- Securing our climate and energy future;
- Striving towards a healthy environment;
- Fighting for human rights, including social, democratic and digital rights;
- Contributing to global solidarity and security;
- Celebrating cultural diversity.
Of course bullet points are useful for presentation, but in reality the political agenda of the Parliament doesn’t organise itself so easily and certainly cannot be controlled by one of its smaller groups. But the quality and efficiency of a political group primarily lies in the ability of its members to shape the narrative and policy-making priorities even on an agenda they don’t control: through the visibility of its leadership, through the activity and skills of some specific members, and through the subtle crafting of ad-hoc political coalitions.
Joys and sorrows of green politics are probably best illustrated on the world stage. Surely, setting a green agenda in a complex and fast-moving world is an interesting experiment. From a purely European viewpoint, the major geopolitical shift in recent years occurred with the Arab Spring, the rise of new powers like Brazil or China, making the global race for natural resources more acute and dangerous, and the recurrent confrontation with Russia on the EU’s border in Ukraine. Responding to these challenges, Greens engaged in the shaping of the European external action services and successfully fought for the establishment of an EU Special Representative for Human Rights. On top of this they also negotiated important improvements to the EU’s Mediterranean macro-regional strategy and supported the democratic and pro-European aspirations of the Ukrainians. But none of this proved enough to stop the bloodbath in Syria, level the playing field with China or reverse the worrying trends of a divided Europe when it comes to challenging Putin’s illegal occupation of Crimea.
Although the Socialists like to claim it as theirs, it was a Green idea to introduce the youth guarantee at EU level in 2009, just as it was a Green fight for rights of posted workers.
Major Green Achievements
The half empty bottle in foreign affairs could well be half full when it comes to crisis resilience and energy-efficiency. Indeed the dire and devastating situation in the southern periphery, the Eurozone’s extended recession with unemployment reaching unprecedented levels outmatched the capacity of the Greens in the EP. Yet they tackled the necessities of financial and economic re-regulation with efficiency and increasing credibility. The Greens contributed to several important decisions, such as a cap on bankers’ bonuses and the establishment of financial supervision bodies; they successfully brought the ECB’s banking supervision powers under parliamentary control and were one of the driving forces behind the creation of the Financial Transaction Tax. Although the Socialists like to claim it as theirs, it was a Green idea to introduce the youth guarantee at EU level in 2009, just as it was a Green fight for rights of posted workers. And in the energy field, the major success was the negotiation of the energy efficiency directive, which lays out the energy efficiency objectives for Member States until 2020. Even though the objective of an increase in energy efficiency by 20% was watered down in the Council, this remains a major step forward.
The key is to pick the fights that can change the system in each and every field. Not the ones that comfort your identity, sentiment of self-worth or illusion of legitimacy.
Fighting Against Conservatisms in All Its Kind
There would be many other smaller and bigger achievements worth mentioning, but the real question is: how much fuller could the bottle have been without this mainstream obsession with fiscal consolidation and austerity policies? How much fuller without the fierce reaction of the financial industry against any re-regulation? How much fuller without the firepower of the oil and extractive industry defending its market domination?
And the million-euro question: how much fuller without the conservatism of all major political forces, from right-wing to social-democrats and so-called “liberals”? There are two kinds of conservatism – and when the resistance to change is fuelled only by fear of the unknown and the preference road already travelled, it is annoying but somehow understandable. The fundamental problem is when conservatism combines these fears with the defence of the established positions and vested interests. The apex of this combination was probably reached with the reform of the Common Agricultural and Common Fisheries policies (CAP and CFP) – with very diverging fates.
With the EP for the first time on equal footing with the Council (i.e. the Members states) in both sets of reforms, the breakthrough success of the CFP vote contrasted with the failure on the CAP. The former managed to finally put an end to overfishing: instead of allowing national fleets to continue fishing according to historic quotas, it tied quotas to what was objectively deemed sustainable. But for CAP, although the Greens managed to introduce environmental focus areas, restrict monocultures and reserve a certain percentage of farmland to protect biodiversity, this was outweighed by agro-industrial lobbies mustering a majority to continue disproportionate levels of support for industrial farms.
Likewise, the same coalition of conservative politicians and industrial interests prevented the traffic-light style food labelling designed to inform consumers and contribute to healthier food-behaviour. Moreover food labels still do not contain information on whether animals have been fed with GMOs, and the Unitary Patent provides no solid protection of biodiversity and farmers’ rights to seed breeding.
When a Small Number of MEPs Makes a Big Difference
When a crucial vote like the one trying to “cap the CAP” (i.e. cap the maximum payment that one farmer can receive) fails by less than a dozen MEPs, it is tempting to claim that size matters. And indeed currently being the fourth biggest group in the EP can really make a difference. But does size really matter? In relative terms, not much: gaining 1, 5 or 10 MEPs and perhaps one or two ranks in the hierarchy of the Parliament’s forces is indeed nice and worth fighting for. But it is not enough in itself and still misses the critical mass by far. Geographical diversity, political nuances and individual quality are paramount. It is the absolute number that matters. In terms of presence, dedication and political capacity: one committed MEP can make more of a difference than a dozen seat-warmers. The key is to pick the fights that can change the system in each and every field. Not the ones that comfort your identity, sentiment of self-worth or illusion of legitimacy.
“Politics is a combat sport” as José Bové once said (in his excellent book on lobbies in the EU and how to fight their influence: Hold Up à Bruxelles, La Découverte, Paris, 2014).
This article is based on a report written by Malte Arhelger for the Greens/EFA Group in the European Parliament.