Buffeted by an onslaught of shocks, living standards across Europe are under pressure. More than just short-term turbulence, the cost of living crisis signals that Europe’s social, geopolitical, and ecological security rests on rebalancing a failing socio-economic model.
With the world still reeling from the pandemic, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 unleashed a new level of suffering and horror. Not only is its human cost incalculable, with the people of Ukraine the first victims, the war has deepened the global energy and food crises, though both precede the invasion. The disasters keep on coming and even the weather has taken on a new, menacing role. The droughts and floods in Europe and many world regions are reminders of the dangers of a changing climate. Combined with an economic system that allows an outsized role for financial speculation, the collision of these events has forced the cost of living upwards across Europe and the world. The effects have proved cumulative, tipping economies into generalised inflation that risks becoming recession.
A break with 30-year trends, the return of inflation to European economies has plunged many people into poverty and put pressure on household budgets for much of the middle class. Driven in particular by energy and therefore also transport prices, the distributional effects of the rising cost of living reignite the conflicts most visibly expressed by the gilets jaunes movement in recent years. Will the poorest have to pay the price for Europe’s energy transition? These stresses are all the more acute considering that life has become increasingly insecure in recent years, with soaring rents in major cities and the hardships that many people, especially the young, experienced throughout the pandemic.
More than a simple monetary phenomenon, price rises contribute to an uncertainty that pervades people’s outlook on the future. Sri Lanka was the canary in the coal mine. In July, protestors driven to revolt by unaffordable fuel prices stormed the presidential palace. A photo of a face-masked protestor, waving a loaf of bread and standing before flames lit outside a government building, encapsulated the mood. European countries may be rich enough to shield much of their societies from the full extent of these shocks – at a cost for the rest of world – but even with this support many people cannot meet their basic needs. In this context, a sense of impoverishment can prove politically toxic. In September 2022, far-right parties were the main winners of the Italian and Swedish elections, tapping into widespread dissatisfaction with promises of hard borders, energy security, and a firm hand.
Explaining the economic situation comes with political stakes. A focus on inflation leads you down the road that central banks are already taking: raising interest rates and thereby risking the jobs of some for the purchasing power of the majority. On the other hand, a framing based on the “cost of living” politicises inflation, pointing to how rising prices undermine access to essentials such as food, housing, transport, and energy. Nevertheless, talking about the cost of living still implies that access to these essential rights should be a matter of budget balancing for households.
Who do people turn to in such times? The classic conservative answer is to tighten our belts until the economic situation improves. Whereas for the traditional Left, fighting falling living standards is a simple matter of pay packets and redistribution. On the extremes, far-right and populist forces are always present to offer easy answers to whoever will listen (helping Ukraine is too expensive; blame the migrants).
Green politics has always sought to be radical – in the literal sense – understanding and tackling problems at their roots. This summer, French president Emmanuel Macron proclaimed the “end of abundance”, seeing our confluence of crises as signs of coming scarcity. For some ecologists, his analysis rang true. Indeed, the current economic turmoil cannot be explained without factoring in resource constraints, unpredictable climatic conditions, and disrupted global flows. In short, planetary boundaries. But what the diagnosis fails to offer is the emancipatory vision that has always been at the heart of green politics. For Greens, achieving social justice and ecological sustainability relies on defining new approaches to prosperity.
The long-awaited social core of the Green New Deal is more urgent than ever.
Amid a cost of living crisis, the Greens should not bring a message of austerity and hard times ahead but stand up for social protection and redistribution, as well as asserting the possibility of providing for our needs differently. For public services, think of the rail fares slashed in many countries. For households and businesses, subsidies provided to renovate and save energy just when people need it most. At the level of communities, those renewable energy cooperatives supplying cheap electricity in decentralised and democratic ways. From precarious individuals depending on vulnerable systems over which they have no control, the Greens can reclaim rights and protect living standards by building shared institutions based on resilience and abundance.
Throughout history, social rights have often been extended in times of war. Europe’s firm solidarity with Ukraine is now driving the continent’s efforts to break free from fossil fuels. This transformation cannot succeed without deepened solidarity within and between European societies. More than temporary relief, they need a new direction. After 2008, the call for a Green New Deal was not immediately taken up. But it went on to inspire an investment-led approach that continues to shape the green transition in Europe and the United States. The long-awaited social core of the Green New Deal is more urgent than ever. In driving this point home, the Greens can take up that leadership role once more. Investment in the common good and the green transition go hand in hand. Europe’s future hinges on radical solutions to uncertain times.
With the social question burning, parties across Europe are striving to respond to the urgent needs of citizens. The task brings what are at once challenges and opportunities for Green parties. Whether in power or opposition and across levels of government, the first is the window to force through change with speed and urgency. The same logic may require compromise on red lines, as the extension of nuclear power plants in some countries speaks to. But the current moment is a chance to make leaps towards establishing new solidarity mechanisms and social rights while accelerating public investment in the green transition. It is a matter of finding the openings and seizing the moment. Relationships with other forces and allies are a second challenge. Trade unions and climate activists have pivoted to new forms of militancy. Green parties will have to navigate and channel the demands of these constituencies to achieve their own objectives, thus entering a more conflictual terrain. A third challenge is to be the political force that connects the levels of European politics and builds a real sense of European solidarity between societies. The social agenda at the European level has gained renewed momentum but its success rests on national support. The capacity of local, national, and European authorities to respond to social challenges also depends on effective cooperation across borders. Coordination is the only way to manage the tensions and imbalances between European member states. If the Greens do not do it, then who will?