Not so long ago, the Swedish Greens’ (Miljöpartiet) deputy Prime Minister, Åsa Romson, broke down in tears when her government announced it was reversing its open doors policy towards refugees. “The last bastion of humanitarianism has fallen” – an unnamed UN official told reporters of The Guardian. And the Green Party, as the Social Democrats’ junior partner in the Swedish government, just stood by idly, unable to prevent the country’s shift in policy, but also not daring to leave the governing coalition, fearing that something even worse could happen without them.

In light of this latest Swedish development it seems fair to ask: what is the Greens’ added value in EU politics? What is it that they can achieve in government? Can they pursue their own agenda, or are they only providing assistance to the policies of their coalition partners?

Per Gahrton’s answer to these questions would be, “Green parties really do matter, and they have a proven track record in government.” The German Greens, for example, secured a decision on decommissioning nuclear power, introduced environmental taxes and liberalised citizenship rules. Others have managed to put the environment and the rights of sexual minorities on the political agenda, and their system of gender-balanced co-presidents has made some other parties think about introducing a similar model.

So, even though the political scientist Wolfgang Rüdig claims that the reason Greens are seen as possible coalition partners by parties on the left (and increasingly on the right) is that they “have not posed radical challenges to the status quo”. Gahrton believes in the power of Green ideas, and says Greens will do even more to serve their voters once they make it from junior partner to a dominant governing party.

Half a century of Greens in politics

Green parties have existed for less than a half century, and in those few decades they have spread all over the world: the first one, the New Values Party of New Zealand was founded in 1972, followed by People in the United Kingdom, one year later. In the following decades more than a hundred countries in all parts of the planet followed, and between 1990 and 2015 Green parties have participated in government in 21 European countries (as well as some non-European countries, such as Burkina Faso, Senegal, Mauritius or Mongolia). The analysis of the Greens’ governmental participation is without doubt the most valuable feature of the book (besides the nearly a hundred pages long directory of Green parties globally).

The author differentiates between a large number of governmental constellations, and based on his analysis he shares with the readers some interesting insights. First of all, he mentions, that Greens, on the one hand, need to be capable of keeping the distance from their governing partners, so that they don’t have to share to blame for failed policies, while, on the other hand, they also have to be capable of taking visible ownership of Green projects that they have managed to push through. Miljöpartiet’s  Åsa Romson seems to have followed Gahrton’s advice, as, in her first few months in government, she had already criticised her governing partners for introducing a new regulation that allowed the hunting of a predetermined number of wolves in the country. Swedish political experts have claimed that this kind of critique of one’s own government was, until then, unheard of in the country’s political history.

Moreover, prematurely quitting a political coalition is probably the worst thing a Green government can do, because in such a case their voters will feel severely betrayed and many of them will decide to support different parties, as the examples of, among others, Denmark and Belgium have shown.

Of course, staying in government is not a panacea for disillusionment either. The German government’s (from a Green standpoint) controversial decisions to support NATO’s military actions in Serbia in 1999, and the neoliberal, so called Hartz welfare reform, which cut social benefits and thereby accelerated inequality in Germany, had weakened the Greens’ election results, while the lack of internal democracy inside the party during these years has given the German Greens a lot to sort out in the post-government and post-Joschka-Fischer years. Nevertheless, staying in the coalitions is the best one can do, even in a situation of political turmoil, especially in Sweden, taking into account that there the political and ideological distance between Greens and Social Democrats has been reduced by long years of cooperation on state budgets and by the creation of a common programme, thereby allowing them to come to common terms, maybe even in this lamentable situation. Not to mention that the Swedish right is already in a situation in which it can effectively blackmail the left-wing government, and with the junior partner leaving it might have an even greater influence.

Thus, if we trust Gahrton’s findings, it seems like the Swedish Greens have made the most intelligent decision, at least regarding their political survival by staying in the coalition. Nevertheless, it is hard to say whether this decision will, in the end, strengthen or harm the Green agenda in Europe.

Unfounded optimism

Even though Greens have achieved a lot in the last five decades, the political landscape makes it still very tough for a politician to successfully fight for Green ideas. As Gahrton notes, the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, and the following climate conferences have made it clear to those of us who care about the environment that there is a lack of effective governance at the global level, and thus far almost nothing had been done to prevent the catastrophic effects of climate change. “Almost everybody pays lip-service to radical action to save our common earth. But very few, except the Greens, are prepared to change the economic, social and political system that is the cause of the environmental destruction.”

These alarming words are all too true in the month of the climate conference in Paris, and the controversial decision of the host country (whose president belongs to a party formerly in coalition with the Greens) to ban protests and marches during the summit, citing the horrible tragedy that unfolded mid-November in the French capital as a justification.

Gahrton suggests that, in order to deal with global challenges and the flaws of international cooperation, Greens need to overcome the burdens created by all the powerful actors who are committed to maintain the environmentally destructive neoliberal status quo, by sticking to their democratic roots. While the big economic players often operate outside the democratic political system, Gahrton writes, “Greens must strive to secure positions of power in all democratically based institutions, from local communities to the United Nations.” But it is not really clear from this book how this ambitious goal of exporting grass-roots democracy to the level of global governance could be achieved.

Throughout the book the reader can feel a level of optimism that might seem unfounded given the current state of the world we live in. While the effects of the global economic crisis are still being felt all over the world, the pre-crisis climate moment exemplified by the Nobel Peace-Prize being jointly awarded to Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change hasn’t managed to have its comeback yet. Even though in the foreword to the book British Green MP Caroline Lucas writes about an “extraordinary growth of Green parties around the globe”, the number of Green MEPs decreased at the 2014 European Parliament elections. The “Green surge” in the United Kingdom seems to be an exception, not the rule, as in most countries of the EU the anti-austerity sentiments have not strengthened Greens; the main beneficiaries were instead radical left-wing parties like Syriza or Podemos, who can be seen as trustworthy partners of the Greens in many crucial questions, such as social justice and breaking with economic dominance of the neoliberal orthodoxy. However, the environment doesn’t seem to score high on their agenda.

The Green legend

Per Gahrton is a legend in Green circles. As a member of the Riksdag, the Parliament of Sweden, a member of the European Parliament, and the former chair of the Green think tank Cogito, he has been fighting for social and climate justice for many decades, and played a great role in transforming a group of environmentally-conscious dreamers and angry revolutionaries into one of the major players of European politics.

Even though it would be hard to find an author more suitable to tell the story of the global Greens, his recent book ends up being somewhat of a disappointment. With a length of only 200 pages it aims to be a directory of Green parties, as well as an historic account of the formation, spread and ideological development of the Greens in Europe and beyond, and towards the end the author doesn’t even shy away from giving some recommendations on how to tackle the great challenges of the 21st century. With such limited space, however, the reader ends up feeling like there is so much more that could have been said about the different aspects of Green politics. The transformation of the Greens from an anti-EU party to a proponent of European institutions is one example of topics that could have deserved much more space in the book. Gahrton cites three reasons: the growth of eurosceptic xenophobes, with whom the Greens didn’t want to be on the same platform; the growing inclusiveness of the EU, due to the eastward expansion of the Union; as well as the feeling that environmentalism can be better promoted inside the framework, rather than outside of it. Overall, these explanations seem very plausible, but it would have been interesting to read about how this change in the perception of the EU has developed inside the membership of the Green parties.

All in all, Per Gahrton’s book provides some very valuable insights into Green politics, and it is a must-read for everyone who wants to be active in Green circles, and who wants to understand the origins, the power-dynamics and philosophies of Green parties – and of course, those who need a portion of Green optimism in their life. The directory of the Green parties, which describes the successes and characteristics of approximately hundred Green parties all over the world, is the first of its kind, and a great value added to the Green discourse. The book also helps us understand the origins, and ideological roots of Greens, and the reasons for some visible differences among Greens, that are very often rooted in the cultural context. Many of the African Green parties, for example, cannot afford to promote the rights of sexual minorities or fight against extractive industries. Per Gahrton has written a very valuable book, even if a comprehensive book about the history and the ideas of the Green parties has yet to be written.


Per Gahrton: “Green Parties, Green Future. From Local Groups to the International Stage.” Pluto Press, London, 2015. 244 pages.

Cookies on our website allow us to deliver better content by enhancing our understanding of what pages are visited. Data from cookies is stored anonymously and only shared with analytics partners in an anonymised form.

Find out more about our use of cookies in our privacy policy.