The German Greens hit 25: a tale of two parties

By Matthew Tempest
Published January 13th 2005 in Der Spiegel online (English version)

In Germany, the Green Party is highly successful -- it's the junior coalition partner in the national government and has 55 seats in the national parliament. But in Britain, where the party was established a full decade earlier, the Greens are still struggling for a breakthrough in national elections this spring.

With just over four months left to go before a likely general election in the Britain, the state -- and status -- of the British Green Party could hardly offer a more stark contrast with that of its German sister party, which is currently enjoying it's sixth year of national power in the "red-green" coalition with Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democratic Party.

As Josckha Fischer, Germany's foreign minister and the most high-profile Green politician in the history of the 30-year-old movement, appears on TV screens around the world flying to Tehran to attempt to disarm the Iranian mullahs of their nuclear ambitions, or going eyeball to eyeball with United States Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld over Iraq, the English and Welsh Green Parties met in the autumn to discuss strategies for getting their first ever member of parliament elected to the British House of Commons.

The limited successes of Britain's Greens contrasts starkly with Germany's Green Party, which has 55 members in the Bundestag, Germany's parliament, dozens of representatives in the country's 16 states and 13 members representing their country in the European Parliament. Green politicians in Germany also hold three cabinet minister positions in Schroeder's government, including the Environment Ministry, the Agricultural and Consumer Protection Ministry and the Foreign Ministry. Though Germany has the most successful Green Party, the German Greens are not alone in having nationally successful politicians -- other European Green parties have successfully fielded national candidates in the governments of Finland, Belgium and France.

But in Britain, where the UK Greens emerged out of the "People" and then the "Ecology" party a decade before the German Greens formed in the early 1970s, the party has failed to make a dent in the national political consciousness.

October saw around 300 grassroots members attend the party's annual conference in the rainy, faded seaside resort of Weston-super-Mare to plot an election strategy, as well as debate the party's platforms for an election widely expected to be called for May 5, 2005.

Keith Taylor, the newly elected principal co-speaker of the party is the Greens' greatest hope for a breakthrough into the 659 member strong House of Commons. Taylor, one of six Greens on Brighton's city council, scored nearly 10 percent in the 2001 general election, in a constituency ideally suited to the leftist message of his party -- a largely student district, with a high proportion of gays, hippies and academics. In the 2004 European Parliament elections, 27 percent of voters in the constituency went Green. Now, he's hoping to go one step better by deposing his district's sitting New Labor MP, David Lepper. Countering the perceived wisdom that a vote for a small party is a vote down the drain, he told delegates: "A wasted vote is a vote for something you don't believe in."

Of course, there are many reasons for the Greens' weak showing -- and not all of them are of the party's making. The electoral system in the UK, unique in Europe, still rests on the first-past-the-post method, awarding seats to the winner with the most votes in each of the country's 659 constituencies, with no element of proportional representation of the nation-wide vote. This mitigates almost entirely against small parties, with only a smattering of nationalist parties from Scotland and Wales making it to Westminster, plus one "independent," a doctor elected in 2001 on a platform of saving his local hospital.'

Chalking up minor successes

In recent non-national elections where proportional representation has been used -- both at the communal and European Union level -- the Greens have fared much better. Two Greens now sit on the London Assembly, and there are seven Greens in the Scottish Parliament, a dramatic increase over the lone Green elected when the regional parliament was first established in 1999. The highest level the British Greens have achieved is the European Parliament in Strasbourg, where the party has two members.

In fact, it was the European elections of 1989 that first brought Green politics into the consciousness of most of the British population, when the party came from out of nowhere to amass a record 15 percent of the vote in the dying days of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's administration. Unfortunately for the Greens, however, European elections were not done using a system of proportional representation at the time -- and the success proved to be a false dawn for the party. Because it had failed to carry any single district, it didn't gain any seats in Strasbourg.

The set-back led, at least indirectly, to a split in the party as the group of so-called "realos" (who embraced political pragmatism as opposed to the more fundamentalist "fundis") attempted to steer the party in a more pragmatic direction under the banner "Green 2000" before failing and, eventually, leaving the party.

A transformation for Germany's Greens

Ironically, the exact opposite happened in Germany, where the Green Party underwent an evolution that helped lead it toward success, culminating with its ascent into the coalition leader in 1999. But it didn't happen overnight -- there were plenty of setbacks. Having recorded their breakthrough first seats in parliament in the 1980s, the party stumbled during its post-reunification election campaign in 1990. The party utterly misjudged the mood of the nation and its "Everyone's talking about Germany -- we're talking about the climate" campaign failed to find traction and party didn't even manage to reach the 5 percent threshold parties need to get into the Bundestag.

Andrea Fischer, a Green who was later to become agriculture minister in the first Red-Green coalition, remembers the slogan with a laugh: "Everyone's talking about reunification -- and we're talking about the bloody weather! We were too cold and unemotional. We missed an important point. It was a decisive shock."

Ralph Fuecks, a former Green politician now with the Heinrich Boll Foundation, a Green-aligned think tank, agrees. "That was an important lesson. It was the moment the party grew up, because it was a question of survival."

It was also the moment when the party's hardcore "fundis" left, explains Hans Christian Stroebele, the Green who represents Berlin's multicultural Kreuzberg neighborhood in the Bundestag and himself a veteran founder of the Green Party. "The Fundis left 14 years ago" he says.

Fuecks says the party's dogmatic fundis threatened the party's future. "We had to develop a sense for the opinions of the people," he explains. "The Greens made peace with the Bundestag and parliamentary democracy. It was a process of mutual evolution. The Greens changed the system and the system changed the Greens."

"For us, politics is not just about demonstrating your opinions, but asking what is the real impact? What are you achieving?" he says.

It's a point echoed Andrea Fischer, who, after resigning her agriculture post after mad cow disease reached Germany, now works as a lobbyist. She says: "I think politics without power is not politics. If you say you are not interested in power, you should write for the papers, not be a politician.

"What distinguishes us from other European parties is our relationship to power. Others think power is nasty and muddy, but if you look back the changes of the Green party put them on the way to power."

Britain's challenge

That's a dilemma still being grappled with by Britain's Greens -- which are made up of the England & Wales Greens and the Scottish Greens. (Though technically separate parties, they do work together on national issues.) At the England & Wales Greens conference in Weston, delegates voted strongly to reject the new EU constitution and campaign against it -- despite a plea from Darren Johnson, the party's candidate for London mayor, to accept the treaty.

This, and their opposition to the EU's common currency, the euro, puts them together with some strange political bedfellows -- namely the right-wing company of the Conservative Party and the other resurgent small party, the UK Independence Party.

Repeated calls for the party to have one elected and media-friendly leader, rather than the current set up, are also regularly rejected by the party rank and file. And when the party holds its conferences, many members oppose inviting their more successful German cousins to speak because the party backed the wars in Kosovo and Afghanistan. Indeed, the British party holds on to many ideals long ago abandoned by German Greens.

The controversial decisions made by the German Greens are explained by Fuecks as a tortured, but principled, stand. "The Greens changed their position before they got into government," he says." It was not political opportunism. From 1992, myself and others had been arguing against 'Pacifist Passivity' and for humanitarian interventions, and the massacres in Srebrenica made our case for us. We had a hard debate over Bosnia and opted to urge action by a majority vote."

Similar ideological flexibility will be required in England if the Greens ever expect to gain political power. Andrea Fischer has some words of advice for her more purist colleagues in the UK Greens.

"The British Green party will always stay in the minority if it sticks to those positions," she says. "The German Greens have been striving for a path between principles and the pragmatic. It is a permanent battle. That's normal, but we don't regard ourselves as morally better than other politicians. We no longer have the arrogance that we are morally better."