Greens United, but Their Color Has Faded
By Julio Godoy*
European environmentalists have created a regional Green Party with sights on EU parliamentary elections in June. But the Greens' political influence remains limited. Currently there are just two green parties -- in Germany and Latvia -- that form part of governing coalitions in Europe.
PARIS - The European "greens", who emerged more than 20 years ago in alternative political movements, have decided to build a united regional party, but they are suffering a crisis of little growth and limited influence, combined with sharp questioning about the social and economic values they now espouse.
The European Green Party, created in February, brings together the 32 organizations of the European Federation of Green Parties -- found in all of the region's countries except Belarus, Iceland, Lithuania, Moldavia, Northern Ireland, Poland and the republics of former Yugoslavia. However, their political power is marginal.
Just two form part of governing coalitions: Die Gruenen (The Greens) of Germany has been a minor partner of the Social Democrat Party since 1998, and heads three ministries. The green party of Latvia was designated to run the environment ministry in 2002. In France, Les Verts (also The Greens) governed in alliance with the Socialist and Communist parties from 1997 to 2002.
But they are still minor forces in the three countries. Die Gruenen, which in 1983 became the first European ecologist party to win seats in national parliament, has eight to 10 percent support of the electorate. Les Verts barely has five percent, and the Latvian greens won just 2.8 percent of the votes in 2002.
In all other European countries -- with the exception of Austria, Belgium and Switzerland -- the environmental parties draw even small portions of the vote.
Nevertheless, Italy's Monica Frassoni, a green deputy in the European Parliament, told Tierramérica that the new unification of the environmental parties is a bid "to win the European parliamentary elections in June and to consolidate a political presence of the family of greens (as a) political actor that can operate in the continental arena."
There are currently 44 green deputies in the 626-seat European Parliament.
"The traditional parties, whether of the right or the left, have incorporated the most consensus-based ecological concepts into their own platforms, undermining the growth of the new environmental movements," political science professor Hélène Miard-Delacroix, of the Ecole Normale Superieure of Lyon, France, told Tierramérica.
"On the other hand, European societies, especially the Latin ones -- France, Italy, Spain and Portugal -- but also in Northern Europe, are largely reticent to incorporate in their daily lives the challenging practices for protecting the environment, as the most 'orthodox' environmental movements demand," she said.
When Les Verts joined the French government, they tried to restrict the hunting seasons and to penalize the most brutal practices against migratory species. But that infuriated hunters, who constitute a strong pressure group in rural areas.
Along those lines, Dominique Voynet attempted to promote organic farming in France when she served as minister of environment, but came under violent criticism from commercial farmers, who make up the majority and wield a great deal of influence. Right-wing farmers invaded Voynet's offices in 1999, calling her a "prostitute". None of the aggressors was punished.
Regardless, "the green parties freed up political alternatives by bringing new issues to the fore -- in ecological terms and with an environmental sensitivity -- in the heart of industrialized 'Old Europe'," Michele Prospero, of La Sapienza University, in Rome, told Tierramérica.
The Italian green party is responsible for the emergence of a cultural awareness and a sense of defending the country's natural heritage, leading, for example, to protests against corrupt practices in urban construction. But, as in other cases in Europe, their banner issues have been taken up by other parties, "particularly by the Democratic Party of the Left," said the professor.
But the European greens "became institutionalized" and their political culture increasingly resembles that of the rest of the parties, "losing their sense of innovation, struggle and radicalness," Prospero said.
Adds Miard-Delacroix: "Many of the first environmental ideals have turned into bureaucratic chimera that are frequently impracticable."
The German law passed last year to limit the use of cans as beverage containers is creating headaches for consumers and retailers alike, Cornelia Rabbitz, national political correspondent for the public radio network Deutsche Welle (Voice of Germany), told Tierramérica.
In other cases, market dominance over politics is so strong that environmental advances are rendered invisible. Such is the case of renewable energy sources in France, where 80 percent of electricity comes from nuclear power plants.
The greens, like all left-leaning parties in Europe since the collapse of the socialist bloc, also suffer a crisis of ideological identity, and some of their leaders have aligned themselves with the market economy.
Die Gruenen, like the most conservative German parties, argues that the welfare state needs to undergo radical reform to survive, and the greens "are the leading defender of the partial privatization of the pension system and of the reduction of long-term social services for the unemployed," Rabbitz said.
The best known representative of the German greens is Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, a leader of the shift towards neoliberalism and of abandoning leftist pacifism to accommodate the military doctrine of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a bloc heavily influenced by the United States.
"Pressed by the U.S. government, Fischer approved German participation in the war against Serbia in 1999 over the separatist province of Kosovo, arguing that Germany could not tolerate a new genocide in Europe," said Rabbitz.
But Fischer did not believe war was justified to prevent the massive bloodshed of the separatist Chechens in clashes with Russian troops. This contradiction has cost the minister strong criticism from the pacifist leaders within Die Gruenen, but has won him supporters amongst conservative European and U.S. groups.
Last year, Fischer grudgingly supported the position of German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder against the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
* Julio Godoy is an IPS correspondent. Francesca Colombo contributed to this report from Italy.