Climate change is a pertinent issue throughout society — one need only look at all the carbon emission promises made by businesses and politicians. In fact, environmental issues are increasingly gaining the spotlight as seen through the sharp increase in plant-based diets (in a decade, the number of UK vegans has increased by 350 per cent). But the same cannot be said for electoral success. Even in Europe, which does not typically suffer from the two-party system of the United States, green parties remain on the fringe. ‘Greens’, collectively, only have 73 MEPs in the European Parliament, and over 40 per cent of these come from Germany and France alone. This comes with the asterisk that not every party in the alliance is a ‘green party’. It also features the Czech Pirate Party.

Compromise to maximise 

But discussing the varying success of green parties must go beyond a macro scale. Arguably, the biggest victory for green politics unfolded in Germany. Throughout April and May, the Greens topped the polls. This was a story in and of itself, as Oltermann of The Guardian noted: ‘Germany’s party landscape has long proven more resistant to sudden upheavals than its European neighbours’. But if you were to open a poll site today, what would you see? Politico tells a pitiful story. Already the Greens have slumped back to 18 per cent whilst the CDU/CSU alliance, having recovered from the loss of Merkel, stormed to almost 30 per cent. Pundits have attributed the slump to controversies around the leader, Annalena Baerbock, as well as the shift of support from moderate voters back to the CDU.

Capricious polls aside, there would still be issues had the Greens been overwhelmingly successful. Independent climate groups have criticized the mainstream party for being ‘establishment’, noting that a compromise may be inevitable if the Greens wish to be involved in the next government. This presents a challenging dichotomy between upholding one’s ethos and realistically being able to implement it. This criticism may extend across Europe as green politics gains more attention: the Greens have to become career politicians just like their opponents. This paints a somewhat sordid picture if green politics is only digestible when diluted with compromise and pro-business rhetoric.

But compromise looks unavoidable. In Austria, the Greens saw a wonderful resurgence of support and achieved almost 14 per cent in the 2019 national elections. The Greens subsequently joined a majority coalition with the centre-right Austrian People’s Party. One can predict the criticism; that an alliance with a right-wing party undermines the green ethos. However, green advocates arguably prefer the current alliance to a wholly right-wing alliance that excludes all environmental causes. Indeed, the situation provides an opportunity for the Greens to platform more of their policies than if they had been in opposition.

Can coalitions achieve more?

The debate on whether Greens should join coalitions conjures a ferocity one might not expect. It is easy to foresee Greens propping up coalitions across Europe, especially in countries like the Netherlands — where one-party majorities routinely fail to establish themselves. Countries like Iceland (not in the EU) have been immensely successful in tackling green issues. In 2016, around 65 per cent of primary energy consumption came from geothermal sources whilst 20 per cent came from hydropower. Yet in Iceland, the Greens are only part of a coalition. In fact, since 2017 the Left-Green Movement has led alongside centre-right parties. Does this not put to rest the anxieties around too much compromise?

Yet some critics are adamant that this is not what green parties should aim for. Perhaps they have a point. The UK Liberal Democrats may serve as a reminder of the dangers of coalitions. The party ultimately suffered for their participation and to this day have not been forgiven by many constituents for their U-turn on tuition fees. The UK is an interesting case study. The political landscape hints at an uncomfortable reality: in a first-past-the-post system, and due to the clash of voter bases, can only one centre-left/left-wing party be mainstream? Would the rise of the Greens require a severe downfall of the Labour Party? Dividing progressive voters between two parties is unwise, especially when the Conservatives have plenty to gain from it.

Ultimately, environmental parties may be hindered by the fact green policies can be implemented by other parties. Particularly in the UK, the Greens lack a monopoly on green policies. In other countries, meanwhile, does the fate of green parties over the next decade lie in making gains in local governments? For all the successes of the Germans, Austrians, and Icelandic Greens, there are over a dozen countries where the domestic Green Party struggles to have a presence.

The road towards a future where green parties take the main stage is still a long one. Nonetheless, it’s heading towards a horizon that is becoming more visible.

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