If an observer from 1980 suddenly found himself in the Germany of 2022, he would not recognize the Greens. The party founded 42 years ago by groups of pacifists, environmentalists and feminists is today the one that pressures the coalition government of which it is a part to send more weapons to Ukraine and help the country to defend itself from the Russian attack. The tables have turned. Now it is Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Social Democrats who are hesitating to increase their military support, while former pacifists talk freely about tanks, howitzers and Germany’s obligation to give up heavy weapons as soon as possible to defend democracy.
The pragmatic management of these new greens, so far from the pioneers like Petra Kelly who demonstrated against the rearmament of NATO, has managed to convince the Germans. The two main figures of the party, the head of Foreign Affairs, Annalena Baerbock, and the Vice Chancellor and Minister of Economy and Climate, Robert Habeck, are the most highly valued members of the Government, far behind Scholz. The chancellor is, in fact, at his worst moment of popularity since he took office almost six months ago.
That thrust of Los Verdes translates into votes. The party has obtained its best historical results in the last regional elections. In North Rhine-Westphalia, the land most populous in the country (18 million), practically tripled their support, going from 6.5% in 2017 to 18.3% on May 15. In Schleswig-Holstein, a week earlier, they overtook the Social Democrats and are now the second largest force in Parliament. Everything points to the fact that in both cases they will govern in coalition with the Christian Democrats and will strengthen their territorial power.
In Berlin, with Scholz in the doldrums and the Liberals bleeding to death in the regional elections, the balance of power in the semaphore coalition – as the tripartite of Social Democrats, Greens and Liberals is known – falls to the side of the ecologists. “The Greens are continuing their success story, the one that started when Baerbock and Habeck were elected to lead the party in 2018,” says Uwe Jun, a political scientist at the University of Trier. New faces and public concern about the climate emergency have given them a boost that they have taken advantage of. Habeck has had a great reputation for years, Jun recalls. And Baerbock has been able to bounce back from her mistakes when she ran for chancellorship last year.
Surprising twist or logical evolution?
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With the start of the invasion, the Green ministers have led the communication on German foreign and defense policy. Not only demanding the shipment of weapons; also supporting the rearmament of the Army with 100,000 million euros that Scholz announced at the end of February. In what some see a surprising twist, which even deserved a recent cover in the weekly Der Spiegel that portrays them in military uniform, others find a logical evolution. “The Greens have long called for a values-based foreign policy. Now that they govern, they are applying that principle,” recalls Daniela Schwarzer, a political scientist at the Open Society Foundation.
Habeck was already asking for weapons for Ukraine’s self-defense long before the invasion began, last summer, when no one in Germany considered it and the country still considered the ban on sending weapons to conflict zones an unbreakable dogma. He did it during a visit to the front line in the Donbas region. He was heavily criticized, also in his party. In fact, Baerbock, who long before becoming foreign minister was already demanding that Germany change its policy of appeasement towards Russia, was against it. She defended the diplomatic route as the only possible one. Until the end of February. When Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the tanks across the Ukraine border he changed his mind. According to Der Spiegelhis turnaround was drastic: not only did he agree to let Germany send 1,500 missiles from the German army, but he pressed the chancellor to announce it urgently and for them to arrive as soon as possible.
In fact, the Greens stopped being pacifists a long time ago, at least a good part of them. There is an iconic photo of his 1999 frontwoman Joschka Fischer clutching her right ear in pain. He has just had a balloon of red paint thrown at him at a party congress in Bielefeld. A few days earlier, the coalition government led by the Social Democrat Gerhard Schröder, of which he was a part as Foreign Minister, had decided to participate in the NATO bombings in Kosovo. It was the first time since the end of World War II that Germany had sent troops into a conflict, and many in the Greens peace movement were horrified.
“That was a crucial moment for the game. The decision produced a massive loss of members”, remembers Sebastian Bukow, director of internal politics of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, close to Los Verdes. Since then the training is no longer pacifist, but peace-oriented, the expert points out. “Basically, the invasion of Ukraine has not changed that much. The Greens still do not accept the war and are against the proliferation of weapons, but this is an exception. We are facing a war of aggression and the priority is to defend democracy in Ukraine”, explains Bukow. Diplomacy stopped working when the attack began.
Shortly after Baerbock’s change of heart, Scholz delivered his historic Bundestag speech in which he turned decades of German foreign and defense policy on its head. After announcing that Berlin was going to send weapons to kyiv, he justified the future rearmament of the army: “There could be no other response to Putin’s aggression,” he said. He also pledged to sever all energy ties with the Kremlin as soon as possible. Since then, however, analysts agree that Scholz has been in tow of the green ministers of his government. He appears to public opinion as excessively cautious and uncommunicative. Unlike the chancellor, they “have been able to explain why they make the decisions,” says Jun.
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