The political family of the European Greens -who sit in the European Parliament under the name of The Greens/European Free Alliance, in coalition with several regionalist parties- was one of the few – if not the only – grouping that could claim victory on the night of last month’s European Parliament elections. With 75 members, they increased their share of seats in the institution by 50%, from 50 members at the beginning of the 2014 mandate.
Now the fourth largest delegation, many commentators rushed to proclaim a pan-European Green wave, not to mention Green party leaders themselves. However, the numbers might be telling a different story. Let’s look at the figures: first, the Greens failed to elect any representatives to the European Parliament in twelve Member States: Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Estonia, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Malta, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia. Among the 2004, 2007 and 2013 enlargement cohort -all Eastern European counties but one, Cyprus- the party elected members in only three countries – the Czech Republic, Latvia and Lithuania.
Further analysis indicates that even in those three countries, the national parties affiliated to the Greens/ European Free Alliance, are far from what one would describe as authentic representatives of the Green worldview, lacking Green credentials: in the Czech Republic, the party that belongs to the Green family is the Czech Pirate Party, which was initially founded upon a platform of transparency and direct democracy.
The Latvian member is the Latvian Russian Union, an ethnic minority party that seeks to represent the Russian-speaking and ethnically Russian minority in the country. It has supported the Russian annexation of Crimea and in 2014 signed a cooperation agreement with the Russian nationalist Russian Unity party to “strengthen the unity of Russian world,” a party that was outlawed in Ukraine and has since merged with United Russia, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s vassal organisation. In Lithuania, the Lithuanian Farmers and Greens Union has agrarian roots and most of its policies can be categorised as centre-right. Out of the Eastern countries, compare to the previous European electoral cycle, the European formation actually lost seats in Croatia, Estonia, Hungary and Slovenia, as they also did in Austria, Italy, Spain (where its member parties are mostly Catalonian nationalist anyway) and Sweden.
So where did the surge in members come from? The party had marginal gains, picking up one additional seat in each of the following countries: Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Lithuania, the Netherlands and Portugal. It gained two seats from no representation in Ireland and three seats from none in the Czech Republic through the Pirate Party. Where can one speak of a truly Green wave then? Well, in three countries.
First the United Kingdom, where, overall, the group increased its seats from five to eleven. However, the vote is not a compact Green vote: out of the three member parties, the two are regionalist: the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru, representing Scottish and Welsh autonomy movements respectively. Both parties come from the second element of the political group in the European Parliament, the European Free Alliance. The Green Party of England and Wales gained four seats, increasing their number from three in 2014 to seven, a gain of four seats.
Secondly, France: the party won twelve seats and was placed overall third, outperforming both establishment parties on the left and the right, what remains of the French Socialist Party and the Republicans, with 13.47% of the vote. Yet, this is below their best performance at the European level so far, which occurred in 2009, when they won 16.28% of the vote and counted 14 MEPs at the first convening of the Parliament. Yet, they are again on the rise.
Where one can definitely speak of a real wave is Germany: the European Party now counts twenty-five German MEPs, from fourteen. One should focus on the Alliance 90/The Greens, the true-colour Green party out of the four that belong to the group from the country, which was placed second overall with 20.50% and gained twenty-one seats, compared to third place, 10.70% of the vote and eleven seats five years ago. The other four seats of the group were equally distributed among the Pirate Party, the Ecological Democratic Party, Volt and The Party, a satirical organisation which in the 2014 European Parliament elections ran under the slogan of “For Europe, Against Europe.”
The Greens seem to be consolidating their success, surpassing every other German party to lead in four out of the seven nationwide opinion polls conducted so far in June, leaving Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, the CDU, the party that has dominated the post-war political scene in the country, to second place, by a margin of one to three percent.
What do the numbers tell us? The first conclusion that one can draw is that any surge or wave is an exclusively Western phenomenon: out of the eleven Eastern European countries, the party is only represented in three. Even in those three, the member parties largely lack Green credentials or a Green identity altogether. Then, the wave has not caught up in the countries mostly affected by last decade’s financial crisis (with the only exception being Ireland, which was very quick to recover): there are no Greek or Italian Green MEPs.
Even in Spain, the three Green MEPs (from five in 2014) mostly come from regional autonomist parties that belong to the European Free Alliance stream, rather than the authentic Green branch: two come from the coalition Ahora Repúblicas (an alliance between Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya, Euskal Herria Bildu and El Bloque Nacionalista Galego), a mix of Catalonian, Basque and Galician separatists, and one from the coalition between the populist left and Catalonian leftists under the name of Unidas Podemos Cambiar Europa (made of Unidas Podemos, Izquierda Unida, Catalunya en Comú and Barcelona en Comú). If there is a significant phenomenon at all, it is in Germany and France, and to a lesser extend in the United Kingdom (and potentially Ireland), all affluent countries of the West. Better, it is a summer storm in Ireland and the United Kingdom, a flood in France, and a torrent in Germany.
Further analysis beyond the numbers points to a more significant sociological finding: the rise in support for Green parties in those four countries signifies the transformation of those parties from fringe, single issue parties on the left, to parties of well-to-do, centrist urbanites that are dismayed with the establishment but not frustrated or affected enough, either socially or economically, to resort to the populists or the extremes.
In other words, Green parties have become parties of the middle class, leaving behind their working-class roots and their origins as fringe vectors of the left.
There is a reason for that: there are few Europeans who can afford to think Green or be Green. Even in those four wealthy countries, the disaffected have moved towards the extremes. At the same time, the movement has gained ground in those countries where traditional centrist parties have failed themselves and their voters: in last October’s Landtag elections in Bavaria, the main centre-right party and partner to Chancellor Merkel’s CDU, the Christian Social Union, lost twice as much voters to the Greens as it did to the extreme right-wing party Alternative for Germany.
Given the alienation caused by infighting within the CDU and the party’s shy but evident turn to the right, it is safe to assume that a significant number of Merkel’s centrist voters without a political party affiliation have now moved to the Greens.
Actually, it was not them who moved; it was the party that abandoned the centre that has won the Chancellor repeated wins. A similar situation can be found in France with the Republicans or even the Conservatives in the United Kingdom.
In other words, the Greens surged in those countries where there is a significant chunk of voters that are well-off enough to be able to think green or worry about green issues, which at the same time happen to be the countries where the established centrist parties that represented the middle class have strayed off course and the Green parties grasped that opportunity to include those votes by extending their narrative beyond strictly-environmental concerns to wider issues, such as Europe.
This does not mean that Green causes are not worthy causes. Quite the opposite. But beyond affluence or middle-class guilt, for the very worthy causes of environment protection and climate change to catch roots across the Continent, Greens will need to offer a solution to the other big challenge that the Green struggle is directly linked to, worldwide: poverty.
The same applies to the rest of the parties that have rushed to adopt the Green agenda. Environmentalism can be another dividing line between the rich and the poor.
In order to avoid that, the Greens will have to offer more than they currently do, as will the rest of the parties: they will have to offer practical solutions to daily problems, especially security, including financial security. That cannot simply come from a Europe-wide minimum wage or the Green economy, as they have been advocating. In lack of better answers, surprisingly, they have already much more in common with the establishment parties, the European People’s Party and the Party of European Socialists, which lost these elections. They will need to deliver real benefits to every single European to appeal to all.