BERLIN — When protesters in reflective yellow vests took to the barricades in France, rebelling against a gas tax that would hit hardest those who could least afford it, Annalena Baerbock was watching closely from across the border.
A leader of Germany’s Greens, Baerbock has seen her party steadily strengthen over the last year. But she knows if the Greens are to become a bigger force, they will have to convince voters that climate policy is not an elitist but common cause, while also addressing their economic concerns.
“The lesson from France is that we cannot save the climate at the expense of social justice,” Baerbock, who at 38 is roughly the same age as her party. “The two things need to go hand in hand.”
This is the Greens’ moment in Europe, or at least it could be.
The Greens now routinely beat Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives in the polls and are widely expected to be part of the next German government. In recent European elections, Green parties gained significantly in other corners of the Continent, too, winning 63 of 751 seats in the European Parliament, an increase of about 47 percent.
A crop of once-radical, single-issue environmental protest parties have emerged as the unlikely beneficiaries of the seismic disruptions to Europe’s politics of recent years.
Climate change has vaulted to near the top of voters’ concerns in a Europe beset by record-high temperatures. The collapse of traditional social democratic parties has opened acres of space on the center left. A generation of younger voters is casting about for new allegiances, and others, for an antidote to the nationalist, populist far right.
If nothing else, the Greens now sit astride Europe’s latest culture war.
With migration receding in the news, climate change has become a potent new front in the battle between green-minded liberals and populists.
As the Greens emerge as the new hope for Europe’s political center, they have become enemy No. 1 for far-right populists and others who cast their policies as part of an elite agenda that hurts ordinary people. (Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s National Rally, formerly known as the National Front, rages against “climate psychosis.”)
In Germany, where the Greens surged to more than 20 percent in the recent European Parliament elections, their campaign posters explicitly lashed out at the far right: “Hatred is no alternative for Germany.”
Britain’s Greens won a striking 12 percent of the vote, finishing fourth ahead of the governing Conservatives, not only by promoting the environment — but also by opposing Brexit.
Even in France, rocked for months by yellow vest protests against a higher fuel tax that was ultimately scrapped, the Greens won 13.5 percent and became the most popular party among voters under 35.
With their number of lawmakers rising in the European Parliament, the Greens will have roughly the same influence in the 751-seat assembly as the far-right populists led by Italy’s interior minister, Matteo Salvini. And like the populists, Green parties are networking across the Continent, trying to coordinate campaigns and holding joint party conferences.
“The Green idea has been European from the outset, because you can’t solve environmental problems within national borders,” said Baerbock, pointing out that the very first election her party participated in was for the European Parliament in 1979.
The battle is playing out not only inside nations but also between them, pitting cities against rural areas, and richer, more liberal northern and western European countries against their poorer counterparts in the south and former communist east.
In southern Europe, with swelling debt and high youth unemployment, Green parties remain marginal. In Italy, the Greens have never won more than 4 percent of the vote in a national election. In Spain, Equo, an environmental party, has a single seat in Parliament.
The same is true in Eastern Europe. Poland did not send a single Green lawmaker to Brussels. Joined by the Czech Republic, Estonia, and Hungary, it recently blocked the latest attempt by the European Union to set a target for carbon neutrality by 2050, by appealing to national grievance and historical memory.
“Poland could not develop during the 50 years following the Second World War, like France, Austria, or the Netherlands did,” said Mateusz Morawiecki, the nationalist prime minister. The proposed deal, he said, was simply “not fair.”
Even in Germany, Europe’s biggest and richest country, where the Greens have been the most successful, the Alternative for Germany, commonly known as AfD, accuses Baerbock’s party of being elitist — and hypocritical.
“The people who vote for the Greens can afford it,” said Karsten Hilse, a lawmaker for AfD and the party’s environmental spokesman. “They buy themselves a good conscience, because they are the ones who hurt the environment most, they are the ones with the air miles.”
“But ordinary people are being told that they are responsible for the impending climate apocalypse because they drive a car,” Hilse said.
These accusations play well among far-right voters, not least because for a long time it was true that Green voters were among the wealthiest in the country.
But the Greens have been expanding their support. The party won 1 in 5 votes in the European elections. They were not only the most popular among all voters under the age of 60 but for the first time among unemployed voters, too.
Still, the accusation of privilege sticks, Baerbock said.
The protests in France were a crucial learning moment, she said. The fuel tax, sold as a climate-saving measure, had been perceived as deeply unfair.
To those who could least afford it, the tax was seen as a way for them to offset the environmental damage caused primarily by big businesses and the jet-setting urban elites, who increasingly vote Green but whose lifestyles also have the biggest carbon footprint.
“There, in a nutshell, lies our challenge,” Baerbock said. “We looked at the yellow vests very carefully so we don’t walk into the same trap.”
One German Green lawmaker, Franziska Brantner, who had studied in France, met in February with one of the leaders of the yellow vests, Ingrid Levavasseur. Like Brantner, Levavasseur is a single mother who grew up in a rural area with poor public transport.
“We discovered that we had a lot in common,” Brantner said.
But she also said that she was humbled by Levavasseur’s experience as a nurse who until recently worked in palliative care but could rarely afford new clothes for her two children, let alone a holiday.
“We have to make sure that the ecological question does not fire up the social question but that it helps to solve it,” Brantner said.
Germany’s Greens recently learned from a study of voter concerns in Europe that the second-most-popular statement among far-right voters, after one on limiting migration, was: “We need to act on climate change because it’s hitting the poorest first, and it’s caused by the rich.”
The second part of that statement in particular resonates, Brantner said. “We need to speak more loudly about this,” she said.
Across the French traffic circles where the yellow vests gathered and in the streets where they marched, many protesters emphasized that they cared about climate change and “the end of the world” as much as making ends meet at “the end of the month.”
“Environmental policies are punitive when they are poorly implemented,” said Damien Carême, the former Green mayor of Grande-Synthe, a struggling industrial area in northern France. “Of course people will shout when gas taxes increase.”
“But if we reallocate this money to help people better insulate their homes and reduce their energy bills, everything is fine,” added Carême, who has now been elected to the European Parliament as a Green lawmaker.
That is what Germany’s labor unions are preaching, too.
For now, the jobs in polluting industries like cars and coal are among the most unionized and best-protected. In the renewables sector, however, unions are still rare and companies often pay little more than minimum wage.
“This is a real issue,” said Ralph Obermauer, a longtime Green member who used to work for the party and now works for IG Metall, one of Germany’s most important labor unions.
“If you want to achieve an ecological society, you have to take working people with you. That new society,” he said, “has to be fair.”
Workers are facing the prospect of job losses and transformation on two fronts: automation and climate policy. Already, automotive parts-makers are cutting jobs as the prospect of transitioning to electric cars looms.
“If we don’t take this seriously, we will lose the support of workers,” Obermauer said. And then, union representatives warn, Germany might have its own yellow vest revolt.