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Les Verts: nouveaux leaders sur les questions économiques et sociales?

Towards a new Green leadership on economic and social issues


If the Greens want to convince more Europeans that they have the most credible range of economic policies, they have to use alternative green economic concepts and share them far beyond the academic sphere, with all who are now starting to realise that our economy is completely unsustainable. And above all they have to assert their specific approach to social justice.

Back in June 2009, nine months after the failure of Lehman Brothers, the European Greens achieved a feat that probably did not get the attention it deserved: in a context of severe economic and financial crisis, we managed to score a success in the European elections, winning 46 seats, 11 more than in the previous term. It was probably the first time in our history that we would reverse the usual equation that associates Greens’ successes with good (economic) times. True enough, most of the progress was achieved in France, where the unifying dynamism of Europe-Ecologie led by Dany Cohn-Bendit very effectively managed to ride the wave of rising environmental concerns, highlighted by the movies of Nicolas Hulot and Yann Arthus-Bertrand on the dramatic consequences of climate change and loss of biodiversity. This quantum leap was supported by incremental gains in several western and northern European countries, where the mantra of a Global Green New Deal as the most credible answer to the crisis appeared to have worked. These successes could however not hide the failure of the Greens to achieve breakthrough in Eastern and Southern Europe: no Green MEP was elected in the former, while in the latter, the welcome election of a first ever Greek MEP did little to compensate for the loss of three of our four “southern” MEPs (two in Italy, one in Spain).

Mixed signals for the Greens

In electoral terms, the next two years brought mixed signals. In Germany, the Greens seemed to fly from success to success, achieving for the first time simultaneous presence in all 16 regional parliaments and the extraordinary feat of winning the prime-ministership in Baden-Württemberg. At federal level, they were regularly polled above 20%. In France, the European success was followed by regional and local elections that confirmed a steady share of ca. 10% of the vote across the country. In Hungary, LMP managed to fetch 7.5% of the vote, which brought for the first time 16 Green MPs in the Hungarian parliament, a promising result in Central Europe after the disappointing failure of the Greens in the neighbouring Czech republic. The UK Greens had a major breakthrough in 2010, winning their first seat in the national Parliament. However, elections in several other countries (Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Ireland…) indicated a downward trend.

From the last quarter of 2011 until today, the electoral news have increasingly confirmed that negative trend. In Spain the general election probably came too early to allow the emerging green party Equo to score any significant result. In Germany, the Green wave seems less strong, with mixed results in regional elections and federal opinion polls falling back to ca. 14% . The emerging Pirate Party has at least temporarily stolen the show there, managing to enter four regional Parliaments, however by far not exclusively at the expense of the Greens. In France, the dismal results (2.7%) of Eva Joly at the presidential election seemed to bring the positive dynamics of Europe-Ecologie/Les Verts to a (hopefully temporary) halt. In Greece, the Greens failed again to enter Parliament and in the Netherlands, the prospects for GroenLinks in the upcoming election are not excellent to say the least.

Just a matter of context?

So, where do we go from here? Of course, we can to some extent blame our less than stellar recent performance on the context. Indeed, if the 2009 European elections took place after the beginning of the financial crisis, it is equally clear that the latter’s economic and above all social consequences did not yet, at the time, bite hard into people’s livelihoods. Since then, the crisis has taken a turn for the worse and its impact is hitting ordinary people, and especially those in the most precarious situations with full strength. That makes the case for green policies less appealing at first sight.

However, one cannot fail to be struck by the fact that, in countries (notably Spain, Greece, and Italy) where the traditional political families on the right (Christian-democrats, conservatives) and at the left (socialists) are totally discredited, we Greens fail to exploit the vast political space left open by them. It is rather the traditional extreme-left or extreme-right parties who, adopting populist tones, succeed in leveraging the public desire for an alternative, while a growing part of the citizenship chooses to stay home on Election Day. This leaves the Greens at best at the outer fringes of political life. It is quite extraordinary that, having what I believe is the most credible set of answers, we fail to convince the growing numbers of indignados that we are the best choice.

Six challenges

How do I reconcile this with my firm belief that Green parties have the potential to be one of the major political players in the 21st century and play a role on a par with that played by social-democracy in the 20th? I would venture that the difference between success and failure in fulfilling what I believe is our historical role largely depends on our ability to meet the following five challenges:

  • Focus on society, not on ourselves: it may seem obvious, but as long as we appear mobilised by internal (power) struggles, there is little chance that society will take the Greens seriously. This requires us to be able to focus on what unites us rather than on what may divide us.
  • Be united in diversity: That unity however requires an ability to be different to different people. One does not address precarious workers or migrants in the same way as university students or business leaders. This ability probably requires the Greens to become more diverse in their membership and in their leadership. Another dimension of this need for diversity is typically that, when in government, Green ministers will obviously speak and act in accordance with coalition agreements while at the same time, party leaders or members of Parliament must retain the ability to speak and act in accordance with Green policy views, which usually will be more ambitious than any coalition agreement. But this diversity cannot express itself in a cacophony; it must rather be seen and heard as different instruments playing one same symphony. Managing this tension requires a high level of trust among the different players.
  • From whistleblowers, become solution providers: Green parties were born 30-40 years ago as the product of several protest movements. Asserting the relevance of these struggles allowed Greens to enter political life as fringe players, then gradually become junior government partners. Accelerating this transformation requires us to move away from being problem-oriented movements towards being providers of solutions to the challenges of this century. This entails leaving the comfort zone of criticising other people’s actions or inaction for one of submitting one’s own proposals and actions to the scrutiny of society. This does however not mean abandoning our indignation about the illnesses of our societies, rather it means building on this foundation, articulating not only a vision of where our societies should go but also credible, practical steps that would enable our societies to start moving in that direction.
  • Become a first choice on economic issues. While we’re talking about solutions, it’s the economy, stupid! For too long, the public’s dominant perception was that economic issues have been considered by the Greens as either non-essential or irrelevant. While it is true that a number of Green parties started from their beginnings in investing time and resources in strengthening their economic credentials, we remain perceived as not relevant on the economy by a majority of our fellow citizens. This is particularly worrying as even before the crisis started in earnest, 80% of citizens were making their electoral choice on the basis of economic issues. Being seen as credible on the economy requires more than having just a few spokespeople fluent in the language. We need each of our candidates to own the basic tenets of our vision and to be able to articulate our proposals. These in turn need to be rooted in reality and address all key issues, including those which Greens are usually uncomfortable with such as the sustainability of public finances or competitiveness.  This does not mean however adopting the mainstream economic paradigm which has dramatically failed in anticipating the current crisis and played a key role in its development. The neo-classical model and its ignorance of the ecological bases of our economy is now obviously crashing into the social and ecological limits with dramatic consequences for the people. For more than twenty years, independent green economists have been developing an alternative approach to the mainstream economics The Greens have to promote this alternative approach.
  • Assert our credibility on the issue of social justice and equity. While we retain our place of best choice when it comes to environmental issues, we are still struggling to be recognised as first-league players on the social front. This becomes especially damaging when the focus of the public debate turns to social issues. To some extent, we remain stuck with the image of proponents of solutions for the planet, especially tailored to the expectations of the middle class. In my view, the two existential challenges humanity is facing in the 21st century – ensuring decent life for all, not just for the happy few and doing that within the physical limits of the planet – are equally crucial. In other terms, exploding inequalities and the exhaustion of the planet’s resources and climate have the same potential to bring humanity to its end. We must be able to convey this dual focus to our citizens, which entails stressing bold proposals not just for environmental sustainability but also for social justice, including again treading on domains where we may feel less comfortable such as taxation and social security reforms. However, our proposals in this field must always strike the right balance: we cannot be content with demanding solidarity if we fail to stress at the same time the other side of that coin : responsibility. It is again a matter of credibility.

Radical and realist

In doing all this, we Greens must combine being radical and realist.

Actually, it is in the name of realism, that is of a deep understanding of reality, that we need to be radical as the two challenges humanity needs to face in order to survive on our planet require no less than a paradigm shift; a marginal course correction will simply not do. Predicated on the false ideas that Darwinian competition of everyone with all is the best way to ensure progress for society and that technology can overcome any physical limitation, the dominant development model is driving humanity to extinction. Going to the root of the issues (which is the basic meaning of radicalism) requires the Greens to be bold in their vision. We aim at a complete transformation of the way human societies live and relate with one another and with our planet.

At the same time, as realists, we know we are not starting from a blank sheet. We must be able to articulate how we go from A to B that is to outline practical policies that a) allow our societies to avoid collapse in the short term and b) initiate the deep transformation that they require in order to become socially and environmentally sustainable. These policies must again strike the delicate balance between being bold enough to tackle the issues at hand and acceptable to a majority of our fellow citizens. This is where our concept of a Green New Deal comes in. It is sometimes seen simply as a program to green the economy and its infrastructures, without changing the fundamentals of the model; that completely misses the point. Conversely, it must be seen and argued as the first few steps into a thorough transformation of our development model.

The changes we advocate for our societies require investment, commitment and, let us not be shy here, effort by everyone in society. In my view, the three conditions for efforts to be accepted are to be a) effective and efficient i.e. likely or at least susceptible to actually deliver the desired results and do so with the minimum of effort; b) fair, i.e. shared among citizens in such a way that those who have the broadest shoulders carry the largest part of the effort; c) legitimate, i.e. decided in a way that is accepted by most of our citizens as reflecting the general interest. It is precisely because the efforts that are being asked by the current political leadership across Europe do not fulfil those criteria that they are increasingly rejected by our peoples. I would suggest that making sure our proposals successfully meet those three criteria will go a long way in establishing our credibility.

Restoring trust

The scarcest commodity nowadays is trust. Many see the multi-faceted crisis we are living as the result of the evaporation of trust between economic and financial players, between governments, between those and their citizens, between citizens themselves… For policymakers, restoring trust requires much more than incantations for jobs and growth. In my view, it requires a deep understanding of the harsh facts of today’s reality, a clear vision of where our societies need to go and of the first steps that can lead us there and, finally, a demonstrated ability, political will and courage to lead the transformation. It is my deep conviction that the Greens have what it takes to restore trust; on our ability to have this conviction shared by our fellow citizens depends our success or failure in fulfilling our historical role.

Article paru dans le Green European Journal, Juin 2012