Germany’s Greens at 40: Between Pacifist Roots and Potential Government Responsibility

Co-leader of the German Greens Annalena Baerbock speaking in March 2019. Courtesy of Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung/Flickr

While Germany’s mainstream parties – the so-called Volksparteien (mass-movement people’s party) – are faltering, the Greens are on course to be part of the next German government. However, their current security policy platforms will not remain unchallenged.

When in January 1980 a fairly eclectic mix of environmentalists, human rights defenders, communists and anti-nuclear activists formed Germany’s Green party, no-one – and perhaps least of all the Greens themselves – imagined where the party would stand four decades later. For they lost their image as a protest party and became part of Berlin’s political establishment. As Germany’s traditional political giants – the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) and centre-right CDU/CSU – are becoming increasingly embroiled in internal disputes and buffeted by one dismal electoral result after another, the Greens celebrate their current status as Germany’s second most popular party, and are on course to be part of the next German government. Still, participation in government will entail a considerable level of readjustment for the party, given its current policies.

Peaceniks Yesterday, Robust Peace Now

Environmental protection has traditionally taken centre stage in the Greens’ policies. Nevertheless, defence issues frequently provoked lively debate within the party and have gained new attention as the Greens are broadening their policy portfolio. While they originally opposed the very existence of the German armed forces (Bundeswehr) and Germany’s membership in NATO, today’s Greens see the value in both. This is, however, not without reservation. From the Greens’ viewpoint, Bundeswehr operations abroad should only be undertaken on the basis of a UN Security Council mandate, effectively giving China and Russia the right to veto Germany’s deployments. This position may seem incoherent, but German participation in the ad-hoc coalition operations against the so-called Islamic State has continuously met with disapproval from Green parliamentarians.  

Green Shoots, Not Green Bucks

German spending on NATO is no less controversial to the party. The pledge to boost Germany’s defence spending to 2% of GDP by 2024 – a target accepted but already postponed by the current government to 2031 – makes little sense to the Greens. Instead of embarking on such an arms race that would make Germany the third-largest defence spender in the world in expenditure volume, the Greens argue that the Bundeswehr’s ‘dramatically bad shape should be enhanced through more efficient procurement and strengthened cooperation with EU partners. How this would be received by Germany’s NATO allies, and first and foremost US President Donald Trump, remains unexplained in the Greens’ politicial agenda.

Atomkraft? Nein Danke

While adapting their original position on NATO and the Bundeswehr, the Greens have sought to remain true to their roots in the 1970’s disarmament movement and desire for a world free of nuclear weapons. In this context, the party has primarily focused on American nuclear bombs on German soil. As part of NATO‘s nuclear sharing arrangement, since the Cold War Büchel Air Force Base in the idyllic Eifel region in Western Germany has hosted up to 20 (the exact number is kept secret) American B61 nuclear bombs. The Green party has always rejected this practice and demands a withdrawal of nuclear weapons from Germany. With the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) and the negotiations and subsequent adoption of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in 2017, the Greens’ withdrawal demands gained new impetus. The party openly endorses the campaign and calls on the current German government to sign and ratify the treaty.

When Dreams Meet Realities

The Greens have already tasted power at the federal level when in 1998 they entered into a coalition with the SPD, and soon came to realise the difference between a party manifesto and reality. In 1999, only one year after Green leader Joschka Fischer became foreign minister, the question over Germany’s participation in the NATO bombing of Slobodan Milošević’s Serbia led to deep divisions within the party. Whereas leftist party members strongly opposed a German involvement, the more pragmatic Greens perceived the air strikes as necessary and justifiable. In the end, the party’s pragmatic ‘realo’ wing, led by Fischer, succeeded and a clear majority backed German participation in NATO’s air strikes. The party therefore rose to meet its responsibilities in government, but at the cost of some of its members who walked away.

Similarly, the Greens were not able to include their demand regarding a withdrawal of nuclear weapons from Germany in the 1998 coalition agreement with the SPD. As a compromise, the agreement advocated a NATO no-first-use policy. However, except for some debates within the Alliance, Fischer achieved little.

In spite of these setbacks, the Greens have not lost hope in their initial ideals and, with their rising popularity, they might have a better chance to realise these. With charismatic and sharp-witted Robert Habeck and Annalena Baerbock as co-leaders, the party long ago overtook the SPD in the popularity stakes, and is now closely behind the conservative CDU/CSU in current polls. Last spring, the Greens even topped polls throughout Germany, albeit briefly.

With these poll numbers and a diversified policy portfolio, the Green party is viewed as the new Volkspartei, ready to be part of the next German government. The next federal elections are scheduled for autumn 2021 – if the current coalition of conservatives and social democrats lasts until then. A black–green coalition with the Green and conservative parties – similar to the newly formed Austrian government – is currently believed to have the highest chance of success.

After 16 years the Greens would finally participate in government again. But this could come at a price. While the conservatives have recently shown signs of greening their policies, a deep divide remains between the Greens and the CDU/CSU when it comes to defence. Merkel’s party has continuously reiterated its support for the nuclear sharing arrangement and Germany’s loyalty and contribution to the transatlantic alliance. Moreover, recent calls by French President Emmanuel Macron for a strengthened dialogue on nuclear deterrence in Europe have been welcomed by some conservative politicians. It seems therefore unclear how the Greens could either agree with higher defence spending or persuade their putative conservative government colleagues not only to go back over defence spending commitments but also to insist on the withdrawal of nuclear weapons from German soil.

Ways Around Apparent Dilemmas

Still, Germany’s Greens might be willing to accept a coalition agreement without excessive formal concessions from the CDU in the defence sector, and instead realise Green objectives through the party’s influence in government.

And that could still make a huge difference. In the near future, landmark decisions have to be made. As Germany’s fleet of Tornado fighter-bombers is nearing the end of its shelf life, a decision on its replacement is unavoidable. Discussions on this matter have been taking place for years and a decision is now scheduled for March. But should the decision be again postponed, a Green party included in a future government would exercise a huge amount of influence.

For the moment, the Greens remain fond of their new slogan which claims that ‘radical is the new realistic’. Perhaps – but being realistic has a radical flavour all of its own.

Lydia Wachs is a Research Assistant in the Proliferation and Nuclear Policy Programme at RUSI.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.


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