Austria's first green-tinged government -- comprising the Austrian People's Party and the Austrian Green Party -- broke ground in the Alpine state earlier this month. Not only is the environmentalist Green Party in a national government for the first time, but the coalition's agenda will make Austria a trailblazer in climate protection. Germany's next general election, scheduled for 2021, however, might yield an even bigger bombshell: a Green chancellor for the first time in post-war continental Europe.
Indeed, the stars must line up for the party that embodies the environmental cause -- these days in the form of climate protection -- like no other in Germany. But it's entirely within reason that a Green party candidate, most likely the charismatic, down-to-earth party co-leader Robert Habeck, could succeed Angela Merkel, who says she won't run again.
And that would be excellent news: Germany, an industrial heavyweight in Europe, could lead the way for the continent in climate protection, an increasingly urgent topic today across all of Europe. A Green victory in Germany would build on the strong gains Austria's Greens notched in September's ballot, and would come as the European Union is launching a comprehensive Green Deal program.
Today's German Green Party is moderate and policy-oriented, a proven partner in office across Germany's federal states. And, in southwestern Baden-Wuerttemberg, the hub of automobile production in Germany, the Greens even boast a popular, re-elected governor named Winfried Kretschmann. Together with a European Union committed to a progressive climate program, as its new executive Ursula von der Leyen appears to be, this could spell the kind of breakthrough in climate politics that scientists and policy experts have been advocating for years.
Currently, Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) is out in front in opinion polls. But the Greens are on the conservatives' heels in second place, just five or so points behind. The CDU is in shambles, increasingly befuddled as Merkel's last day in office grows nearer. It polls at around 28%, according to the German pollster Forsa, which is five points below its 2017 general election tally -- the lowest in nearly 70 years. In mid-summer 2019, the CDU actually trailed the Greens in polls.
The German Greens have been polling higher than ever -- around 22% -- for nearly a year, which makes them a virtual shoe-in for participating in a new ruling coalition, whether they head it up or not. If they don't lead the coalition, the Green Party's "post-ideological" leaders are up for coalitions with every major party save the far right.
The Greens, under Habeck and his capable fellow chairperson Annalena Baerbock, are more united and steady on their feet than they've been since their tumultuous founding on the cusp of the 1980s. The progressive party has no qualms about wielding power together with conservatives, and possesses both the mettle and track record to do so.
The 50-year-old Habeck, a cerebral, unconventional politico who sports a permanent five-day beard, is publicly coy about the possibility, but he's obviously interested in the top job. Though a book author and essayist by profession, he put climate policy to work as energy and environment minister in his native state of Schleswig-Holstein -- and he wants to do it at the national level.
"We need courage and passion to move big things forward," he said last year. "The Merkel era is clearly coming to an end." A new era is beginning, Habeck says. "We want to set the course, we are campaigning for responsibility for being able to shape the new era."
The looming question at the moment is who will replace Merkel, a progressive in conservative terms who radically overhauled German Christian democracy. The party is starkly divided between liberals, like Merkel, and staunch conservatives who favor an old-fashioned Christian democracy that emphasizes family, identity and free-market economics.
Merkel's hand-picked successor, currently party chief and defense minister, is Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the former governor of little Saarland, a state that hugs the French border. AKK, as Germans call her, is a shade more conservative than Merkel (she opposes same-sex marriages, same-sex adoption and more immigration) but still much too liberal for the party's outspoken right wing. Moreover, she has not impressed most Germans since being pushed into the limelight by Merkel a year ago. In polls, she lands near the very bottom.
The conservatives' dilemma is that none of her rivals in the CDU are any more beloved. Their camp includes Friedrich Merz, an edgy right-wing lawyer pushed out of the party hierarchy by Merkel nearly two decades ago who has returned from a successful business career to challenge Merkel's mainstream affinities. While he attracts men and traditionalists, he's seen as abrasive and impersonable -- and out of touch with the way Merkel has updated the CDU.
With Merkel on the sidelines, the Greens have the republic's top personality in Habeck. Moreover, a Eurobarometer survey conducted by the European Commission shows that eight out of 10 Germans see climate change as a "very serious" problem. Nearly nine in 10 respondents think it important that their government set targets to increase the renewable energy used by 2030.
Not surprisingly, climate and environment are the topics that Habeck and Baerbock pound away at as they tour the country, filling halls everywhere they go. Every contemporary issue, the Greens say -- agriculture, transportation, industry, nutrition, trade and housing -- must be understood and addressed through the prism of the climate crisis.
Even if the Greens do not pull off a win in 2021 -- and thus don't name the chancellor -- they could still, as buffed-up coalition partner, turn much of their climate agenda into policy.
"If the Greens had the ministries for transportation, energy, housing and infrastructure, they would be in a fairly good position to implement most of their important climate imperatives," Eric Chauvistre, a political scientist at Magdeburg-Stendal University, told me. "They don't require the chancellery to do that."
Green parties are in coalition governments in Finland, Sweden, Luxembourg, Lithuania and now Austria. In every case, they've put their stamp on their nation's climate policies.
In Austria, Greens now have four ministries and won agreement to speed up the transition to climate neutrality (2040), reduce the cost of public transportation, put solar panels on one million roofs and increase taxes on air travel.
In Finland, the Greens finessed through a goal of climate neutrality by 2035, as well as energy tax reforms, investment in railways and nature conversation, and sustainability rules for generating energy from burning wood.
In Germany's federal states too, where Greens occupy pivotal ministries, they've pushed through progressive environmental laws.
As Green concerns shoot to the front of political discourses worldwide, in Europe their original proponents are being carried with them -- some of them perhaps all the way to the top.
Paul Hockenos is the author of Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, the Wall and the Birth of the New Berlin and Joschka Fischer and the Making of the Berlin Republic: An Alternative History of Postwar Germany. The opinions in this article are those of the author.