PARIS – Green parties achieved a landmark breakthrough in the European elections but the challenge is only now starting for them to use newly found leverage in the EU parliament and further increase popularity to achieve real power.
In the U.K., France, Germany and other EU states, environmental parties notched up major successes in the elections, breaking well into double figures and overtaking traditional forces.
The gains, on the back of greater mobilization by young voters, came as climate change and environmental issues have been propelled to the forefront of political discourse across the continent.
“Our responsibility is to build an alternative in order to win power,” said Yannick Jadot, who headed the list of France’s Europe Ecology — The Greens (EELV), which won 13.5 percent of the vote.
The EELV came in third place, well ahead of the traditional socialist and right-wing parties, and will now seek to penetrate the two-way battle between centrist President Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen of the far-right.
In Germany, the Greens came in second place with 20.5 percent of the vote, overtaking Chancellor Angela Merkel’s partner, the left-wing SPD, and raising questions about the future of their grand coalition.
Data in Germany showed a huge generational rupture in the Green vote, with more 18- to 44-year-olds backing the Greens than Merkel’s CDU-CSU alliance.
“It is the mobilization of young people that has produced this result — above all in France and Germany,” said Jean-Francois Julliard, the head of Greenpeace France.
“While we feared that young people would abstain, they mobilized for ecology.”
The momentum for the green surge had been building over months as the strikes started last November by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, 16, not only refused to lose steam but caught the imagination of youth across the world.
Environmental parties were set to win 69 seats in the 751-member EU parliament, results showed, not enough to sway policy alone but a crucial contingent in a tightly contested new chamber.
Analysts said that unlike the far right and centrists, the Greens form a much tighter and homogeneous group in the EU parliament, making them a more efficient political force.
“There is no problem for the Greens to know what political group they are going to join,” said Vanessa Jerome, researcher at the University of Paris.
“They will have to construct alliances but this is nothing new,” she added.
French President Emmanuel Macron, for one, is likely to want to broaden his EU parliament coalition to include the Greens even if some consider his record on environmental issues to be mixed.
Hugely prominent ecological campaigner Nicolas Hulot, who Macron had named environment minister, spectacularly quit the government last August, complaining that he felt “all alone.”
And with the political lines of battle now being redrawn across Europe, environmentalists will now try to gain more power on a national level.
Greens in government would not be a novelty in Germany, where they were the partners of SPD chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, with veteran Green campaigner Joschka Fischer serving as a high-profile foreign minister from 1998 to 2005.
But in countries like the U.K. and France it would be a huge change if Green forces were to challenge for power, as political parties grapple with the notion the people can vote for altruistic and not just material reasons.
Juliet Grange, a professor at the Francois-Rabelais University in Tours, said the challenge for Green parties was to increase their appeal to show the electorate they were not just focused on single issues.
“I think that there is a larger electoral potential on the condition that what they offer is more open and possibly more pragmatic,” she said, saying they should “really structure their arguments” and attract experts from outside.
And activists from inside the Green movement acknowledge that it is still too early to predict the outcome of the weekend’s successes.
“We have to see how much can be translated into in real politics,” said Wendel Trio director of the Climate Action Network Europe.
“This is a strong opportunity but we need to wait for the majority that is going to be negotiated,” in the EU parliament.