Europe wakes up to climate concerns after green wave in vote

Green parties in Germany, France, Britain and elsewhere celebrated big gains in elections for the 751-seat European Parliament amid growing voter concerns over climate change, expressed in large-scale student protests over recent months.

Provisional results Monday showed the left-leaning Greens’ bloc coming fourth in the election with 69 seats, an increase of 17 compared with 2014. If confirmed, the results could put the Greens in a position to tip the scales when it comes to choosing the next head of the European Commission.

The rise of the Greens, with their distinctly pro-European Union stance, marks a counterpoint to that of the far-right, anti-migrant parties that have been growing in popularity across Europe in recent years.

“Whoever wants legitimacy from us and the legitimacy of the many who went onto the streets will need to deliver now,” said Sven Giegold, a leading candidate for the German Green party that scooped up more than 20% of the vote nationwide, an increase of almost 10% compared with 2014.

The drift from the traditional heavyweight parties to the Greens in Germany was particularly pronounced in large cities such as Berlin, Munich and Hamburg, and among young voters, where the party beat its bigger rivals among all voters under 60, according to the Infratest dimap research institute.

Armin Laschet, the governor of Germany’s most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, and a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right Union bloc, called the outcome “a wake-up call for politics.”

In neighboring France, 25% of voters aged 18-25 voted for the Greens, compared with 15% for the far-right National Rally and 12% for President Emmanuel Macron’s Republic on the Move, according to the Ifop polling organization. Overall, the French green party EELV received almost 13.5% of the vote, coming third.

Yannick Jadot, lead candidate of EELV, welcomed the “great green wave” in Europe.

“The French sent us a very clear message: they want environment to be at the heart of our lives, at the heart of the political game and that message has been spread across Europe,” he said.

“The very good score of the greens in Germany, Luxembourg, Belgium and France sends a signal that the center of gravity of the European politics is shifting, that in addition to the populists and the pro-business (parties), there are the Greens,” Jadot said.

Green parties also polled strongly in Austria, Sweden, Ireland, Denmark and the Netherlands. In Britain, the Greens — a largely insignificant force nationally — took 11 seats in the European Parliament vote.

“This was kind of a vote for all europhile and pro-integration positions the Greens have championed,” Martin Florack, a political scientist at the University of Duisburg-Essen, told German public broadcaster ARD.

The enmity was reflected in comments by Alexander Gauland, the co-leader of the far-right Alternative for Germany party, who declared the Greens “our main enemy” on Monday.

“The Greens will destroy this country and our job must and will be to fight the Greens,” said Gauland, whose party has claimed climate change isn’t a man-made phenomenon but instead caused by factors such as solar activity, a theory most scientists dismiss.

A senior member of the anti-immigration and euroskeptic Danish People’s Party, Kenneth Kristensen Berth, said the issues of the climate and the environment were “a bit hysterical” during the election, but insisted that Denmark’s second-largest political group “is not a climate-denial party.”

Among those celebrating the Greens’ rise was Biggi Tran, a 26-year-old in Berlin. She attributed the result to young people’s fears about global warming.

“The climate issue is super important at the moment,” Tran said.

Manuel Rivera, a Green party member in the Germany capital, said the European Parliament was the right place to tackle climate change.

“I think people realize that there are issues you can’t solve at the national level,” he said.

Giegold, the German Greens’ lead candidate, said voters expect the party to deliver on its environmental pledges, not secure powerful posts in the executive European Commission.

“Across Europe this was a vote to protect the climate,” he said. “People didn’t take to the streets to elect or kick out a party, but for these problems to be solved.”

Green lawmakers in the European Parliament plan to scrutinize the bloc’s 200 billion euro ($223.7 billion) agriculture budget, which environmentalists say places too much emphasis on large-scale farming and not enough on eco-friendly agriculture, he said.

The Greens also want every law passed at the EU-level to undergo a climate check. The party has strongly backed scientists’ calls for the bloc to end all greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century.

Achieving this goal would require a drastic shift in Europe’s economy, away from fossil fuels to clean energy and low-carbon lifestyles. Some measures proposed for cutting emissions have already faced strong headwind, including Macron’s plan for a fuel tax hike in France that triggered protests from workers even as environmentalists accused the president of not doing enough for the climate.


Sylvie Corbet in Paris, and Kirsten Grieshaber in Berlin, contributed to this report.


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