The German Greens once thought they were in the driving seat of Olaf Scholz’s coalition. Some now feel like back-seat passengers on a political road to nowhere.
“There’s a lot of frustration,” said Rasmus Andresen, a Green member of the European parliament. “This coalition promised progress and a fresh start, but, to be honest, I don’t see much evidence of that now.”
The source of their anger is the series of painful concessions forced on them late last month by their coalition partners, Scholz’s Social Democrats and the liberal FDP, which dismayed senior Green leaders and enraged the party’s rank and file.
Scholz is for many Greens the cause of their plight. They once saw him as a natural ally — he had, after all, campaigned at the last election to become Germany’s “climate chancellor”. But these days they increasingly see him as an obstacle, ready to sell out Green interests for the sake of political peace.
“Scholz has sided with the FDP,” said Reinhard Bütikofer, another Green MEP. “The FDP and SPD obviously decided they could score political points by exploiting social qualms about climate policy. But that’s populism.”
Social Democrats insist they remain committed to the government’s climate goals and its plans to green the German economy. “But you can’t do it with a crowbar,” said Verena Hubertz, a senior SPD MP. “Climate policies have to be socially responsible.”
Since coming to power in 2021, Germany’s Greens have had to give up many of their most cherished principles. After the Ukraine war broke out last year and Russian gas supplies dwindled, they backed government plans to build a string of liquefied natural gas terminals on Germany’s northern coast, reactivate mothballed coal plants and extend the life of its atomic reactors.
It was a bitter pill for a party that grew out of the anti-nuclear movement but they swallowed these concessions with scarcely a murmur.
But then came last month’s 30-hour meeting of the coalition committee, a body designed to resolve disagreements between the three coalition partners. The result was a series of decisions that broke a policy logjam but left the Greens feeling they had conceded too much.
The parties agreed, for example, that a new law to speed up the approval process for big infrastructure projects such as new wind farms should also apply to 144 road schemes across Germany — an FDP demand.
The Greens had long blocked liberal attempts to fast-track motorway projects, which they see as incompatible with Germany’s goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2045. But they had to give way.
“We have to speed up efforts to protect the climate,” said Timon Dzienus, head of the Greens’ youth wing. “Now it turns out we’re going to speed up the expansion of motorways?”
The partners also agreed to reform Germany’s landmark climate protection law, a shibboleth for the Greens. Until now the law has prescribed CO₂ reduction targets for each sector of the economy — transport, agriculture, buildings and so on. In future, the government as a whole will be responsible for meeting an overall CO₂ target.
Green politicians fear that will ease pressure on the FDP-run transport ministry, which has so far done little to cut emissions of greenhouse gases in its sector. “The decision to downgrade sectoral targets is going to have a serious impact,” said one Green cabinet member. “Transport is already missing its targets.”
But the Greens’ partners said the eco-party was itself to blame, accusing it of losing touch with reality. An example often cited is the plan initiated by Robert Habeck, the Green economy minister, to phase out oil and gas in the heating of homes.
A new bill dictates that, from next year, every newly installed heating system must be 65 per cent powered by renewables. But the bill triggered panic when some details were revealed last month, with homeowners fearing they would be forced to rip out their boilers and replace them with expensive heat pumps.
The debate has hit the Greens’ popularity. The party was polling as high as 25 per cent last autumn: now it’s on around 16 per cent. “Obviously when you get down to the nitty-gritty, when you have to take measures that make demands of people, you suffer in the polls,” said the Green minister.
People close to Scholz said the Greens underestimated Germans’ strength of feeling on the subject. “The trouble with the Greens is that they’re a rich people’s party,” said one official. “Their voters can afford to exchange their heating systems. But others can’t.”
Legislative proposals from Green-controlled ministries were, he said, often “too ambitious” and risked triggering social discontent. “If you ignore the risk of that, it’s dangerous,” he added.
The SPD has, after all, always seen itself as the protector of Germany’s workers, and party leaders say that, if necessary, it will also protect them from green policies that impose excessive costs on ordinary people.
“You can’t just tell people that from now on they have to ride bikes or take trains like in the centre of Berlin,” said the SPD’s Hubertz. “A lot of people in Germany live in rural areas and commute to work — that’s the reality of this country.”
While rank-and-file Greens have expressed frustration with the direction of policy, more pragmatic voices in the party are calling for a new realism.
Chief among them is Habeck. Speaking this month to public broadcaster ARD about the results of the coalition committee, he acknowledged that “you can complain that . . . the world of abstractly painted party programmes was not honoured”.
But the Greens had still achieved a lot in recent weeks: the EU had finally agreed to ban petrol and diesel cars and fossil-fuel heating systems were to be phased out. “If you look in the pot, . . . it’s not nothing,” he said.
For Rasmus Andresen, that’s little consolation. “There’s no trust left in this coalition,” he said.