Whither Green parties?

Voters' support is likely to remain a protest against major European parties

Published: Sunday 15 August 1999

-- euro-election results gave a mixed report on the state of the "Greens" in the European Union ( eu ). Voter turnout was poor in many countries and was only 24 per cent in the uk . Of the major political groupings, the centre-right came out best with 224 out of 626 seats. The so-called Euro-socialists followed with 180, the Liberals with 42 and only then came the Greens. As a proportion of the vote the Greens did not get above 10 per cent in any electorate. But there were encouraging signs and it is interesting to look at the progress of Germany's active Green party and at the state of the Greens in Britain as windows to the health of the movement.

Both the German and English Green parties started with similar core ideals, but the German party reached a wider audience than the British and have achieved a share in government unimaginable in Britain.

The British party's published list of core values includes: "Humankind is responsible for the care of the planet" and "We should work for world peace rather than prepare for war." Well, yes. The population smiles and nods acceptance and, as general statements, what political party would oppose these? But it is only too easy for established parties to put on these clothes and leave the Greens with nothing uniquely their own to wear.

To seek more direct influence, the British Greens have concentrated on elections in the last nine months and have just won, by the new-fangled miracles of proportional representation ( pr ), two places in the new eu parliament to bring the total Green membership up to 38 from the previous 27 out of the total of 626 seats. They have also increased their local government seats to a national total of 42.

In Germany, the Green party has been more effective, than in any other country. In the coalition government, they hold the Foreign ministry, the Environment and Defence portfolios. Originally springing from anti-nuclear feelings, the party now comprises of many protest groupings. The party's style is to argue loudly and disputatiously in public before deciding on the line to be followed.

At a local level, there is a surprising provision in Germany for a single individual to stop a local authority from carrying out a scheme to which he or she objects by a complaint procedure. There is also a waste management scheme, Green Guard, that separates waste into categories which are indicated on each piece of packaging.

The details of the Green agriculture policies are hard to accept under critical examination. The British policy document states "the food which we import from Third World countries is grown, largely, to the profit of multinational companies, on land which could otherwise feed the local population." Or which could lie uncultivated or support activity to give employment to locals whose income would then circulate in the local economy...".

In all industrialised countries, adopting strict green regimes would impose major costs. If one or two only were to comply there is a real danger that their agricultural and industrial competitiveness would be impaired and this would be political suicide for the initiating party. Already it is anomalous that the west German industries strain to reduce pollution by a small percentage while the east (low labour costs) has outdated plants which are massively more polluting. Britain has agreed to clean power station emissions while ignoring the effect on the planet of the huge amounts of brown coal burnt in China and the former Soviet Union.

In summary, the essence of Greenery that humankind should take more care of the planet for the sake of future generations has been widely accepted. Most political parties trim their policies to this wind. It is doubtful if Green parties in many countries will achieve political power

In competition with parties having more recognisably practical programmes, the cost of the adoption of Green restraints unilaterally is very considerable. Producer costs would rise and price products out of the market. Overall voters' support is most likely to remain a protest against the major parties.

The author is a freelance journalist based in the UK

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