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Germany's Greens set for soul-searching at party conference

November 22, 2023

The Greens seemed to be full of optimism when they entered Germany's new center-left government two years ago. That euphoria has long worn off as the party prepares for a weekend of heated debate.

Robert Habeck (r) and German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock attending a closed meeting of the German cabinet on March 6, 2023.
The Greens' Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habeck are still two of the most popular government ministersImage: Fabrizio Bensch/REUTERS

The Green Party was all set for a national conference in a relaxed atmosphere — time to pat themselves on the back for two years of being part of the federal government after its best election result in history. Two of their five cabinet ministers — Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and Vice Chancellor and Economy Minister Robert Habeck — have high approval ratings. The party's two co-leaders, Ricarda Lang and Omid Nouripour, can expect to be reelected with comfortable majorities.

All would be well if it weren't for the wars in the Middle East and Ukraine, the economic and budget woes and the ongoing strife in the coalition, which the Greens share with the Social Democrats (SPD) and the neoliberal Free Democrats (FDP). A question mark hangs over whether this alliance will even hold out until the next election in the fall of 2025.

Nevertheless, Nouripour has been putting on a brave face. While admitting the government was "not a success story from A to Z" he went on to say: "So many things that we have fought for for decades, we have now managed to get done." For decades, for example, there had been discussions about whether Germany was a country of immigration: "Now there is an immigration law. The discussion is over, we have won."

However, immigration has again become an extremely controversial issue.

Germany to speed up deportation of rejected asylum-seekers

Pragmatism and compromise

In 2021, the Greens began their time in government with high expectations not only of advancing the country's economic transition toward a greener future. They also wanted to promote social cohesion and pursue immigrant-friendly policies.

But shortly after the new government took office, Russia invaded Ukraine and the Green Party leaders soon spoke out in favor of supplying weapons to Ukraine. Energy prices skyrocketed as Russian gas supplies to Germany were capped and Habeck had to ask the Qatari government for more gas deliveries while allowing human rights concerns to take a back seat. To wean Germany off Russian gas, the Greens agreed to reopen coal plants and import fracking gas — steps that were seen as unexpectedly pragmatic.

The complicated law for converting Germany's building heating systems to a climate-friendly standard became the focal point of anti-government protest. The conservative and far-right opposition attacked the law, while the tabloid Bild called it "Habeck's heating hammer," caricaturing him as snooping in people's houses. In the subsequent debate, the Greens were painted as detached from ordinary people, wanting to lecture them rather than giving incentives and support in the transition to renewables.

And then, to the horror of the Green Party rank and file, Foreign Minister Baerbock agreed this summer to a new EU rule that allows asylum-seekers to be held in detention-like conditions at the EU's external borders. Asylum regulations were also tightened in Germany itself.

Annalena Baerbock, Omid Nouripour, und Ricarda Lang (lrr)
Omid Nouripour and co-chair Ricarda Lang (r) are expected to be reelected at the Karlsuhe conferenceImage: Boris Roessler/dpa/picture alliance

Further blows to take

Meanwhile, the far-right populists from the Alternative for Germany party (AfD) have risen above the Greens in the polls. Nevertheless, the environmentalist party's support is stable at around 14%, close to their election result two years ago, while both of their coalition partners have seen numbers nosedive. But the Greens are a long way from their record approval ratings of over 20% which they last got in the summer of 2022.

Recently, things got particularly tough for Economy Minister Habeck: The Federal Constitutional Court effectively prohibited the government from spending the €60 billion ($66 billion) originally earmarked for coronavirus aid and now no longer needed, on climate protection instead.

There had already been a lot of grumbling in the coalition about this: The FDP in particular felt that the investments Habeck was planning for a sustainable future went much too far.

Following the court ruling, Habeck was defiant: "German industry is now lacking a large sum of money to manage its transformation." The government had been on the verge of concluding contracts with steel production companies to enable them to transition to climate-friendly production rather than set up shop in other countries offering substantial incentives.

"I am not prepared to accept this," Habeck said. "So we have to find the money elsewhere." The only question is where. And whether the Greens, SPD and FDP can agree on the measures.

Back to its roots

This weekend's party conference is in a location that is steeped in history for the Greens: The party was founded in Karlsruhe in 1980 when they were a colorful bunch of eco-freaks, feminists, and peace activists, who then embarked on their long journey in West Germany's party system.

But Omid Nouripour does not expect the meeting to be steeped in nostalgia. He says discussions will center on maintaining prosperity, managing climate protection, and upholding justice in Germany. "We are still aiming for a broad base and will also present a comprehensive political offer in Karlsruhe," he said. At four days, it will be one of the longest party conferences in history. And with 4,000 registered participants it will also be one of the largest.

This article was originally written in German.

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Jens Thurau Jens Thurau is a senior political correspondent covering Germany's environment and climate policies.@JensThurau