The Greens in the European elections: Kingmakers or business as usual?

by Elliot Tricot O'Farrell

With European elections just around the corner, could the Greens become a threat to traditional parties in their quest to advance the “Eco Cause” or will they remain a fringe party in the European Parliament?

With voting only two weeks away, polls released by the European Parliament are currently suggesting that the Greens could potentially win 56 seats, a slight increase on the 51 seats they presently control. The Greens/European Free Alliance party (Greens/EFA) make up a parliamentary bloc alongside pirate parties and several regionalist parties from Catalonia, Wales and Scotland. The party is presently co-presided by Ska Keller, a member of Germany’s Greens – the largest contingent in the parliamentary bloc – and Philippe Lamberts, a member of Belgium’s Ecolo party. At a national level, their origins can be traced all the way back to the anti-nuclear movements of the 1980s.

This year, the pro-European environmentalists will be hoping to make a strong impact during the European elections. This comes as no surprise as tackling climate change has become an issue for mainstream media and European citizens have increasingly demonstrated to denounce political inaction on the topic. Recent months have seen numerous climate campaigners – such as 16-year old Greta Thunberg – marching in the streets of European capitals during World Economic Forums, G7 Summits and European Summits. The recent withdrawal of the United States from their Paris Agreement also led to increased citizen pressure on EU leaders to act and reaffirm their commitment to tackling climate change.

The Greens can be optimistic of making an impact at the European level as national and regional elections in the past twelve months have led to tremendous results for national parties. In certain countries, the Greens present themselves as legitimate alternatives to established traditional parties. With strong results in Bavaria, in Belgium and Luxembourg in 2018, the Greens have gone from strength to strength. In May 2019, they celebrated exceptional results during local elections in the United Kingdom.

In principle, a number of factors could help the Greens achieve success in the elections. There is societal momentum behind strong policy proposals on environmental issues and the protection of biodiversity which the Greens would seek to exploit. Moreover, the Greens would seek to exploit the disconnect and disillusionment towards more traditional parties. Bas Eickhout, a Dutch member of the European Parliament and the spitzenkandidat for the Greens/EFA, believes political momentum for green policies could lead to the Greens becoming kingmakers during the next elections as the former coalition of the EPP-S&D could face losing its parliamentary majority. Finally, while other non-traditional parties, such as the Eurosceptic parties, will also be looking to make an impact on the European elections, it remains doubtful whether their entry into Parliament would lead to a unified Eurosceptic coalition. On the other hand, the Greens are certain to collaborate in Europe. This could make them a force to contend with.

However, a number of mitigating factors need to be taken into account before talking about the Green success story. Firstly, the Green’s increasing political prominence remains geographically uneven as they are finding it difficult to install themselves as legitimate alternatives in Member States outside of western-central European heartlands and they could even lose seats in countries such as Sweden and Austria. Secondly, the Greens/EFA suffered a crisis in voter support following the 2014 elections and their current surge in popularity can also be viewed as a recovery of support as opposed to new gains in popularity. Thirdly, despite increasing support for the implementation of green policies, traditional parties are also working on environmental and sustainability issues which means that support for action on climate change will not automatically translate to votes for the Greens. As a consequence, traditional parties such as the European People’s Party (EPP) and the Socialists & Democrats (S&D) are likely shoe-ins to remain the largest groups in the European Parliament following the European elections.

For public affairs strategists, the shifting concerns of European citizens and the changing composition of the European Parliament could lead to a range of new opportunities. Green parties are hoping to instrumentalise the European Union as a tool for a more sustainable future, a topic which an increasing number of European citizens are concerned by. Moreover, Green and Eurosceptic parties are hoping to exploit the lack of connection between Europe’s citizens and the EU where public priorities are not always clearly reflected in EU policies. They offer a broad range of policy positions which can be attractive to dissatisfied voters across EU member states. As traditional parties look inwards to respond to these challenges, their stance on certain topics could shift and it could lead to a reprioritisation of topics.

It should be the priority of public affairs advocates everywhere to identify how the shifting concerns of European citizens can help define priorities for the next European mandate. RPP Group understands how to help impact the development of EU policies that are felt and appreciated the local level as well as the European level. Should you want to learn more about the opportunities presented by the European elections and our unique approach to redesigning political communications, please contact RPP Group.