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Could this be Germany’s next Chancellor? The elites adore Robert Habeck and his Green party — but the appeal only extends so far

Robert Habeck: has the relaxed, articulate anti-establishment/establishment manner of a Blair or Macron. Ina Fassbender / AFP / Getty

Robert Habeck: has the relaxed, articulate anti-establishment/establishment manner of a Blair or Macron. Ina Fassbender / AFP / Getty

February 10, 2020   6 mins

If you haven’t yet heard of the German politician Robert Habeck, you soon will do. Charismatic and gifted, with the sort of rock-star qualities lapped up by the media and younger voters, Habeck might end up as the most powerful individual in Europe.

Since he took control of the Greens in 2018, they have consolidated themselves as the main party of the centre-Left — and political home of the educated, professional class – making them the most likely coalition partner for the centre-right CDU/CSU in 2021. It is quite conceivable, if the Greens were to end up as the largest party after those federal elections, that Habeck—or even his co-leader Annalena Baerbock — could wear the German Chancellor’s crown

He certainly had an adoring audience of elite young Germans at the LSE, where I saw him speaking last week. The handsome 50-year-old father of four from the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein was a writer and translator (including the poems of Roger McGough and Ted Hughes) before becoming a politician in his late 30s. He has the same relaxed, articulate anti-establishment/establishment manner of a Blair or Macron. You can understand his appeal.

But how come a conservative-green alliance now seems such an uncontroversial possibility in Europe’s most important country? And what problems will such an alliance face in the future?

The new potential alliance is partly a matter of the contingencies of German politics — the further big strides to the centre taken by the Greens in recent years, and the implosion of the Social Democrats as the main party of the centre-Left.

But there is a deeper logic, too, that suggests it might be a historical accident that the green movement in general has hitherto ended up so definitively on the Left. After all, conservative and conservation share the same Latin root, con servare, meaning to protect from loss or harm. And there are many overlaps in the worldview of greens and conservatives: the belief that local is best, small is beautiful, a respect for limits, a belief in what is natural and harmonious, an interest in intergenerational continuity.

There has also been a kind of policy convergence. On the one hand, environmental priorities have gone mainstream — whether de-carbonising the economy or, in Germany, closing the nuclear industry —and on the other hand, market mechanisms have become an increasingly popular means to green ends.

The Green party itself has certainly travelled a long way since its formation as a radical anti-nuclear, anti-Nato, alternative life-style movement in the early 1980s. It entered the Bundestag with 5.7% of the vote in 1983, but found itself out of step with the rest of the country in the reunification period (its slogan was “Everyone is talking about Germany, we are talking about the weather!”).

It bounced back later in the 1990s, and joined the red-green coalition government of Gerhard Schroder in 1998 (though only on 6.7% of the vote) with Joschka Fischer becoming foreign minister. It has been out of national government since 2005, but has been in 11 out of 16 state-level governments and has seen its support creep up as the Social Democrats have crumbled, hitting a high note of 20% in the 2019 European elections and even outstripping the governing CDU-CSU in some recent opinion polls.

Meanwhile the party, as symbolised by Habeck, has become completely salonfähig (meaning socially acceptable). It is friendly to business, happy with Nato membership and comfortable with the compromises of power. When Habeck and Annalena Baerbock were elected on a joint ticket in 2018, they were embraced, largely uncritically, by almost all of the German media.

This is partly because German politicians have been unusually bland and dull in recent years. There was a thirst for something new —remember how this country fell for Nick Clegg not that long ago? The two Greens are attractive and articulate. Also, their election was the final decisive victory for the moderate wing of a party that has traditionally been divided between “realos” and “fundis”.

At the LSE, Habeck delivered a mish-mash of mainly familiar centre-Left ideas with some nice phrases, for example about how populists offer “not competence but intimacy”, and a welcome acknowledgement, from a progressive politician, of the importance of emotions in politics, albeit in a Hegelian frame  — “recognition is the driver of human history”.

He repeated a story he likes to tell about talking to workers in the dirty, declining industries in the old east Germany (where the Greens do not poll strongly) and prefacing his remarks to them like this: “Before we talk about what comes next, I am going to say thank you to you and your parents for dedicating your life and health to building the old industrial heart of this country.”

He sees that recognition, respect and status are as much the currency of society, and therefore politics, as money. And he also acknowledges that it is the neglect of these psychological factors in our politics that has been such a blessing for populist parties, who do not make the same mistake.

Fleetingly, it occurred to me as I listened that perhaps there was something to the incongruous idea that not just greens and conservatives but greens and populists are potential bedfellows. Both of them favour attachment to place and want to slow down the machine of liberal modernity. And consider what is happening in Vienna: Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurtz who heads the conservative-green alliance there talks about illegal immigration and climate change being equal threats to the Austrian way of life.

But this kind of rhetorical/policy combination is not going to happen in Germany, which Habeck’s speech really confirmed. Green party members, after all, in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, are more highly educated, and sometimes more affluent, than members of most other parties, and especially populist parties whose members are usually at the bottom of both leagues.

Green party members and voters tend to flourish in the knowledge economy and post-industrial society. They mainly live in mobile metropolitan centres, favour openness, are comfortable with social and ethnic fluidity/uncomfortable with authority and tradition, lack strong group or national attachments and worry about discrimination and equalities of many kinds. Their green politics tends to be abstract and top-down and altruistic — a calling to save the planet. Populist party members and voters are almost exactly the opposite on all scores.

Habeck wants a politics of recognition in name only. He may like to flatter the people of east Germany with stories of their heroism but he then tramples all over their political intuitions. “It is simply an illusion that things used to be better,” he said to the LSE audience. No doubt an illusion to the young men, and especially women, in the audience en route to upper professional jobs in government, business or NGOs. But according to countless surveys many people in the declining regions and classes of Europe very strongly believe that the past was better than the present for them.

He also likes to play the old Tony Blair tune that Left-Right has been replaced by open-closed. But has Habeck ever met anyone who wants to live in a closed society? I doubt it.

Yet there are plenty of people, no doubt some of them tempted to vote for Germany’s main populist party the Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD), who think that recent forms of openness have not benefited them as much as those who vote for Habeck’s Green party, many of whom have the option of frictionless professional work or study abroad under EU free movement rules.

Like mainstream German politicians of all stripes, his answer to almost all political problems is “more Europe”. He also reproduced the standard cognitive dissonance on this issue in his speech by calling at one moment for more democracy and bringing politics closer to people while a few moments later calling for the European Commission to become a European government, for more majority voting in the EU and for vast areas of policy to be handed over to only very indirectly accountable technocrats.

One area where he does break with the current German orthodoxy is on ending the anti-Keynesian strict limits on budget deficits both in Germany and the EU, but even that has become something of a new consensus in recent months.

In all other respects, he seems to be making the Green party safe for the average liberal-minded CDU voter. Reaching out to the more socially conservative sections of German society is not on the cards. Habeck rejects the old German idea of the Volkspartei a party that represents all sections of society, even if it may be grounded in one class or another. In its place, he wants an alliance party of different sections of society and value groups. Populists are not welcome. And Habeck is one of the loudest voices wanting to exclude the AfD from the political mainstream, even though they have almost 100 seats in the Bundestag.

Green policy on the environment seems to be mainly a somewhat more radical version of existing German government policy. Though Habeck did speak with great warmth about the Fridays for Future (Extinction Rebellion) movement, and rather chillingly warned of the great dangers ahead if they do not get their way through democratic channels.

How well will this go down with ordinary Germans? Much of the policy, on reducing car use for example, will be a lot more comfortable for affluent Green voters in big cities with efficient public transport, or those able to afford electric cars, than for people in smaller towns and suburbs.

It is hard to see a Gilets Jaunes type movement in Germany coalescing around an increase in petrol taxes. Ordinary Germans worry about climate change too, but if they find that much of the cost of adaptation is falling on them, the love affair with the new Greens could quickly hit a barrier.

By the end of next year, Robert Habeck is highly likely to be grappling with these conservative-green dilemmas as, at the very least, a cabinet minister in Europe’s most powerful country. The progressive establishment in Germany has evidently found a new voice, as his performance at the LSE proved, but one without any discernible new ideas and with the same old intellectual evasions and silences.

Nor is it clear that the Green party as a whole has the personnel or experience to take the next step up to becoming the dominant party, rather than the junior one, in a German coalition. The Green co-leaders have had a long honeymoon but the closer the election looms, the more critical scrutiny they will draw. Despite the rock star appeal of Habeck, it remains to be seen how attractive his party will seem to middle-ground Germans.

David Goodhart is the author of Head, Hand, Heart: The Struggle for Dignity and Status in the 21st Century. He is head of the Demography unit at the think tank Policy Exchange.


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