But they aren’t necessarily voting for pro-climate parties. There’ll be a bump for environmentally minded parties, but it probably won’t offset the far right’s gains, says Paul Hockenos.
Just two weeks before the European Parliament (EP) election on May 23-26, opinion polls show a conspicuous shift in opinion in nearly every EU country. The issue of climate protection has soared from near the bottom of voters’ priorities just a year ago to the top today.
Climate change is on voters’ minds
Immigration is still voters’ foremost concern: so said 35% of the 8,000 polled last week in the EU’s eight most populous countries, excluding the UK. This isn’t new. But now migration is followed by climate change (29%), and then security (23%), economic inequality (18%), and national debt (18%). In Germany and France, climate has risen to concern number one, having surpassed migration. Another poll, of young Europeans from 16 to 26 years of age, came up with much the same result: “asylum and migration” coming in first, “climate protection and environmental policy” a close second.
These aren’t one-off surveys sponsored by lobby groups, but rather a significant pattern underscored by a dozen professional polls. Polling over the past few months has shown worry about global warming escalating, even in Europe’s southern and eastern countries, where concern with environmental policy has usually been weak.
The reasons for this? The pollsters don’t ask why, but it’s safe to say that the parching summer of 2018 and other extreme weather, the high profile of the school-striking kids, the 2018 IPCC report, and the ever louder chorus of concerned voices (and films, like the David Attenborough’s “Our Planet”) has alarmed those EU citizens paying any attention at all.
Which parties are focused on climate change?
Despite these encouraging numbers and small gains in recent elections, Europe’s most climate-conscious parties are not experiencing similar game-changing jumps in their numbers. For example, the Greens/European Free Alliance (Greens/EFA), the political group of environmental and progressive parties in the EP, has gone from expecting to lose a few seats (currently the Greens/EFA group holds 52 seats of the total 750) to expecting to win ten or more. They’re currently standing at 7.6% in polls, up exactly by one percentage point from 2014, and say their goal is 8% (entirely doable, given the trend). But, if polls show that 29% of Europeans believe global warming is should be the EU’s foremost priority, then why not a result in the 20s for the Greens/EFA?
For one, Greens are not the only political parties in Europe that champion climate protection and renewable energy. In word, at least, most of the mainstream parties do. Some, such as Portugal’s free-market Social Democrats, have for years and are the choice even of climate activists. Slovakia’s new Progressive Slovakia, the party of the newly elected president, Zuzana Čaputová, is the logical home for Slovaks who want serious climate protection and the expansion of renewables. Some of these parties also reside in other EP groups, such as the European United Left–Nordic Green Left, which is the home to most democratic socialist parties.
Secondly, while Europe’s Green parties are all environmentally minded parties, this is only one aspect of their identities and platforms. Green parties are strong on women’s issues and the treatment of minorities, as well as open, inclusive parties that promote immigration and integration, and Greens stick fiercely to the right to political asylum in Europe. The German Greens, for example, came to life as a mishmash of the mass social movements of the 1970s: the women’s movement, the anti-nuclear energy movement, the environmental movement, the third world movement, and the peace movement. Thus a voter might harbor grave concerns about climate change but favor, at the same time, tight restrictions of immigration – and vote for another party.
Moreover, Europe’s green parties are extremely diverse, some of them, such as most in northern Europe, are established parties with sound experience in governance and clear profiles. In other countries, small, little-known environmental parties come and go, some of them with off-beat, even conservative programs. Often, they aren’t seen as viable options for governing or even as part of a strong opposition.
This, says Klaus Linsenmeier, head of the Heinrich Böll Stiftung in Prague, is the case in much of Central Europe, where some countries have no green parties at all. “The greens are less mature here, and often split into factions,“ he says. Hungary has two green parties, he notes. “One party is close to the post-communists, now called social democrats, and the others are flirting with a possible coalition with Jobbik, a far-right party.“ In Central Europe, Linsenmeier says, most people still vote according to bread and butter issues, such as economy and jobs – and migration. And it’s still the case, across Europe, that voters in the EP election still cast their ballots based on issues and discourses in their country.
What will the EP election day look like?
Europe’s green parties and their like-minded allies look ready to get a push come election day – though one not as great as the right-wing parties appeared poised to do.
Polls in Germany show the Greens steady at around 20% (twice their 2017 result in the general election.) In local elections in April in the UK, Greens quintupled their previous total. The UK Greens’ leader said that the gains came from a combination of concerted local efforts coupled with a boost from both the Brexit impasse and the prominence of climate change issues after the Extinction Rebellion protests and Greta Thunberg’s UK visit. Green parties elsewhere, such as Finland, also experienced better-than-ever results (April 2019), even if less dramatic than those of the UK Greens. And then there’s Zuzana Čaputová’s stunning victory in Slovakia.
“You never know in European elections,” says Nicholas Whyte, a political analyst at APCO Worldwide, a consulting firm. “If there’s a time to cast a protest vote, then it’s in the EU elections. The Greens scored higher than polled in 2014, so there could be a surprise this time around.”
The modest bump that Europe’s climate-conscious parties are likely to receive won’t turn the EP green. The ballot won’t be a “climate election,” as the Fridays for Future movement wants it to be. But the polls and the vote together will send an unmistakable message that European voters are demanding credible, urgent action on climate change. The far right isn’t the only disruptive political force currently on the move.