Facing a crowd of potential voters, Robert Habeck, co-leader of Germany’s Green party, could have invoked the summer floods that shocked the country, southern Europe’s blazing wildfires, or any other recent disaster that underlined the urgency of his party’s defining stance of fighting climate change.
Instead, standing against a grey Baltic coastline, he spoke of the summer of 1986. That was when the Chernobyl disaster left Germans terrified that its nuclear fallout would reach them, and a young Habeck worried he had lost control over his life.
“This sense of powerlessness — or, put another way, this need to defend my freedom — was what brought me to the Greens,” he told voters in the seaside town of Schleswig ahead of September’s federal election.
This election, Habeck told the crowd, is about protecting the climate, which is a form of empowerment. It is about “protecting our freedoms,” he said. “If you want to defend freedom, you have to start changing policy now.”
September’s election is a pivotal moment for Germany and Europe, determining chancellor Angela Merkel’s successor after her 16 years in office. Depending on how well they campaign, the Greens have a slim chance of leading Europe’s largest economy, and a strong chance of making it into government.
Only a few months ago, they skyrocketed to the top of the polls, outperforming even Merkel’s centre-right Christian Democrats, which, along with the centre-left Social Democrats, are traditionally Germany’s dominant political force.
Then the party sank back as frustrations over pandemic regulations eased and Green chancellor candidate Annalena Baerbock battled accusations of résumé padding and plagiarism.
Nevertheless, with the campaign starting in earnest this month, the Greens have climbed back to about 20 per cent. That is still well behind the CDU, at 28 per cent, but ahead of the Social Democrats, with about 17 per cent. Judging by the crowd at Schleswig, Habeck’s campaign style is going down well with voters.
A 70-year-old woman with tightly coiffed brown curls applauded Habeck’s speech approvingly. This was her first Green event, and his Chernobyl recollection sparked her memory.
“We couldn’t let our kids out to play. We were afraid to eat lettuce,” she recalled. “I don’t want my daughter to experience that because of freak weather events from climate change.”
Last month’s floods likely bolstered the Greens’ political appeal. They made climate change no longer just about hot summers or wildfires elsewhere. The floods took 181 lives, with 73 people still missing, and revealed the wealthy nation’s shortcomings in coping with such disasters.
Habeck says the Greens will avoid a “told you so” narrative about Europe’s summer of natural catastrophes. “I think it’s very cynical . . . to use the plight of farmers or even deaths of people,” he told the Financial Times.
But they have timed the start of campaigning with a new plan that includes €25bn to prepare Germany for extreme weather.
Instead, he wants to create “good pictures and a good mood” while touring his home turf of Schleswig-Holstein, before criss-crossing the country with Baerbock this month.
His pitch is that the Greens were never the “prohibition party”, as critics sometimes still portray them. Instead, he argues their fight against nuclear power, like that against climate change today, was a demand for social responsibility so future generations could enjoy a similar way of life.
“It’s a high political risk to take this route — to not try for attention and approval through negative emotions and scaremongering, but through positive passion, through the energy a society can muster,” he told the Schleswig audience.
Recent polling by YouGov shows 55 per cent of Germans believe man-made climate change caused this summer’s flooding. This has helped the party overall.
Yet Baerbock is stuck at about 16 per cent in popularity ratings, compared with 11 per cent for CDU rival Armin Laschet, who was caught on camera laughing while Germany’s president eulogised flood victims. The SPD’s candidate, Olaf Scholz, is meanwhile hampered by his party’s lack of popularity.
Habeck is now leading the Greens’ charm offensive. One of the most popular party members, he does not wear suits or button-down shirts like other parties’ politicians. On another campaign stop, his faded navy sweater and black jeans are smeared with dirt: he is not out kissing babies but petting cows.
They moo and munch loudly on hay as Habeck and a delegation from the Federal Association of German Dairy Farmers (BDM) tour the Sierck family farm. Since 1882, generations of Siercks have farmed here. But, like many farmers, they struggle to balance costly environmental regulations with retailers’ demands for ever-lower prices.
“I read through the Green platform and I have some questions,” said Jörn Sierck, a greying man wearing rubber boots, who wanted to know how the party would balance its calls for both fair competition and fair pricing.
Habeck raised his eyebrows in surprise and laughs. This was not his usual voter base — agricultural interests normally align with the CDU.
Indeed, most farmers would not go Green, said BDM representative Ursula Trede, another dairy farmer. Even so, like other segments of society, they are listening to the Greens with fresh interest. Many, like Trede, even openly hope the Greens will make it into whatever government coalition forms this autumn.
Trede said she had grown sceptical of the CDU’s or SPD’s willingness to implement the industrial and economic overhaul the country needs to meet the challenges of climate change.
“We’ve been led around by the nose for so many years, again and again. Nothing has changed,” she said. “Why wouldn’t we want to let someone else try something new?”
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