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The Transformation of Germany's Greens

Neoliberals on Bikes

by OLIVIER CRYAN

Hamburg’s most fashionable district is also its greenest, though this is not immediately apparent from the foot of the Marco Polo Tower — 16 storeys of luxury apartments that look like a sliced loaf. (They cost an average €3.7m.) A love of nature isn’t obvious either at the nearby offices of Unilever, but the agri-food and cosmetics giant has fitted low-energy light bulbs in its new 25,000 square metre headquarters, the biggest area ever so equipped. “The whole building has been designed to the strictest environmental standards,” said the receptionist. The ground floor atrium has even been fitted with a heat recapture system, he told me, pointing at the glass ceiling.

The Marco Polo Tower and the Unilever headquarters are the pride of HafenCity, Hamburg’s 155 hectare business district, with offices and apartments slotted in alongside the brick warehouses of the old Speicherstadt on the banks of the Elbe. By the time the building work is complete in 2025, this Dubai of the north should be a workplace to 40,000 people and home to 12,000 members of the “creative classes”, according to the project’s promoters. Culture will be catered for by the Elbphilharmonie, a concert hall that the city is financing to the tune of €351m. The cranes are still at work in some places, but the lots already completed are buzzing with senior managers nibbling Thai tapas on café terraces or drinking mediocre wine in expensive bars.

But appearances can be deceptive: just because the “biggest urban development project in Europe” is part of the reclamation of the waste land by bankers and city whiz kids, as was London’s Docklands, doesn’t mean it runs counter to the principles of sustainable development. Quite the reverse. “With its geothermal heating, low-pollution building materials, green spaces, pedestrian streets and cycle routes, it’s really a pioneer development in terms of sustainability,” said Harald Müller, 53, an engineer who lives and works in HafenCity. Sitting in Carl’s with a plate of pickled herring (which he favours over the other house speciality, truffle risotto), Müller made no secret of the fact that he has voted Green since 1997. The Greens didn’t conceive the project but they backed it all the way, he said, and “without them, the district certainly wouldn’t have this ecological dimension”.

Green credentials

Hamburg, European Green Capital 2011, certainly has environmental credentials. The Greens have twice participated in coalitions that ran the city, with the Social Democrat SPD (1997-2001) and the Conservative CDU (2008-10). Their impact is nowhere more evident than in HafenCity. Even the street names bear their mark; the Greens insisted that names given to public places should respect gender equality.

“Yes, it’s a district for high earners, but the buildings are very creative and I think it’s great for the image of the city,” said Katharina Fegebank, general secretary of Hamburg’s Greens. Her colleague, Anja Hajduk, a member of the Bundestag from 2002 to 2008, said: “On the whole a it’s success, even if the prices are high. What was important to us when we were in government was ensuring that the district was open to all the people of Hamburg so that they could walk there. We got a guarantee that the ground floor of the Unilever building would be open to the public.”

Is this low-energy community of millionaires an early gain in the green revolution sweeping Germany? Leader writers have begun assessing the possibility of a Green chancellor in 2013 (see Green and golden). The rise of the Greens in the past few months is spectacular: “a mixture of Blitzkrieg and the Long March” according to their critics’ jokes.

First the self-reinforcing effect of constant opinion polls helped their stock throughout 2010, from 19% support in Berlin in December 2009 to 30% by October 2010. The press enthused over the “green miracle” (Der Spiegel): “The Greens are more popular than ever” (Die Zeit), “The party of wellbeing” (Stern), “Greens already dreaming of the Chancellery” (Die Welt). The Greens also benefited from sustained attention in the media after the former prodigy of German political life, the FDP (Liberal Party), went into freefall following the fall from grace of its golden boy, Guido Westerwelle, minister for foreign affairs in the Merkel government.

On 27 March 2011 the Greens won 24.2% of the vote in Baden-Württemberg, the richest and third most populous of Germany’s 16 states, which was traditionally CDU. By doubling their share of the vote (from 11.7% in 2006), the Greens established themselves as the second political power after the CDU, overtaking their allies in the SPD and becoming senior partners in a coalition which is no longer “red and green” but now “green and red”. For the first time in German history, a Green assumed the presidency of a regional government. Winfried Kretschmann, 62, who sings in a church choir on Sundays, became a national star. On television he was described as a “bearer of hope” and the “political sensation of the year”.

Kretschmann’s success was important enough to register on the stock market: the day after the Green victory, shares in E.on and RWE — Germany’s two main nuclear energy companies — fell slightly, as did those of Daimler, BMW and Volkswagen. The ÖkoDAX, which monitors the top 10 green investments, jumped eight points. It wasn’t a revolution, since the less ecological markets soon surpassed their previous level. “We are going to follow the path we promised within a bourgeois society,” Kretschmann was careful to reassure them on the night of his victory.

Changed days

Back in the 1980s, it was different: the Greens then embodied the radical left in a West Germany opposed to communism. In the early 1980s the CDU came close to calling for the disbanding of the Green Party, accusing it of supporting armed struggle and anti-constitutional ideas. Middle-class Germany frowned at grüne Chaoten (green vandals) who claimed they were tackling social justice and environmental issues. Now Baden-Württemberg’s new head says he is “neither of the left nor the right” and has cordial relations with Erwin Teufel, the local CDU’s leading light, whose “moderate, centrist” orientation he says he shares (1). Hamburg — the first German administration to try a “black and green” coalition (in Germany, black symbolises the right) — shows that such a relationship is no longer outlandish. Even Chancellor Merkel has acknowledged she would not rule out a Green-Christian Democrat alliance after the legislative elections in 2013.

That scenario could become a reality next October, when it will be tested in Berlin’s municipal elections. On a wave of dazzling opinion poll ratings, Renate Künast, who leads the Greens in the Bundestag, envisions herself running the capital and is not ruling out any possible partner, centre-left or right. Eberhard Diepgen, Berlin’s former CDU mayor, has already begun his courtship: “We have enough in common to make plans for a government with the Greens” (2).Süddeutsche Zeitung said mockingly (5 November 2010): “Green fever is spreading to conservative circles. Entrepreneurs and the rich are making eyes at the Greens.”

The Fukushima effect undoubtedly helped the rise of the Greens, at last able to capitalise on their opposition to a nuclear industry that most Germans don’t want. The planned closure of nuclear power stations is their achievement. But radioactive leaks in Japan don’t explain the transformation of a protest group into a “neoliberal party on bikes”, to quote Jutta Ditfurth, a co-founder of the Greens, who left the party in 1991. She is astonished in her new book (3) at the attractiveness of her former colleagues: “Some commentators sound as though they have been living on Mars for the past 25 years. They say: let’s see what the Greens do. Let them get on with governing. It’s an astonishing position given that the Greens have already been in government on many occasions.”

The list is long: seven years as part of Gerhard Schröder’s federal government (1998-2005), 11 years in coalition in North Rhine-Westphalia (1995-2005 and again from 2010), 10 years in Hesse (1985-87, 1991-99), nine years in Schleswig-Holstein (1996-2005), six in Hamburg (1997-2001, 2008-10), four in Lower Saxony (1990-94), four in Saxony-Anhalt (1994-98), four in Bremen (from 2007), two in Saarland (from 2009) and two in Berlin (1989-90 and 2001-02). “That’s a total of 59 years of governmental experience,” Ditfurth calculates. “It’s doubtless in their own interests that the media pretend to regard the Greens as new and inexperienced and hold their breath to see how they will behave now they are in power, as if the suspense were unbearable … Those 59 years of experience are never subjected to detailed critical analysis.”

In Hamburg last February the electorate punished the incumbent majority (21.9% voted for the CDU, 11.2% for the Greens) and voted the SPD (48.3%) into power, though that party was in poor shape everywhere else. Apart from walks in the HafenCity, the Greens did not have an attractive record. The coalition agreement with the right in 2008 contained plans for a tram system, the scrapping of a coal-fired power station project and an ambitious education reform to set up a single type of primary school for all. None of those promises has been kept. The tram project collapsed under budget cuts after the financial crisis of 2008 and the power station construction went ahead following a legal ruling. The school reform was rejected by the electorate in a referendum in July 2010. Following internal tensions caused by this failure, the black and green coalition collapsed, two years before its term was up.

The Greens left local bigwigs of the right with fond memories. Gregor Jaecke, the leader of Hamburg’s CDU, recalled: “Being Green means having a taste for life, and that is a value that we share. We have the same concerns about tomorrow: we have it in the Christian sense of respect for life and they have it in the more modern sense of sustainable development. That’s why the need for a balanced economic policy is acknowledged more by the Greens than the SPD.”

The 2008 coalition agreement attests to that “taste for life”, reformulated in the language of budgetary orthodoxy. When the financial crisis broke, Greens and Christian Democrats immediately agreed to rein in public spending, by raising nursery charges for example. They pumped €1.5bn into HSH Nordbank, rushed to aid the Hapag-Lloyd shipping group and took measures to cajole investors. “The Greens fully understood that a climate of confidence had to be restored,” Jaecke said.

Weren’t there any issues on which they disagreed? Perhaps a young, sexy party such as the Greens would not have the same regard for security and law and order as the CDU. “Domestic security questions were in the hands of our conservative allies,” Fegebank said, “but there weren’t any problems.” The CDU’s Jaecke confirmed that: “We had a fairly strict stance on public order questions, but after examining them, the Greens completely accepted them.” He admitted that “a sector of the middle-class electorate which forms the base of the CDU are today tempted to vote for the Greens”.

’No cycle tracks here’

Working class districts are less tempted. In February the Greens won 9.2% of the vote in the affluent Blankenese district, but only 6% in the poor suburbs of Rothenburgsort, where more than half the electorate abstained. Here there are no cycle tracks and lofts with geothermal heating, but dirty concrete blocks heated with oil, and run-down shops. “Vote Green? Me? Do you take me for an idiot?” said Joachim Riepke, 32, unemployed, whom I met as he was mending his scooter on the pavement. He is one of the 6.7 million Germans within the Hartz IV system, created by amalgamating the unemployment benefit and social security systems. “Three hundred and fifty-nine euros a month. And you have to work for almost nothing. At the moment, the Jobcentre is leaving me in peace, but two months ago they called me in to wash dishes in an old people’s home for two weeks. You can’t say no otherwise it’s goodbye to your benefit. Would you want me to vote for that?”

By “that”, Piepke means the SPD-Green majority, which in 2005 set up the harshest unemployment benefit system in Europe. Hartz IV forces those eligible to take “one-euro jobs”, move house if their accommodation is judged too costly and obey a long list of bureaucratic stipulations on pain of losing their allowance. “The most drastic cut in social security since 1949” was what the conservativeFrankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung called it when it was presented (on 30 June 2004).

Devised by Peter Hartz, then HR director of the Volkswagen group and friend of Chancellor Schröder, the reform  (4) now serves as a model to reformers in France and elsewhere who want to replace a system of handouts with a system in which wage earners do without wages. But Hartz IV set a record that will be hard to beat: its architects fixed the single allowance at such a low level that the constitutional court in Karlsruhe partially outlawed it last October, judging that the families who received it could not meet their children’s basic needs.

The responses of Hamburg’s Greens to Hartz IV are sometimes surprising. “The level is certainly too low,” said Fegebank, “but we still think that it was a good idea to bring together social and unemployment benefits to encourage people back to work.” When the debate became heated, she came out with a decisive argument: “Such a reform could only have been launched by a red and green alliance. If the CDU and the FDP had taken the initiative, it would have caused a revolution.”

Bereft of passion

Driven by the conviction that “the economy and ecology are made for mutual understanding”, Hamburg’s Greens are a perfect illustration of change during the past 15 years among the party’s members and supporters. Long anchored on the left, the Green Alternative List (or GAL, as the local Hamburg party used to be known) saw some of its long-term members walk out in 1999 in protest at the federal authorities’ decision to approve German participation in Nato’s Kosovo campaign.

The abandonment of pacifism and loss of members left the way clear for a new generation of wealthy and educated activists favourably disposed towards institutions and business circles. Their spokesman Anja Hajduk, a psychologist, typifies this change: she had never been an activist “other than voting Green” before she got her party membership card in 1995. Elected to the Bundestag in 2002, she voted with all her party colleagues to lower taxation for the most affluent households, who saw their tax burden fall from 53% to 42% during the Schröder years. “I’ve never been convinced by the right-left divide. It’s a good thing that the Greens are taking an interest in economics.”

“ Anja Hajduk is a typical representative of these new Greens who have the wind in their sails, they’re pragmatic administrators, bereft of passion and totally indifferent to social issues,” said Norbert Hackbusch, who left the Greens in 1999 after 16 years. He sits today on the city council as a member of Die Linke, Germany’s most leftwing party. “Hamburg is one of the richest cities in the country, but it also has one of the highest poverty rates. Here, one child in five lives below the poverty line, but poor families don’t vote, or at least not for the Greens.”

One of his major complaints against his former colleagues is their lack of action in fiscal matters. According to the latest league table in Manager magazine, 26 of Germany’s 300 richest people live in Hamburg. Their combined wealth amounts to €44bn, equal to half the city’s GDP. “Hamburg may be European Green Capital, but above all it’s the tax evasion capital of Germany,” he said. The number of tax inspectors is inadequate: in 2010, out of 627 taxpayers who declared an annual income of over €1m, the tax authorities were able to check up on only 31 of them. The lost tax revenues amount to hundreds of millions of euros. “We asked for 150 additional tax inspectors to be taken on (5), but the Greens wouldn’t hear of it.”

The fat cats who live in Marco Polo Tower may not vote Green in the elections. The tower was built on a natural promontory in the port that gives residents a bird’s eye view of the landing stage for liners. But the designers forgot that these floating palaces belch out toxic smoke that the wind blows back on to the balconies and windows of the tower. According to an investigation by Der Spiegel, a “breath of fresh air” for Marco Polo’s residents contains the equivalent of the emissions from “50,000 lorries travelling at 130kmph, with significant quantities of sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide and other carcinogenic particles” (6). Multi-millionaires poisoned by luxury cruises: sustainable development has some surprising twists.

Olivier Cyran is a journalist

(1Tagblatt Online, 14 April 2011.

(2Der Tagesspiegel, Berlin, 7 November 2010.

(3) Jutta Ditfurth, Krieg, Atom, Armut. Was sie reden, was sie tun: die Grünen, Rotbuch, Berlin, 2011.

(4) In January 2007, Peter Hartz received a two-year suspended sentence and a fine of €576,000 from the court in Braunschweig for having given bribes to and treated members of the Volkswagen works council to travel and prostitutes.

(5) In Germany, budget control falls within the responsibility of the Länder.

(6) “Luxusprobleme in Hamburg” (Luxury problem in Hamburg), Der Spiegel, Hamburg, 5 March 2010.

This article appears in the excellent Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.