We can judge if a nation is civilised by how seriously it takes cycling as a mode of transport. Germany scores well. As recompense for the indignity of turning 40, I have been treated to a two-wheel tour of Bavaria. Apart from being able to marvel at the Alps and the pride grown men take in donning lederhosen, the sojourn has filled with admiration for the state’s superb network of bike paths.
Bavaria is in many respects a role model for sane environmental policies. Two of the world’s largest solar energy plants can be found here; at street level, bins have separate compartments for different types of waste and ordinary people appear to be careful not to put their used bottles and papers into the wrong sections.
Ecological awareness does not happen by accident; it results from decades of campaigning, often by people who were ridiculed as fantasists when they started out. I first learned about the necessity of protecting nature from the work of Germany’s Green Party a few years after they were formed in the 1980s. The Greens were different to mainstream politicians, I was led to believe, because they were more interested in principles than power. While that may have been true once, it is certainly not now.
After elections in Baden-Württemberg in March, the Greens are now the largest party in a state legislature for the first time in their history. Becoming part of the next federal government is the overriding objective of their leader, Cem Ozdemir, whose public relations handlers like to depict him as Germany’s equivalent to Barack Obama (Ozdemir is of Turkish ethnicity and the party has even used the inane slogan “Yes We Cem” to promote him).
Given that Angela Merkel has declared multiculturalism “dead”, progressives can derive some satisfaction from Ozdemir’s popularity. Yet in other respects the Greens have become a deeply reactionary force. It is particularly galling that a party formerly wedded to pacifism has morphed into a bunch of war-mongers.
When Merkel abstained from supporting the bombardment of Libya recently, her most strident critics were prominent Greens. Renate Künast, a Green parliamentary leader who covets the post of Berlin mayor, accused Merkel of political failure. Her erstwhile boss, Joschka Fischer, was even more scathing.
In a syndicated opinion column, Fischer intimated that Germany could be isolated unless it followed the example he set as foreign minister, when it agreed to participate in the US-led occupation of Afghanistan. He wrote: “Germany and other European countries went to Afghanistan in solidarity with a NATO partner – our most important security guarantor, the United States – after it had been attacked from there on 11 September 2001. And solidarity within NATO – a term all but shunned these days in official German circles – is mutual: left to its own devices, Germany could one day wake up in a very precarious situation.”
Hold on a second. The best evidence we have tells us that the 11 September atrocities were planned in Hamburg, not in Osama bin Laden’s Tora Bora hideaway. There would have been no justification for the US to bomb German cities in retaliation; there was even less justification for how America and its stooges invaded Afghanistan. As part of a sordid sucking-up exercise to the Bush administration, Fischer gave his imprimatur to a war that widened inequality. Each week, the United States – a country that denies millions of its own people the right to health insurance - spends $2 billion on waging war on Afghanistan. Germany has helped “our most important security guarantor” to increase hardship in Afghanistan. According to World Bank data, 36% of the Afghan population lived below the national poverty line in 2008; in 2005, the corresponding figure stood at 33%.
Just as the German Greens showed a callous indifference to the plight of Afghanistan’s poor, they acted as cheerleaders for austerity measures at home from 1998 to 2005, when they last belonged to the federal government. Gerhard Schröder, the country’s chancellor at the time, encountered stiff resistance within his own Social Democrat party to the welfare reforms he introduced – some of his colleagues even quit the party in protest. The Greens, on the other hand, defended him vigorously, supporting extreme cuts in public expenditure in the full knowledge that they would hurt the disadvantaged most.
The U-turns of the German Greens have been copied by their sister parties elsewhere. With his slightly dishevelled appearance, Daniel Cohn Bendit still poses as a radical. It is a long time, though, since he was a student rebel in the Paris of 1968. As leader of the Green group in the European Parliament, he has been a hawkish advocate of US-led military operations. Disgustingly, he has cited humanitarian reasons to defend wars designed primarily to ensure America’s control of oil and other prized resources.
In the early 1990s, I was an active member of the Irish Greens. Although I knew several Green members of the Dublin parliament personally, I was delighted to see all of them losing their seats in the recent general election. Their willingness to accept public service cutbacks demanded by the IMF and EU amounted to treason.
Because climate change imperils our survival as a species, I am convinced that we need a genuine green movement, separate from any political party. Having a few politicians who claim to be green answering to the title “minister” is no substitute for people power.
·First published by New Europe (www.neurope.eu), 8-14 May 2011