David McWilliams: Green surge has created a political battle
Europe is now split between the politics of behaviour and the politics of identity
Members of the German Greens react to the publication of the first exit polls in the European elections, in Berlin. Photograph: Omer Messinger/EPA
The Berlin taxi driver was a bit groggy on Tuesday morning. The night before, Union Berlin, the East Berliner football team – used to playing second fiddle to the more celebrated West Berliner Herta Berlin – won promotion to the Bundesliga for the first time in the club’s history. Next year, Union will be lining out against giants such as Bayern Munich, Bayer Leverkusen and Borussia Dortmund. It had been a long night in the city.
After the essential few minutes on football and a quick natter about Berlin in springtime, when this tree-lined city turns green, we switched to politics. He was proud to tell me that Berliners know how many trees are in the city (430,100) but don’t know how many immigrants live in the city.
In one sentence he framed German politics on the day after the European election, when the big story was the surge for the Greens in what was West Germany and the dogged gains for the Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD) in the old East Germany.
This political and cultural division between the former West and East Germany long predates the Berlin Wall and the Cold War. What we know as West Germany is the Germany of the Holy Roman Empire, the Germany of Charlemagne, and before that the Germany of Romans, bordered by the great rivers of the Rhine on the west and the Danube in the south and the Elbe in the east.
This Germany is largely Catholic, liberal, pro-EU, wealthy, and now Green. Historically, this Germany is defined by quarrels with France.
In the former East Germany, we have the remnants of Prussian Germany. This is Protestant Germany, the land of Otto Von Bismarck, and before him the Prussian Knights. It is poorer, much more likely to vote extreme, and now home to the nationalist, anti-EU AfD.
Unlike western Germany, eastern Germans were historically defined by their relationship with their Slavic neighbours, constantly dragging Germany eastwards.
In fact, after German unification in 1870, Bismarck via his Kulturkampf (culture war) tried to limit the influence of Catholics in his new unified Germany, regarding them as a bit too independent.
Although it is rarely mentioned now, maps of voting preferences in 1933 show that Protestant Germany voted overwhelmingly for Adolf Hitler and Protestants were more likely than Catholics to be members of the Nazi Party. Catholic Germans rejected the Nazis at the ballot box.
Catholic Germans have always been more liberal, more commercial and more open to outside influences than their compatriots in the east.
Today we see this liberal/reactionary division again, in the surge of support for the Greens in west Germany. Last week, middle-class and tolerant western Germany voted for the environment in huge numbers.
The Greens garnered 20 per cent of the vote in Germany. All over western Europe, as the established parties have lost ground, we are seeing a distinct split between, on one side, globalist, cosmopolitan, pro-EU, Green voters and, on the other, the nationalist, sovereignty-defined, anti-EU voters of the right – be it the hybrid Brexit Party in the UK, the RN in France or the League in Italy.
The emergence of the Greens to represent not just the environment but also the liberal centre is a relatively new phenomenon. Until recently, the Green movement was seen to be quite radical, but it has moved very successfully into the mainstream.
It would not be far-fetched to suggest that the Greens are a globalist antidote to the nativism and environmental vandalism of the Trump administration in the US, whose antediluvian attitude to climate change and international co-operation has aided the cause of the Greens in Europe. Politics is often defined by what you are against as much as what you are for.
And as our upcoming guest at Shannon Airport has polluted the political discourse, views have shifted away from what he represents to what he does not.
The politics of identity is the politics of who we are, not what we are
The Irish Greens are part of this political subconsciousness too.
Adding to this subtle shift in the public mood, there is an appreciation that, on the ground, voters want to see sustainable urban living, better public transport, more focused town planning and green landscapes.
Taking all this together, we are witnessing a Green Wave, not just in Ireland but all over western Europe. Even in the UK, the Greens outpolled the ruling Conservative Party. Going against a key political rule of thumb, liberal Europeans are voting for higher taxes to change our behaviour.
And this is what the political battle in Europe has become. It is now a struggle between the politics of behaviour versus the politics of identity.
The politics of behaviour is the politics of what we are. It is the politics of our lifestyles, the way we live, based on the stricture that our behaviour shouldn’t affect others’ lives detrimentally. It is a selfless form of politics, where we take a minute to think about the impact our individual decisions will have on the greater good. It is the politics of compromise.
In contrast, the politics of identity is the politics of who we are, not what we are. It is the politics of exclusion and it is driven in many cases by a real fear about threatened culture and economic insecurity.
It is the politics of us and them, and ultimately it is the politics of confrontation, where a group of individuals defined by race, language and culture stand up against the forces of cosmopolitanism and global free trade.
As these two worldviews – the one-world, Green perspective and the one-nation, nativist standpoint – confront each other, the political centre ground is assessing which way to jump.
In the past few years, some parties of the centre-right allowed themselves to be dragged to the nativist right in order to combat the message from identity politics. They wrapped themselves in the flag, dialled up the nationalist rhetoric and took a big risk. The Tories in the UK are the best example of that. Brexit is the result.
In the next few years, the parties of the centre – still the most significant bloc in most countries – will most probably drop the sovereignty rhetoric and embrace the environmental movement more wholeheartedly.
One of the significant political lessons of the past decade is that you don’t have to be in power to shift the debate in your direction. You just have to represent the most significant idea on the outside, the idea with momentum.