Green Dreams and Realities: Navigating Voter Fatigue in the EU Elections

By José Arroyo, Senior Consultant | Brussels, European Union

On the 4th of February 2024, the European Greens officially adopted their election manifesto ahead of the European Parliament election in June. The Greens are currently the fifth biggest group in Parliament and have been influential during the past mandate in pushing for reforms to decarbonise the European economy under the European Green Deal. However, their electoral prospects are dire, and they are at risk of losing around a third of their seats as the EU faces growing backlash against its green agenda, as we witnessed very recently with farmers’ protests across the continent. Nevertheless, the Greens aim for even more ambitious climate goals for the 2024-2029 legislative term and have picked two high-profile MEPs to lead their campaign: Terry Reintke from Germany and Bas Eickhout from the Netherlands, two senior figures in the European Parliament, respectively running for their third and fourth terms in office. Much of their influence in the new Parliament depends on the results of the election and the alliances that will be formed after it.

Riding the green wave

From the 2nd to the 4th of February 2024, green politicians from across Europe met in Lyon, France, for their Electoral Congress, where they elected their lead candidates and adopted their manifesto. The Greens have seen a very successful few years in Europe, riding a green wave in 2019 that brought them their best-ever result in the last European elections. In addition, far from being a minority opposition movement, Green political parties form part of coalition governments in 6 EU Member States, with Germany as their crown jewel, where they are one third of the “traffic light” coalition along with the liberals and the social democrats of Chancellor Olaf Scholtz.

Green Deal ambition

During the current mandate of the European Parliament (2019-2024), the Greens have been instrumental in reforms to decarbonise key sectors in Europe’s economy, with the European Commission led by conservative Ursula von der Leyen even adopting many of their ideas. The Green Deal, a flagship initiative of the von der Leyen Commission, sets 2050 as the target date for the EU to become a climate neutral continent. This has translated into legislative reforms aiming to make almost all sectors more sustainable, from transport, to agriculture, packaging and buildings. Von der Leyen described these efforts as “Europe’s man on the moon moment” and holds up the Green Deal as an example to be followed by other countries aiming to move away from fossil fuels.

Green Deal fatigue

However, these ambitious climate targets and accompanying measures are facing increasing backlash, leading to ever declining popularity of Green political parties. For the past four years, for instance, farmers in the Netherlands have been protesting measures aimed at cutting agricultural pollution as they argue they would hurt their business and reduce their already meagre incomes. This even led to the founding of a new farmers’ party to represent their concerns that made important inroads in the Dutch provincial election earlier this year. The success of the protests and concerns around farmers’ livelihoods may have also contributed to the success of far-right leader Geert Wilders in the national election last year. The farmers’ protests have now spread across the bloc with a mass tractor protests blocking the European quarter in Brussels on the 1st of February 2024. European leaders such as French President Macron and Belgian Prime Minister De Croo have echoed this “climate fatigue” by asking for a “regulatory pause” on further environmental legislation.

Because of this, the European Greens face a significant electoral setback in June, with polls predicting a loss of a third of their seats and the group going from the fifth to the seventh largest in Parliament, which would leave them with little influence in the legislative process. Nationalist and Eurosceptic parties are in contrast expected to make substantial gains, with the next Parliament likely to veer to the right.

Renewed ambition

In this context, the Greens are set to campaign on a so-called “Green Social Deal”. They aim for the EU to bring forward its climate-neutrality objective from 2050 to 2040 and for an end to the use of coal by 2030, and of all fossil fuels by 2040. They also target fossil subsidies, which they want to see phased out by 2025 with “all other environmentally harmful subsidies” being withdrawn by 2027. As an alternative, the Greens want to transform Europe’s energy system so that it relies completely on solar, water, wind, and geothermal energy by 2040. Importantly, they no longer mention biofuels, which were mentioned back in the 2019 manifesto as having a role to play so long as they did not compete with food production or cause biodiversity loss. In addition, the Greens want to transform the controversial Common Agricultural Policy (the EU fund supporting agriculture) to redirect the money into organic farming and agroecological production.

To finance these changes, the Greens would increase national taxation and push for taxes at the EU level. They would establish a minimum capital gains tax in the EU, push Member States to implement the OECD agreement on corporate minimum tax, extend the carbon border tax to new polluting sectors, apply the “polluter pays” principle across all sectors, create a European Financial Transactions Tax, and make the EU windfall tax on energy companies permanent. With these new revenues, they would reinforce the social welfare state, passing a directive on minimum income to establish an adequate level of support (60% of the median income) in each EU country for people between jobs or who cannot work.

A smaller platform post-elections

Despite the growing Green Deal fatigue, the Greens aim to continue pressing for the EU to increase its ambitions for the green transition, demanding stricter targets and advocating for a wider social support network to respond to the social costs of strict environmental measures. They embrace the green achievements of this mandate but demand more action for the next one. Some of their proposals are unlikely to be realised. For example, the European Commission is very unlikely to consider bringing forward its 2050 decarbonisation target and it’s difficult to imagine 27 EU countries agreeing on a common European tax on financial transactions.

However, the real question is how strong the Greens will be in the European Parliament after the election, and how they can leverage their votes to transform some of their demands into actual policy in cooperation with other groups. Much depends on the electoral results and the alliances that will emerge after election day. During the current mandate, the informal governing coalition has been composed of the EPP (centre-right), the S&D (centre-left), Renew Europe (liberals), with occasional support from the Greens. With a strong showing for parties to the right of the EPP, it would be tempting for the EPP to move away from its current allies and reach either formal and informal deals with the ECR (conservatives) or ID (far-right) political groups. In this relatively unlikely scenario, the Greens will have little say in the new mandate. Even if this does not happen, a stronger right-wing in the Parliament will leave the Greens with less leverage to implement their policies.

Of course, there are still four months to go, and campaigning is just starting, so it’s still all to play for. But, as recent protests show, the Greens are facing an uphill battle to convince voters of the need for yet more ambitious climate laws.