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Last Updated: Thursday, 13 October 2005, 10:47 GMT 11:47 UK
Has the Green dream wilted?
By Sam Wilson
BBC News

Joschka Fischer of Germany's Green Party
Europe's most famous Green politician is no longer in office
Only half a decade ago the future of Europe looked greener than ever before.

Green parties were part of the governments of five European countries, pushing the environment closer to the forefront of policy-making.

"Some had the impression that a luminous sunflower was hanging in the grey sky," wrote Juan Behrend, the former secretary general of the Green federation in the European parliament.

But that era is now over.

With the cementing of a grand coalition in Germany this week, Greens have lost their last toehold in western European government, and their most recognisable figure, former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, is out of office.

And this at a time, says Mr Behrend, when "the current climate is asking for Green politics".

Having been ejected from government in Finland, France, Italy, Belgium and now Germany, it would be no surprise if the Greens' optimism, like the imaginary sunflower, had wilted.

"These are setbacks, clearly, in every case. Greens are not now shaping policy," says Hubert Kleinert, once a German Green MP, now a political scientist.

Greens were part of national governments in...
Finland, 1995
Italy, 1996
France, 1997
Germany, 1998
Belgium, 1999

"During the last five years there have been more defeats than victories. And I think this [German result] is the biggest one."

But Mr Behrend refuses to be downbeat.

He admits the German result is "a blow", but denies it shows Green politics is in decline.

"Coming back to opposition is also an opportunity," he told the BBC News website.

He points out that the Green movement was founded in local-level activism, and its grassroots are still strong.

"We are expert at making opposition politics so I'm optimistic we'll be able to articulate a very coherent Green policy," he says.

Chris Rootes, professor of environmental politics at England's University of Kent, agrees.

"Being out of government may liberate them - they were always uncomfortable with a party [Gerhard Schroeder's SPD] with whom they have a lot of differences," he says.

Divisive debate

The German Greens may have been leapfrogged by the liberal Free Democrats and the new Left, but Prof Rootes points out that their share of the vote fell only about 0.5%.

Greens have suffered across Europe, he suggests, only because voters have turned against their socialist and social democratic coalition allies "and [Greens] have thus far not been willing to sustain right-wing governments".

Green politics and sustainability are not just post-materialistic dreams
Juan Behrend
European Green Party co-ordinator
That ties their fortunes closely to the left, he says, as "it does make the parties of the centre-left very dependent on the Greens".

For Prof Kleinert, being out of power gives greens a chance to rethink their allegiances, including the possibility of entering coalitions with centre-right parties like Germany's CDU.

It could be a divisive debate, as "the feeling of the Greens' leaders is surely more to the middle, but the feeling of the base is more left-wing".

Ideas 'entrenched'

But other commentators say there is no need for Greens to panic.

They are part of Romano Prodi's left-wing alliance expected to challenge hard in Italy's elections next year, and are likely to form part of the left-wing bloc competing in France in 2007.

"Greens have shown they can be serious politicians, can hold cabinet office and can be trusted, and these will count if their time comes again," says Dr Neil Carter of the University of York.

Greenpeace activists dressed as trees
Green activists may have different political aims to the leadership

But what about environmental policies? With no Green ministers now at cabinet tables, or at EU ministerial meetings, will there be no-one to push ecological considerations?

The Green Party in Germany was instrumental in forming that country's policy of shutting down nuclear energy, and its huge increase in the use of renewable energy. Are these achievements now at risk?

Prof Rootes thinks not, as these ideas are now "entrenched" in the political mainstream.

Mr Behrend says that people across Europe realise the importance of environmental protection, and they will not allow any political party to neglect that in its policy making.

"Green politics and sustainability are not just post-materialistic dreams," he says. "They are hard politics that we're going to have to face in the coming years."

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