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The term European Greens refers to a federation of national political parties that place ecological sustainability and social justice at the forefront of their agendas. The first Green Party, initially called the Ecology Party, was founded by British environmentalists in 1973. The largest and most successful, Die Grünen (The Greens), was founded in West Germany in 1979; it changed its name to Bündnis 90/Die Grünen (Alliance 90/The Greens) after reunification with East Germany. Similar parties were established elsewhere in Western and Central Europe—the Lista Verdi (Green List) in Italy, Vihreä Liitto (Green Alliance) in Finland, Die Grüne Alternative (The Green Alternative) in Austria, Miljöpartiet de Gröna (Green Ecology Party) in Sweden, Les Verts (The Greens) in France, among others—and by the end of the 1980s there were a small number of Green deputies in several national parliaments. After 1989 Green parties also began to emerge in the former Soviet bloc, most successfully in Latvia and Georgia. In 1984 Green leaders established the European Federation of Green Parties (also known as the European Greens), an umbrella organization headquartered in Brussels, to coordinate their national delegations in the European Parliament. As of 2005 it consisted of thirty-three Green parties from thirty European countries. The European Greens are also part of the Global Greens, a loose network of Green parties and movements from around the world.


The European Greens began as an amalgam of extraparliamentary movements—led by radical students, feminists, ecologists, peace activists, and New Leftists—dedicated to a thorough transformation of modern industrial society. Over time they evolved into a pragmatic parliamentary force determined to reform the domestic and foreign policies of their governments from within. The transition from movement to party was by no means smooth. Many Green voters continue to think of their organization as an "anti-party party," and to prefer a "principled" (or "fundamentalist") oppositional stance to a "pragmatic" (or "realistic") coalition-building strategy.

The vast majority of Green voters identify with the political Left, and Europeans generally think of the Greens as "left," "center-left," "New Left," "ecosocialist," or (in countries with strong Communist parties) "libertarian left" or "ecoanarchist left." Nonetheless, the Greens defy easy categorization within the traditional European political spectrum. Prominent among West Germany's early members, for instance, were Herbert Gruhl, a disillusioned member of the right-leaning Christian Democratic Union, and Petra Kelly, an equally disillusioned member of the left-leaning Social Democratic Party. When Green deputies first entered the German Bundestag (parliament) in 1983, they insisted on sitting between these two parties on the grounds that they were neither "left nor right, but forward." Similarly, French Greens often refer to themselves as ninistes, short for "ni droit, ni gauche" (neither right nor left).

The Greens are also somewhat difficult to situate historically. Most of their ideas are firmly rooted in their experiences with the nuclear age, the population boom, mass consumerism, and urban congestion. However, some of their ideas—especially those concerned with natural-resource use and ecological sustainability—date back to the Romantic era and nature-protectionist movements of the nineteenth century. It is probably best to view the Greens primarily as heirs of the peace and ecological movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s and secondarily as neo-preservationists and latter-day Romantics.

Early publications, manifestos, and campaign platforms tended to critique capitalism, environmental degradation, female inequality, and the nuclear arms race while promoting grassroots democracy, nonviolence, and global responsibility—all familiar themes of the radical 1960s. Green writings were also deeply infused with the rhetoric of the 1970s, when issues of acid rain, the ozone layer, fisheries decline, global warming, species extinction, and "limits to growth" were front and center in the media. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s the Greens have placed more emphasis on the themes of cultural diversity, equal opportunity, indigenous rights, social justice, ecologically sustainable development, and global security. The commitment to a thorough rethinking of modern civilization has remained a constant theme, despite changes in tactics and slogans. The foreword to the Guiding Principles of the European Greens reads: "The so-called progress of the past centuries has brought us into a situation where the basis of life on Earth is seriously under threat. While technological development may delay the deterioration of the environment for a time, it cannot prevent the ecological and social collapse of civilization without a fundamental change in the ideology of unquestioned material growth which still prevails."

As a rule, Greens in northern (Protestant) Europe have fared better than those in southern (Catholic) Europe. This is partly because northern Europe is more heavily industrialized and possesses a more vibrant nature-protection tradition and partly because southern Europe has a number of well-entrenched Communist parties that absorb much of the protest vote that would otherwise go to the Greens. Western European Green parties are generally bigger and more influential than their Eastern European counterparts, no doubt because they are located in countries that already enjoy stable democracies and prosperous economies. The Greens do far better in countries that elect parliaments based on proportional representation than in those that do not. This is because the Greens typically receive only a small percentage of the national vote and therefore stand little chance in "winner-take-all" elections such as those in Britain and the United States. Internal dissension and factionalism has also undermined the electoral prospects of some Green parties.


Germany's Alliance 90/The Greens has been Europe's most successful environmental party. It won twenty-seven parliamentary seats in 1983 with 5.6 percent of the vote and forty-two seats in 1987 with 8.3 percent. The party suffered a temporary reversal of fortunes in 1990 when it fell below the minimum threshold of 5 percent for representation in parliament, a setback that was largely a consequence of the party's inflexible opposition to the government's popular reunification policies. In 1991 the party embarked on a more realistic path to political power (the Aufbruch, or "new departure"), and enjoyed a string of electoral successes: 7.3 percent of the vote (forty-nine seats) in 1994, 6.7 percent (forty-seven seats) in 1998, and 8.6 percent (fifty-five seats) in 2002. The Greens became junior partners in a governing coalition for the first time in 1998 under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder (Social Democrat). The Greens have held three cabinet posts in each of Schröder's two administrations, including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (held by Joschka Fischer since 1998); Ministry of Environment, Nature Conservation, and Reactor Safety (Jürgen Trittin since 1998); Ministry of Health (Andrea Fischer from 1998 to 2002); and Ministry of Consumer Protection, Food, and Agriculture (Renate Künast since 2002). No other Green Party in the world has enjoyed this level of influence and power.

France's Green Party (Les Verts) has struggled to find a niche for itself as a radical non-Marxist party capable of competing with the well-established Socialist and Communist parties. Initially dominated by New Left activists, Les Verts came under the control of the pragmatic Antoine Waechter from 1986 to 1993. Waechter's leadership netted the party some significant electoral successes, most notably in the 1989 European Parliament elections, when it captured 10.6 percent of the vote and received nine deputies. One of those deputies, Marie Anne Isler-Béguin, served as vice president of the European Parliament from 1991 to 1994. Dissension from within, however, led to the establishment of several rival parties, chief among them the Génération Ecologie. After several electoral defeats at the local and national levels, Les Verts came under the leadership of Dominique Voynet. As in Germany, Les Verts formed an alliance with the Socialist Party for the 1997 national elections and netted eight deputies to the National Assembly. It then joined the governing coalition of Prime Minister Lionel Jospin (Socialist) between 1997 and 2002, in return for which it received one cabinet position, the Ministry of Environment and Regional Planning (held by Dominique Voynet until 2001). In the 2004 European Parliament elections, Les Verts won 8.4 percent of the vote, giving it six deputies.


Other Green parties have also had a taste of power, if only fleetingly. Sweden's Green Ecology Party received 5.5 percent of the vote in the 1988 national elections, becoming the first new party to enter the Swedish parliament in seven decades. It dropped below the 4 percent threshold in the 1991 elections but rebounded with 5 percent of the vote in 1994 and 4.5 percent in 1998. It also won 17.2 percent of the vote in the 1995 European Parliament elections, a record high for an environmental party. It has maintained an informal alliance with the reigning Social Democratic government since 1998. Finland's Green Alliance won 7.3 percent of the vote and eleven seats in parliament in 1999. It was a junior partner in a broad governing coalition until 2002, when it quit in protest over the government's nuclear policies. Italy's Green List entered the legislature for the first time in 1987 with thirteen deputies and two senators and briefly became part of the governing coalition (with two ministerial portfolios) from 1998 to 1999. In 2004 Latvia elected the Green leader Indulis Emsis as its prime minister, marking the first time that a European Green has ever reached such a position.

Most Green parties had yet to move from being an opposition force to being part of a governing coalition as of 2004. Switzerland enjoys the distinction of being the first European country to elect a Green member to a national parliament, and the Swiss Greens typically capture 5 to 8 percent of the national vote, but the party has yet to join the circles of government. Austria's Green Alternative (or "Greens," as they came to be known in the 1990s) has had considerable success in local and regional elections and been represented in parliament since 1986. It allied itself with the Socialists in the 2002 elections and captured 9.5 percent of the vote, but that was still not enough to secure a Socialist-Green governing majority. Luxembourg's Greens have also been shut out of the corridors of power, despite winning 11.6 percent of the vote in the national elections of 2004, a record high for a Green Party in a European national election. Britain's Green Party has been hampered by internal divisions and by the "winner-take-all" voting system. It made a big splash in the European Parliament elections of 1989, when it garnered 14.9 percent of the vote, but it has never surpassed 2.9 percent of the vote in national elections and has never elected a member to Parliament.

In 2004 the European Greens collectively held 4 national ministerial posts, 169 legislative seats in 15 national parliaments, and 33 seats in the European Parliament. The German Greens alone accounted for 3 of those ministerial posts, 55 of the national seats, and 13 of the European Parliament seats. Many European voters continue to see Green parties as single-purpose environmentalists, despite the wide range of issues that they champion, and to view them with skepticism, despite their efforts to move from the extraparliamentary fringe to the parliamentary mainstream. The Greens have nonetheless managed to increase their share of the vote slowly but steadily since the 1980s, and they are likely to remain a vibrant force in European politics for the foreseeable future.

See alsoEnvironmentalism.


Capra, Fritjof, and Charlene Spretnak. Green Politics. New York, 1984.

Dobson, Andrew. Green Political Thought: An Introduction. London, 1990.

Mayer, Margit, and John Ely, eds. The German Greens: Paradox between Movement and Party. Philadelphia, 1998.

O'Neill, Michael. Green Parties and Political Change in Contemporary Europe: New Politics, Old Predicaments. Aldershot, U.K., 1997.

Parkin, Sara. Green Parties: An International Guide. London, 1989.

Porritt, Jonathon, and David Winner. The Coming of the Greens. London, 1988.

Shull, Tad. Redefining Red and Green: Ideology and Strategy in European Political Ecology. Albany, N.Y., 1999.

Talshir, Gayil. The Political Ideology of Green Parties: From the Politics of Nature to Redefining the Nature of Politics. New York, 2002.

Mark Cioc