What a Green German chancellor would mean for Central Europe

If Annalena Baerbock secures the German chancellorship in September, she will have an opportunity to make Central Europe greener.

Annalene Baerbock, co-leader of the German Greens Party, holds up a description of the party's policy program at a livestreamed, digital press conference ahead of Germany's federal elections scheduled for September on March 19, 2021 in Berlin, Germany [Sean Gallup/Getty Images]

On April 20, Germany’s ruling CDU/CSU finally chose who it will run as the conservative candidate to succeed Chancellor Angela Merkel in Germany’s September 2021 federal election: stuffy and unpopular Armin Laschet. Just days before, the German Greens had put forward their own candidate for chancellor, the young and moderate Annalena Baerbock.

On the same day that Laschet’s candidacy was confirmed, a bombshell pre-election poll showed that support for the German Greens was at an unprecedented 28 percent. Only 21 percent of the respondents said they are planning to vote for the CDU/CSU Union in the same poll. Since then that lead has solidified and the Greens have overtaken the CDU in polling averages for the first time ever, suggesting that the conservatives who have governed Germany for the last 16 years could be ousted as the strongest party in the Bundestag in September.

Speculation has already begun as to what a Green Baerbock chancellorship could mean for Germany and beyond. And there are few places where such a dramatic political earthquake would be as strongly felt as in Germany’s neighbours to the East.

It is not just geographical proximity that makes developments in Germany reverberate in Central European countries like Poland, Czechia, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia and others.

Germany’s sheer economic weight, and the close political relations it formed with Central European countries during the Merkel years, mean that a Green government in Berlin would significantly change regional dynamics.

Over the last two decades, trade between Germany and Central European countries grew immensely. Trade between Poland and Germany alone grew from $15.7bn in 2003 to $87.5bn in 2014, a 457 percent increase. By 2019, that already impressive number had increased further to $148 billion. Moreover, seasonal labour from Central and Eastern Europe is key to Germany’s agricultural sector, and the German automotive industry has opened major factories in several central European countries such as Slovakia, Czechia, Hungary and Poland.

Meanwhile, in Berlin Central European governments have generally found an affable and agreeable political partner. Germany’s CDU is the most  prominent member of the pan-European European People’s Party (EPP), a key institution for transnational centre-right political cooperation in Europe. This is particularly true in Central and Eastern Europe, in many ways the “heartland” of the EPP. Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Lithuania, Latvia, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia and Hungary are all ruled by EPP-affiliated parties. These governments are naturally politically close to Berlin.

But all this may change in September with a Green victory in the federal elections.
EPP-affiliated central European governments have little in common with the German Greens. Poland’s right-wing PiS government or Czechia’s populist leadership are not natural allies for the left-wing environmentalist party, either. After all, apart from Austria, where they rule in a coalition with the local EPP affiliate, Green parties in Central Europe are still not decisive actors in mainstream politics.

Though Baerbock is from her party’s moderate wing, a Green victory in Germany’s upcoming election would still mark the most significant political division between Berlin and the rest of Central Europe since the European Union first expanded into the region in the early 2000s.

Poland’s PiS has had enough spats with Berlin and Brussels even with a conservative chancellor in Germany. It is difficult to see how they would not clash even more with a Green one. The same is true for Hungary and Slovenia.

Nevertheless, the massive flow of labour, goods and investment between Germany and the rest of Central Europe will likely keep Berlin and its neighbours to the East close even under a Green chancellorship.

Moreover, if they take over Germany’s leadership in September, the Greens will have an opportunity to move regional governments on the issue that matters to them above all others: climate change.

Many Central European countries notoriously lag behind the rest of Europe when it comes to climate issues. Poland, for example, still gets 70 percent of its energy from coal, and it is one of the only three European countries whose carbon emissions increased over the last decade. Poland and Hungary are also the primary opponents of a European Green New Deal. Climate is hardly a hot button issue in the region, either. Most central Europeans perceive immigration, and not climate change, as the most important challenge facing the EU today.

Central European electorates’ lack of interest in climate issues coupled with the regional governments’ hostility towards Green politics would undoubtedly make it difficult for the German Greens to convince the region to take action on climate change. Add to that the strong preference for nuclear energy of Central European governments compared with the strongly anti-nuclear roots of the German Greens and there is sure to be no shortage of animosity when it comes to forming policy at the European level.

Nevertheless, a Green chancellorship can still use Germany’s economic clout to move Central Europeans towards greener politics and policies.

Central European countries are opposed to green policies mainly because they believe going green would negatively affect their economies. They are also worried about the social impact of phasing out certain polluting industries such as coal.

If Baerbock can demonstrate the economic opportunity of the green transition to Germany’s neighbours to the East, she may be able to convince many of them to join the fight against climate change. Central European countries would be particularly receptive to the idea of receiving money to modernise polluting industries and build green infrastructure.

Central Europe will not turn Green overnight but come September, Germany might. What that will mean for Central Europe is new political divides, but also new opportunities. Ones that could lead not only to a greener Germany, but to a greener Europe. A greener Central Europe, at least.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.