German Greens Are Embracing an Old Enemy: Big Business - OZY | A Modern Media Company

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Deutschland's ecological politicians are gaining mainstream momentum, and that's breeding pragmatism.

When Germany’s Greens drafted their first party program 40 years ago, their contempt for business and finance was evident on almost every page.

The manifesto called for the breakup of large corporations into “manageable” units run by workers and demanded the creation of “economic and social councils” to control the private sector. Economic policy would be guided by a simple principle, the paper said: “We are against any kind of quantitative growth, especially when it is driven by pure greed for profit.”

Four decades and countless ideological splits later, the Greens have come to see things a little differently. Today — as opinion polls suggest the party is on track to return to power in Germany’s next government — its leaders insist they view business not as the enemy, but as a much-needed partner in the fight against climate change.

They [the Greens] now see business not as an enemy but as part of the solution.

Joachim Lang, BDI industry federation

Green speakers appear regularly at business meetings — party co-leader Robert Habeck was in Davos on Tuesday — while chief executives and industry lobbyists are welcome at party conferences. In 2018, the Green parliamentary group launched a business advisory council that features senior executives from the likes of BASF, Munich Re, Thyssenkrupp and Bosch. 

“We are not prepared to compromise on our political goal, especially when it comes to climate change,” says Katharina Dröge, a Green member of Parliament who serves as the party’s economic affairs spokeswoman. “But we are ready to talk about how best to achieve that goal. If industry comes up with a better instrument than the one we have in mind, we are ready to change course. That is new for the Greens.” 

Joachim Lang, the managing director of Germany’s powerful BDI industry federation, says business leaders have noticed a shift in tone.

“We have seen over the last year or two that the Greens’ interest in business has risen sharply, especially at the senior levels [of the party]. They now see business not as an enemy but as part of the solution, which is of course the way business sees itself. But there is also a greater readiness on the business side to talk to the Greens and be open to their ideas.” 

The Greens’ political advance suggests one reason for the rapprochement with business. The latest surveys suggest the party would win 21 percent to 23 percent of the vote if an election was held today, ahead of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and second only to Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

One way or another, the Greens are likely to play a crucial role in the next German government — either as a strong partner of the CDU or leading a left-wing alliance with the weakened SDP and the far-left Die Linke. 

“A lot of companies see that the chance of us being in government is growing,” says Dröge. “What we are telling business leaders is, ‘We want to govern.’ And if we are in government, we want to implement our policies quickly. So let’s have the debate about these policies now.” 

It helps that climate change, the Greens’ signature policy, has become a corporate priority. German utilities such as RWE and Eon, once prime targets for environmental campaigners because of their reliance on coal and nuclear energy, have shifted resources and attention to renewables. The influential BDEW federation of energy companies is headed by a former Green politician. On some policy issues, notably the campaign to expand onshore wind farms, the Greens and Germany’s energy industry are shoulder to shoulder. 

Then there is generational change. “When we sit together with people from industry, they tell us that their kids, too, go to the Fridays for Future demonstrations,” says Dieter Janacek, another Green MP and the party’s industrial spokesman. “The debate has really changed. There is a consensus now that we have to fight climate change, but also that we must have a positive economic story to tell.” 

Greens and German business federations are also closely aligned on the need for a sharp rise in public investment. All want the government to abandon its commitment to balanced budgets and raise spending to stimulate the economy and improve the country’s crumbling infrastructure. Berlin’s run of record budgetary surpluses, Dröge says, is “macroeconomic nonsense.” 

If the Greens do end up in government next year, they will come armed with ample executive experience. The party is in ruling coalitions in 11 of Germany’s 16 federal states. In Baden-Württemberg, home to Daimler, Porsche and Bosch but also a traditional Green stronghold, they have led the government for the past nine years. 

“There was a lot of uncertainty on the business side when the Greens came into government in 2011. But after a while that gave way to relief,” says Peer-Michael Dick, the director of the Baden-Württemberg employers’ federation. “It turned out that the government had competent ministers who were ready to listen. They work hard and you can trust their word.”

He adds: “But you cannot compare the Greens in Baden-Württemberg with the Greens in Berlin. At the federal level, the party is much more to the left.”

The BDI’s Lang, too, sounds a note of caution. “There are still essential areas of policy where business and the Greens have considerable differences, for example on tax policy or consumer protection,” he said. “Despite the recent rapprochement, this will be a long road.”

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