Why are Green parties polling badly for the European elections? | Green politics

Voters may deal Green parties a blow that costs them up to one-third of their seats, if polls before this week’s European elections prove correct, in a shift that could lead to a rollback of climate policies with the effects rippling far beyond the continent.

At first glance, the projected slump in support – which follows months of protests from farmers against environmental rules – reads like a backlash against climate policies set by politicians who tried to move too far, too fast.

But political scientists are unconvinced by that narrative. There is little data to support fears of a societal “greenlash” from voters unhappy with the costs of the transition, according to the authors of a recent survey of 15,000 voters in France, Germany and Poland.

While local evidence from the Netherlands shows how a specific climate policy can push people away from the Greens and towards the far right, on a broader level researchers have found support for climate policies falls mostly along ideological lines.

So what explains the poor polling numbers?

The most straightforward explanation is that the last European elections in 2019 may have been an outlier in terms of climate engagement – one that served Green parties particularly well. Coming off the back of widespread student protests inspired by Greta Thunberg, which boosted parties promising strong climate action, and accompanied by a global flurry of pledges to cut pollution, the elections took place when the climate crisis was riding high on the political agenda.

“Voters have other priorities in 2024,” said António Valentim, a political scientist at Yale University who studies voting behaviour around climate. “Europeans today are more concerned about other issues,” he added, pointing to inflation and the war in Ukraine. “These are likely to be the kind of things that will be in a lot of people’s minds when deciding whom to vote for.”

Some research hints that the environment may be a “luxury goods issue” – one that has a bigger influence on voting decisions in times of plenty. A study in 2017 found voters punish governing parties they associate with environmental policies more severely when they perceive the economy as “weak”, but reward them for a green reputation when it booms.

Recent studies suggest Green parties’ success is closely tied to economic conditions, says Jessica Haak, a political scientist at the University of Hamburg. “Taken together, economic concerns overshadowing environmental issues might be a contributing factor to a potential decline in Green party votes.”

Germany, where the Greens are in government and also run the climate and economy ministry, is where the biggest losses are likely. Polls suggest sizeable losses will also hit the Greens in France and Italy, with smaller dips in Nordic countries. There will also be new parties that have joined the Green grouping in the European parliament since the last elections in 2019, such as Croatia and Lithuania.

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Bas Eickhout: ‘We are going to need a strong Green group to keep Europe a stronghold of freedom and climate action.’ Photograph: Olivier Hoslet/EPA

High polling numbers for radical rightwing parties could even help swing centrist voters toward the Greens. In their campaigns, their politicians have pushed the message that a vote for the Greens will protect Europe not just from extreme weather, but also from the far right.

“We are going to need a strong Green group to keep Europe a stronghold of freedom and climate action,” said Bas Eickhout, a Dutch MEP and the Green party’s joint lead candidate for the European elections. “In 2019, the polls didn’t predict our record-breaking success, but we went from 52 to 74 seats in the European parliament. We have good hopes that through strong mobilisation, we will defy the polls once more.”

But even if their optimism is misplaced, it does not automatically mean that fast climate action will be axed.

Since the last elections, “many other parties have incorporated much more ambitious climate and environmental targets in their platforms”, said Silvia Pianta from the European Institute on Economics and the Environment, pointing to the left party grouping as well as the centre-left Socialist and Democrats and the pro-European Renew. “This suggests that lower Green vote shares in the upcoming elections might not necessarily imply that the new parliament will be considerably less progressive on climate action.”

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