INTERVIEW | Wednesday, 27 February 2008
‘A civil war of words’
Philippe Lamberts, co-spokesperson of the European Green Party and AD’s guest last weekend, tells JAMES DEBONO that coalitions are the norm and not the exception in Europe.
“I felt a climate of a civil war of words, not one of an open democratic debate which the election campaign should be conducive to. It’s a lot ‘them and us’, good versus bad.”
These were the first impressions of Philippe Lamberts during his brief visit in Malta.
He also notes an “enormous imbalance” when watching TV and reading the Maltese papers, between the access that is given to the two main parties and that that is enjoyed by smaller parties, including of course AD.
“There is a lot of fear hanging around and that, as a European citizen, makes me quite uneasy. I believe that the Maltese society has much to gain by opening up the political debate, as the challenges it is facing are huge and will require the mobilisation of all to be successfully met.”
Countering the spin that coalitions are a recipe for disaster, Lamberts notes that “in many European countries, coalition governments are the rule rather than the exception.”
Lamberts acknowledges that are “some sorry examples, such as Italy, where the coalition failed because its majority was too narrow and therefore it had to take too many participants onboard, which had too diverging views.”
But according to Lamberts the vast majority of coalition governments across Europe are rather stable.
“Look at Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Finland, at Ireland; even my country, Belgium, has had full-term governments for two decades now.”
Ironically after years of stability his homeland Belgium is passing through a hard patch in coalition building but Lamberts attributes this to “our specific situation” marked by regional strife between the Flemish and French speaking parts of the country.
“We Greens believe that a mature democracy must be able to allow the emergence and the representation of new political orientations, which is best allowed by proportional vote, which in turn leads to coalition governments.”
Lamberts does not see such a climate as one conducive to the mature debate required to rise up to the challenges that EU member states have to face.
Green parties have participated in coalitions with various other political families.
The first wave of participation across Europe in the second half of the 1990s, when the Greens allied themselves with the social-democrats.
But the current wave sees Greens entering alliances mostly with centre and centre-right parties.
“This demonstrates that Greens are results-driven: what brings the decision to partner with others is what we can concretely achieve, rather than the label.”
Despite the current flirtation with the centre right, Lamberts insists that “the Greens are definitely on the progressive side of society, and in the traditional sense, rather on the left side of the spectrum.”
The Green’s agenda of sustainable development encompasses both environmental justice as well as social justice, adding the enhancement of the civil liberties to the mix.
“All those goals require government to take an active role, especially versus the markets in defining policy. Therefore, it was not surprising for us to be allied to social democrats in the first wave of our coalitions, and it remains a reality today, as exemplified by many successful local and regional coalitions we still have nowadays with them.”
But the Greens are also strong proponents of a culture of responsibility of enterprise and the individual.
“In that respect, you might find us closer to progressive liberals or Christian democrats.”
He also refers to the fact that in many cases – but not all –all over Europe, social democrats have become quite conservative, “when not overtly liberal in economic matters or on the contrary, populists.”
“Doing so, they have somehow deserted the progressive side of the political spectrum, where then we find ourselves sometimes a little alone”.
In such a scenario the Greens feel free to strike coalitions agreements with all democratic parties who allow them to promote the agenda of sustainable development.
“We are nobody’s obedient servants or natural allies. So, to answer your question, with the exception of anti-democratic parties which you usually find at the far right end of the spectrum, we are open to enter discussions with any partner.”
Lamberts points out that most Governments that have had Greens onboard, have carried out their full terms.
“There have of course been exceptions to that, but these took place when Greens were placed before decisions that we had consistently said we would not support.”
So what have Greens given to the governments in which they played a role?
“When Greens participate in coalition, they really try to act somehow as the Government’ pathfinders, opening new avenues of political actions, proposing new solutions or making sure the new challenges we have are effectively tackled. But we always want to ensure we do not lose touch with reality. So reality shows that Greens are rather a factor of innovation than one of instability.”
What about concrete results? He cites Germany as a concrete example of a country changed by the Greens in coalition.
“Look at how the country has become a world leader in the sustainable development technologies, creating 300,000 jobs in the sector, which is one of the largest contributors to Germany’s exports. That is a direct consequence of a very ambitious energy policy led by the Greens, which have not only decided to engage a nuclear phasing-out process, but have strongly encouraged investments in renewables and in energy efficiency. That paid off handsomely, including in a field – the economy – where common wisdom has it that Greens are not at their best.”
He also cites former German Green foreign minister Joschka Fischer who was instrumental in setting the agenda of the EU foreign policy, be it in the Balkans, in the Middle East or in Asia, always finding the right balance that really enables an effective dialogue.
Is there a risk of the Greens losing their identity and principles when they participate in such governments?
“When you enter a coalition, you know from day one that you will have to make concessions, as no partner in the coalition can have it all its own way. We are democrats, which means that we accept that a Government that includes Greens will not carry out a 100% Green policy. Accepting that means a culture shift for Green parties, by which they become Government parties.”