The new Federal Chairman of Alliance 90/The Greens, Omid Nouripour, on political responsibility in times of climate crisis and war.
Peter Unfried: Mr Nouripour, to begin with people felt that even just the responsibility of governing would be a reality shock for the German Greens, but then came Putin’s war of aggression against Ukraine. Within a matter of hours, you had to enact policies that were not included either in the traffic light coalition agreement or in the party election manifesto. What has happened with the German Greens since then?
Omid Nouripour: That isn’t entirely true, as we are the party that has taken the strongest position against Putin and Germany’s energy dependency on Russia in recent years. Take North Stream 2, for instance. And we have always said that we stand firmly with Ukraine and in the weeks leading up to the escalation, did everything in our power in the German federal government to stop it by diplomatic means. Right up to the last minute, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock was travelling around tirelessly, making speeches. The Russian government decided to take the course of this terrible war of aggression rather than diplomacy. And now we are supporting Ukraine wherever we can, with weapons, with sanctions against Russia, with aid supplies and by taking in refugees.
The Alliance 90/The Greens party was originally founded on an anti-violence ticket, but that was not what the world wanted, and so when Joschka Fischer became the German Foreign Minister immediately after the start of the Greens’ first coalition government, after the impact of the genocide in Bosnia (1995), he went to war in 1999 to save lives in Kosovo. A lot of people left the party after that. How did things stand today, in your opinion?
Part of the baseline philosophy of our party is that people are central to our policies. This means that we focus not on nation states, not on political ideas, but on people. That is the lesson we have learned from Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo and all the discussions we have had within our party, including Afghanistan and Syria.
What exactly does that mean?
Our concept of security begins with human security. That is a UN term, enshrined in international law. We have adopted many resolutions by massive majorities at our party conferences that feature a commitment to our ‘Responsibility to Protect’.
Allow me to translate: military interventions to prevent crimes against humanity.
People don’t see the full picture, but if there is one party that has had a very clear position since day one of the Maidan Uprising...
... the pro-European mass demonstrations in Ukraine at the end of 2013 ...
...including against Russia’s enormous influence and aggression against Ukraine, then we are that party. We have always been unequivocal in our demands. And as events now show, it was the right approach to think of security in very broad terms. Because as we are seeing at the moment, security also incorporates the issue of energy security, for instance. We said loud and clear that we were becoming far too dependent on Russian fossil energy, we have been calling for years for the expansion of renewables – partly because they allow us to stop relying on energy imports. Unfortunately, preceding governments saw things differently. This means that we need to make up for years of inaction very quickly.
Robert Habeck, your predecessor as party chairman, made a speech at a party conference back in spring 2021, in which he described climate policy as a policy of freedom. At the time, I got the impression that a lot of people still didn’t really appreciate that you can’t leave climate and energy policy out of the equation if you want to defend liberal democratic freedom.
There is a constitutional court judgment on this from Karlsruhe.
And when, in the middle of last year, the man who is now Germany’s Vice-Chancellor wondered out loud about whether we should supply weapons to allow the people in Ukraine to defend the country and themselves against Putin, there was agreement from society, but a lot of pushback from within the party.
This is true. Our manifesto states that we should not supply weapons to areas of war and crisis. But there was also a degree of openness towards Robert Habeck’s concept of the responsibility to protec. I myself brought the provision of mine clearance boats to Ukraine into play. Yet up until the day the attack started, we were trying to strike a balance between dialogue and toughness. And to keep all diplomatic channels open. But as soon as the Russian side closed them all down and invaded Ukraine, it was clear that we had to react differently.
You seem to have agreed on your position within the party relatively quickly. Or were you just steamrollered by Olaf Scholz?
No. The moment Putin invaded Ukraine, we were living in a new reality. And it is our aim to gear our policy to changed realities. Responsibility means trying to use a political programme to shape reality, not to evade reality.
In the days following the invasion, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock constantly repeated the phrase “we have woken up in a new reality”. This also means that they must have been fast asleep beforehand, which I cannot imagine. But it does reflect the mental state of sections of society and of your party, at least to have turned a blind eye until it was no longer possible to do so. What is your opinion on that tragic time delay between what we want to believe and what is actually going on in the world?
It is true that in Germany, thank the Lord, we have generations of people who have never had to live through war and who see peace as the default situation. The European peace order is an enormous achievement. That is not something I would criticise; that is how it should be. At the same time, we know that this is not the first war there has been on the European continent since 1945. The war in Ukraine has been heating up since 2014. Even before the full Russian invasion, people were being killed almost every day. We had the war in Georgia in 2008 and we had the terrible wars in the Balkans of the 1990s.
For us, almost all of it is something that happens on TV.
It is true that for many decades, the German public has lived through longer times of peace than ever in history – in a way that Europe had not experienced before. This has led to a culture of military reticence, which is right and justifiable and has also developed historically. Now we see that we are going to have to adjust to this new reality as quickly as possible and that we must improve security, energy security and also the resilience of this society. These, incidentally, are items that have been on our agenda for years. And now we have to do everything that has been missed out in the last 16 years as quickly as possible. Think of former defence ministers of the CDU and CSU party, who are now complaining that the German army is not fit for purpose. It is simply unbelievable.
This self-criticism came a bit late in the day. But the CSU/CSU has not had the sole competence for the field of security in recent years. If the social democrats now say that Germany’s energy dependency on Russia is above average in Europe… there are reasons for this. And it is therefore part of our responsibility but we cannot just sit around saying oh Lord, oh Lord, oh Lord.
What should we be doing instead?
Take things in hand as quickly as possible, because that is what the times require. That is another aspect of responsibility. No more excuses.
Do you think that there will be paint bombs flying at the next party conference, like they were in Bielefeld in 1999, or is there a consensus agreement on this military term of responsibility?
The question is not whether there will be paint bombs. The question is whether we are up to our responsibilities at this time. That is the job. When I see how the German Foreign Minister is acting, when I see how Germany’sEnergy Minister is working flat out to catch up on what has been neglected, in other words diversifying energy supply and pushing forward with the expansion of renewables, they are doing their jobs.
Let us talk about the German Greens. I get the impression that we have had two Green developments. There is a party that wants to be grown-up and is ready to take responsibility for the majority society in a world that is how it is. And then there is a development carried by the German Young Greens, wanting to promote diversity and minorities and who look upon the majority society as critically as the founding generation did. How do you deal with this?
First of all, I am not sure I understand you, because the issue of the societal majority is not diametrically opposed to taking responsibility for the whole of society. People in this country are how they are. But this is also about recognising reality. Previously, we had a grand coalition for our federal government that had nobody from a so-called migration background in it, right down to a Secretary of State level. There, I did not see politics for society as a whole. It is not about playing some off against the others, but quite the reverse: how do we create a common concept of ‘us’ in a pluralist society with room for everyone and not having to spend our time debating identity.
At a German Greens’ party conference, you might sometimes think you are in a parallel world.
And at a CSU Political Ash Wednesday event, does that feel like reality? Hmm.
There is a template for how successfully the German Greens can take responsibility and then expand it by subscribing radically to that responsibility. That template is Baden-Württemberg. I find it interesting that the state Minister-President Winfried Kretschmann and his people, who acted strategically and politically to make Green politics hegemonial in swabian society, get to hear from far fewer successful Greens: it’s a one-off and just because of Fukushima, or because the Swabians are so unhinged?
Who is going around saying that kind of thing? I think that the development of the federal party in recent years shows an enormous willingness to take on responsibility. I think you’ve missed something here. And after his election, Winfried Kretschmann quite rightly went on to be elected twice more.
Right. It would perplex any semi-intelligent person that it was not a one-off but a blueprint, but some Greens clearly don’t know that.
I would be interested to know which Greens you know who answer that description.
My point is that Green content, with social ecology as a central part of it, is at front and centre in the society of a global economic giant like Germany. It is as it should be that we have Greens governing the country. 20-year-olds cannot remember a time when we didn’t. Understanding Kretschmann, your pre-pre-predecessor Reinhard Bütikofer calls it. But in your party, I get the impression, the understanding has not made very much broad progress. Have you personally understood Kretschmann? And if so, what does that mean for you?
I find that Kretschmann’s core statement is politics for all. And I greatly subscribe to that. I have been able to see in recent years how Annalena Baerbock and Robert Habeck have advanced this same approach. And it is shared very broadly within the party.
Frankfurt is my beloved hometown, but I live in Berlin, in Kreuzberg. And in Kreuzberg, the Greens have a very hegemonic approach. They are the majority party here and can keep pace with the election result of Baden-Württemberg. This is broadly and deeply rooted in the party, especially – and in particular – after the first-ever candidate for Federal Chancellor in the last elections. That is what we are working for here. And, hopefully, you can see that every day. For instance, in the first relief package for energy prices, we fought hard to ensure that the measures will really be for all those who have been particularly hard hit, not just singling out certain groups. If that is “catching on to Kretschmann”, then I am not the only one who has done it.
Kretschmann always says that he is not a Green Minister-President; he is the Minister-President of Baden-Württemberg. Not all Greens appreciate this.
Well, no. Joschka Fischer once said: I do not do Green foreign policy, I do German foreign policy, and that is as it should be, under his oath of office. As a government party, we are required to work for the general good. That is part of our responsibility. Obviously, we have our own focuses, such as climate protection and not being dependent on fossil fuels. We are the party with the clearest position on Russia – and this has been the case for a long time in our foreign policy led by values. And now we have the opportunity to put it into practice. And we are doing so. Obviously, at the end of the day, the fact is that we do not make policy for the party conference, but for society and for this country.
The German Young Greens are not that bothered about Germany, They have obviously never read Robert Habeck’s standard work: “Patriotism: A Left-Wing Case”.
Let me put it differently: German Young Greens like to line themselves up against the majority society.
There was an excellent Tweet by Ricarda Lang last August. When I read it, I thought: I want to be co-leader with that woman.
Are you getting sentimental on me now?
I’m being serious. The Tweet went something like this: it is telling that only the Conservatives are fussing about gender-inclusive language. But feminism is talking about the gender pay gap and the material preconditions for equality. That is the approach.
Ms Lang is quite simply a modern social democrat.
All right, then.
The media, Mr Nouripour, loves extremes and loves framing the German Greens with these extremes. They make them out to be either prohibition or State fetishists or to be egotistical and unpatriotic subjects. Now the membership has grown enormously in the Habeck and Baerbock years while the Greens have positioned themselves at the very centre of society. This means that there must be a lot of normal people among them now.
You’re not really going to use the words “normal people” in the interview, are you? I will have to pick that apart if so.
People who don’t fit the clichés of the liberal conservative columnists, who are not ideological, who eat meat twice a week, fly abroad on holiday twice a year, who want to contribute something, who have their own interests in mind, but also the bigger picture, normal people, in other words.
So to your mind, are people who eat meat three times, or not at all, not normal? It’s anybody’s guess how far we can go with the term “normal”. But let me just say: the people you have just described are members of our party, because they make policies for everyone and want to find solutions. They talk about the issue of climate change, for instance, not just within the context of social justice, but obviously also in terms of technological advancement. That is the only way forward. There are the Paris Agreement’s climate objectives, which are broken down into national climate objectives. If all the countries of the world meet their climate objectives, which is unfortunately not going to happen, the earth will warm up by 2.4°. That is nowhere near good enough. Without technology, no progress is possible. That is the Green party’s policy position and it is broadly shared within the party. And of course that is to do with the fact that we have very, very many people from all social strata, who have a very clear grasp on reality.
This interview was first published in German in Böll.Thema: “Responsibility”, published on 12 May 2022. It was first published in German on boell.de.