German Greens: Better than nothing, or worse than useless?

June 20, 2001

Criticising the German Greens is like shooting fish in a barrel, but why bother? The answer is simple: the party has successfully spread confusion amongst environmentalists and anti-nuclear campaigners.

Since I wrote a critical piece in Green Left Weekly #444 about the German Greens' policy since forming a coalition government with the Social Democrats in 1998, a number of environmentalists (most of them members of the Australian Greens) have responded on an open Greens email list (<>).

There is some awareness within the Greens that their German partners have sold out, especially on its policy on nuclear power, but a majority of the Green party contributors to the e-mail debate still side with the German Greens.

The argument most frequently trotted out in their defence is that it would be irresponsible and "nimbyish" for Germany to refuse the return of nuclear reprocessing wastes from Cogema's reprocessing plant at La Hague, France, or from the British Nuclear Fuels Limited (BNFL) plant at Sellafield.

"Nimby" stands for "Not in my backyard", for narrow-minded parochialism which cares nothing about the outside world; in environmental circles, it's the ultimate putdown. There is nothing "nimbyish" in opposing nuclear waste shipments.

The coalition government and the German nuclear industry have been willing to accept the return of reprocessing wastes from Cogema and BNFL for the simple reason that that was a precondition for sending more spent fuel (amounting to hundreds of tonnes) to Cogema and BNFL for reprocessing.

That, in turn, facilitates the ongoing operation of power reactors in Germany — and the production of ever-more radioactive waste for which there is no satisfactory disposal option.

In short, the resumption of waste shipments is a win-win situation for European nuclear utilities and a lose-lose situation for everyone else in Germany, France and Britain.

As Jochen Stay noted in the February 16 news communique of the World Information Service on Energy (WISE), "First [the German SPD/Greens government] insist that it is immoral to leave 'German' waste in France and then they allow 500 more spent fuel transports to be sent to La Hague in the next five years. So much for 'national responsibility'!"

In different circumstances, it might be appropriate for reprocessing wastes (and/or unreprocessed spent fuel) to be returned from La Hague and Sellafield to Germany. That might be appropriate if, for example, the SPD/Greens government kept its promise to ban the reprocessing of German-origin spent fuel from January 1, 2000.

However, those circumstances simply do not apply.

Recently, a report commissioned by Greens MP and German environment minister Jurgen Trittin (reported in the June 1 WISE news communique) found that radioactive discharges at Sellafield are 20 times over the allowable limit for German nuclear plants. For Cogema, the discharges have reached seven times German limits.

Professor Alexander Rossnagel from Kassel University, an expert on nuclear law, said on the German TV program Report Mainz on May 28 that Germany may be violating Section 9 of the German nuclear energy law which states that nuclear waste must be disposed of "without causing damage".

When Trittin was asked about the legality of sending German-origin spent fuel to Sellafield for reprocessing, he said, "It is legal under British law". When asked if it is legal from a German point of view, he said, "German law does not apply in Great Britain". Now that's nimbyism.

Whose problem?

Another problem with the "nimby" argument is that it easily slides into an argument for public liability for corporate pollution. Gaby Luft falls into this trap in her response to my critique of the German Greens (see this week's "Write On" on page 8).

Luft says, "at least the Greens and the German government had the decency to take proper responsibility for what they had created", and asks, "what solution does your paper and its writers offer [in relation to radioactive waste]?"

The waste is not a "French" problem or a "German" problem — and it certainly isn't Green Left Weekly's problem.

It is a problem which nuclear utilities have created and are therefore responsible for. And every waste management option carries significant environmental and public risks — hence the importance of preventing further waste production.

Backing the German Greens, some argue that the "consensus agreement" is better than nothing: "Would Schroeder's Social Democrats have agreed to ANY [nuclear] phase-out without pressure from the Greens?", argued one member of the Australian Greens on the e-list.

The "consensus agreement" is not better than nothing. It is worse than useless.

The agreement involved any number of broken Greens promises:

  • a broken promise to close the two oldest reactors within the SPD/Greens' first term of government;
  • a broken promise to end reprocessing from January 1, 2000; and, among others,
  • a broken promise for "comprehensive and irreversible" legislation on a nuclear phase-out.

To give an idea of what happened to these promises, the last metamorphosed into the government/industry "consensus agreement" for a protracted phase-out, the announcement of which saw the share prices of nuclear utilities rise by 4-5%.

Moreover, the "wins" in the "consensus agreement" are empty. For example, the agreement of the nuclear utilities not to build new reactors means nothing — as the head of a German nuclear utility acknowledged, building new reactors was "no longer economically viable now anyway".

Gaby Luft argues that the consensus agreement "was the best compromise the Greens could have achieved".

However, the evidence suggests that the German Greens were more than willing to bow to industry demands.

For example, Michaele Hustedt, a federal German Green parliamentarian, said in 1999: "The nucleus of our phase out strategy is 'compromise' ... If we would ban reprocessing immediately, we could do that without having to pay any damage claims, because of the failure [of German nuclear utilities] to provide a proved [waste] disposal concept. But we won't do that. We have decided to phase out in consensus, because we strongly believe that it is better for the government but also for the electricity utilities to phase out in consent and not in dissent."

A shame that welfare cuts and increased consumption taxes (some dressed up as "eco-taxes") have not also been made contingent on the acceptance of those affected by them.

In other debates — most notably on pension reductions — the Greens have not been forced, kicking and screaming, into accepting reactionary coalition government policies, but have instead been further to the right than the SPD.

Better than nothing?

A corollary of the argument that the nuclear "consensus agreement" is better than nothing is that a German Greens pull-out of the coalition government would simply open the door for a coalition between the SPD and the right-wing Free Democratic Party.

This is a false choice: the real choice is between mass action, which is capable of uprooting the nuclear industry (and achieve much else besides), and the parliamentary cretinism of the German Greens.

Mass protests forced a suspension of waste shipments from 1998 until March 2001 — and it is notable that it was a conservative Christian Democratic Union government that was forced to suspend the waste shipments.

Despite the antics of the German Greens, mass protests may force another suspension of waste shipments. That, in turn, would speed the closure of reactors (whose operators would choke on their growing waste stockpiles and consequently face licensing difficulties), as well as creating numerous problems for BNFL's and Cogema's reprocessing operations.

That, in turn, would create problems for reactor operators around the world, among them the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO), which operates the research reactor in the Sydney suburb of Lucas Heights. ANSTO is sending its spent fuel to Cogema.

A report in the May 26, 2000 WISE news communique said that Cogema and BNFL "could hardly survive" without German contracts and noted that Germany is Cogema's biggest customer. Likewise, a spokesperson from Greenpeace Germany has said that the SPD/Greens government could have sounded the "death knell" for Cogema by keeping its promise to ban reprocessing from January 1, 2000.

As things stand, we have a "promise" to end reprocessing of German-origin spent fuel from 2005. What odds that will be another broken promise?


The Greens used to be a progressive force in German politics, but the evidence strongly suggests they are now scarcely, if at all, better than the SPD (and on some issues, worse).

The key lesson is that the incorporation of the German Greens into the political establishment is not an aberration but a logical consequence of their politics.

If the aim of getting Green bums on parliamentary seats subordinates all other aims, as it has in the German Greens, it makes sense to scale down campaigning work and to focus exclusively on electoral manoeuvring.

If the aim is getting Green bums on parliamentary seats, it makes sense to parrot corporate myths about building a green, user-friendly capitalism — all the better to attract more conservative voters as well as corporate sponsorship (the tobacco company Reemtsma sponsored a German Greens conference in Leipzig in the late 1990s).

If the aim is getting Green bums on parliamentary seats, it makes sense to ditch party democracy in favour of undemocratic ("streamlined") decision-making procedures.

If the aim is getting Green bums on parliamentary seats, it makes sense to expel radicals from the party.

If the aim is getting Green bums on parliamentary seats, it makes sense to encourage personality cults around people like the German foreign minister and Greens leader Joschka Fischer (who plays the "prodigal son" role to perfection).

And since the aim is keeping Green bums on parliamentary seats, it makes sense for Fischer to shore up his credentials as a "responsible" foreign minister by expressing his "understanding" of the recent bombing of Iraq by the US and Britain, and for the German Greens co-leader Fritz Kuhn to hose down the ensuing public disgust and outrage by saying he recognised that Fischer "faced constraints" as foreign minister.

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