After ten years serving on the EGP Committee, Philippe Lamberts is stepping down. In his farewell speech, he presented a scope of the European landscape and the direction needed by the party.
As far as I am concerned however, the one thing that stands out in my mind is our ability, nine months after the outbreak of the worst financial crisis since 1929, to come out as winners in the 2009 European Election.
It is almost ten years today since you gave me your trust, electing me for the first time to what was then known as the Committee of the European Federation of Green Parties. Then, twice in a row, you renewed that trust in making me the co-chair of our party. Let me just thank you, once more, for that trust, which truly is to me the backbone of every significant human accomplishment and lies at the heart of my life.
I might have spent a while reflecting with you on what we, the European Greens, accomplished over the past decade. I would rather leave that to your reflections and judgment. As far as I am concerned however, the one thing that stands out in my mind is our ability, nine months after the outbreak of the worst financial crisis since 1929, to come out as winners in the 2009 European Election.
Thus far, the Greens had been perceived as a luxury that societies could enjoy in good times; this time, 7% of the European Union citizens saw us as people to be trusted in crisis times.
Since then, the storm has become fiercer. From being financial, the crisis morphed into an economic, then a social crisis. According to Eurostat, in 2010, 115 Million Europeans, that is 23% of our citizens, were at risk of poverty or social exclusion, and 27% of the children below 18 years old. And this was two years ago. Everyone of course has the youth unemployment levels above 50% in Greece and Spain in mind; but how about the 40% of Bulgarians, Romanians or Latvians who are at risk of poverty? Even in rich Germany or France, almost a fifth of the population is at risk. And having a job is no longer an insurance for decent life : across Europe, we have no less than 8.2% working poor. For sure, this is not just a European phenomenon : even as hundreds of millions of people have been lifted out of poverty in emerging countries, as the OECD itself warned in a much heralded report last year, inequalities are booming across the world.
Meanwhile, another clock is ticking : we are increasingly exceeding the capacity of our planet. If anything, the annual UN climate conferences remind us that runaway climate change is on its way. More than that, peak oil was probably reached in 2008, peak gas and aluminium are expected by 2025, peak iron around 2070 : for most minerals and commodities, this century will witness at the very least the end of cheap resources and in many cases, their complete depletion. And it is not just minerals : over the last fifty years, the available per capita arable land area has been cut in half, while the available stock of potash, the key ingredient of fertilizers, will be exhausted in about 100 years if we manage to curb the annual growth in consumption to just 2%.
Exploding inequalities and a runaway ecological footprint are the two time-bombs that may cost humanity its very existence on spaceship Earth in the 21st century. Our response to these two existential challenges, that is ensuring the conditions for a decent life for all – not just the 20% or the 1% - and doing this within the physical limits of our planet, will decide on our ultimate survival. Let us indeed not be mistaken : when the social fabric is torn and/or when the capacities of our environment are exceeded, violence – be it that of nature or that of humans – is around the corner.
This is why this century is ours; now is the time when we Greens must stand up to our historical responsibility. Ever since we emerged as a political force, we were the ones who diagnosed best the fundamental flaws of the dominant economic development model and the danger zone it was driving us into. Our challenge is to become key players in bringing about the solutions that will enable our societies to undergo the fundamental paradigm shift on which humanity’s very existence depends.
The political context
At the moment, Europe is still dominated by right-wing/conservative majorities; it looks as if those who basically engineered the orthodox economic thinking which drove us in the mess are still pretty much trusted by a relative majority of our citizens. Supposedly on the left wing, the Social-Democrats are still struggling to provide a solid counter-weight : admittedly, as most of them adopted the pensée unique in the nineties, it is hard for them to be perceived as a real political alternative. Right and left, these “realo” parties are still obsessed by what the “G-spot” of the system : G for growth as the cardinal way to get out of trouble. Their only difference would be as to how to stimulate it : the right would say “cut public expenditures and wages” while the left would say… not a terribly different thing actually, except maybe to smoothen the time line and the distribution of the efforts.
A matter of higher concern is the increasing audience of more radical parties, at both ends of the spectrum. Their line tries to leverage the fear and anger of citizens, providing simplistic answers. On the right, their line would sound like “let us build walls around our home region or country, let us expel those who do not belong here and let us enjoy a good life while insulating ourselves from those who are poorer than us because of their laziness, corruption…”. On the left, it would rather sound like “let us revolt against the system and hope it will crumble under our strength or under the weight of its own contradictions so that tomorrow, we can build a bright future”.
What remains clear however is that the “solutions” advocated and executed by those I call the “realists” who are dominating the policymaking in Europe do not seem to bring us on a path to a successful exit of the crisis. Inequalities are still growing and our ecological footprint is not going down; by their own measurements – jobs and growth – they are failing. Equally, the ability of those I call the “radicals” to provide an alternative seems elusive.
In that landscape, how are we Greens doing? Let us recognize that while Greens have been emerging here and there across the world, we are far from being able to shape the agenda, let alone the policies in most parts of the world. In Europe, if the European Elections had to be held tomorrow, few would bet we would be able to repeat the relative success of 2009. Our presence in the Southern and Eastern parts of the Union remains embryonic, while there are only few places where we are able to exceed 10% and none at the moment where we can realistically shoot for the 20-25% which would confirm the Greens as a first league player and, let me stress this, which should be our ambition.
Setting the scene
Five key success factors for the Greens
KEY SUCCESS FACTORS
The question is then: How do we get there?
Let me share with you what I believe are the five key success factors that we need to pull together in order to get to Bundesliga.
- The first one may seem obvious but is worth remembering : focus on society, not on ourselves. While getting one’s collective act together requires serious internal work, our goal is to be agents of change in a society that is confronting existential challenges. If we are perceived as a political club whose main activity is infighting, we’re out of the picture. On the contrary, we must be seen as both alert to what is living in society - in terms of issues and challenges but also in terms of experiments. (CLICK) And in the context that is ours today in Europe, that means being able to connect with and share the anger and indignation that is growing throughout society primarily against rising social injustice. But we cannot stop there : connecting with the indignation is the condition for moving to the next step, that is providing solutions.
- The second factor is indeed to complete our transformation from being niche whistle-blowers to full-fledged solution providers. Of course, we must retain our ability to detect, analyse and diagnose the fundamental problems facing our societies. But if we want to be seen as more than intelligent Cassandras, we must be able to articulate both the long-term vision and the initial transformational steps that will put our societies on a sustainable recovery path.
- Our long-term vision must be seen to address the root causes of the time-bombs we are sitting on. There is a growing – if uneasy - recognition in society that if we want to avoid collapse, fundamental changes are required and that marginal adaptations or slight course corrections will not do. We must be seen as those who, understanding the hard facts, are seeing the need for and are best able to articulate what this paradigm shift must be.
- But being solution providers requires more than showing direction or hoping for a “grand soir” : it also demands an ability to propose initial steps that will start the transformational journey. Without claiming to have the full blueprint as to how to get from A to B – a blueprint that simply no one has – we must be able to outline practical policies that a) allow our societies to avoid collapse in the short term and b) initiate the deep transformation that they require in order to become socially and environmentally sustainable. These policies must again strike the delicate balance between being bold enough to tackle the issues at hand and acceptable to a majority of our fellow citizens : in other words, change people can believe in and be part of.
These solutions will necessarily have robust components in terms of environmental, social but also economic and financial policies. Let us admit that if the first domain is our primary comfort zone, winning recognition and credibility in the other fields still largely remains work in progress for us collectively. This is what the Green New Deal is all about. It is sometimes seen simply as a program to green the economy and its infrastructures, without changing the fundamentals of the model; that completely misses the point. It should rather be argued as the first few steps into a thorough transformation of our development model.
- If we have a diagnosis that best connects with the measurable reality, a clear vision and actionable solutions, a third key success factor is the demonstrating both the political will and the ability to implement them. This requires us to show we’re prepared to take risks, that we are not just in this to claim our share of the power-cake. In articulating the inconvenient truths and in confronting taboos – right-wing taboos on taxation for instance, but left-wing taboos as well, such as on consumption patterns. And wherever we are in power, in all positions we occupy, we must demonstrate competence and professionalism.
- Fourth, we must acknowledge that however accurate our diagnosis, however ambitious our vision, however practical our solutions, however strong our will and our capabilities, we will not transform society on our own. Our success also depends on our ability to build a network of alliances : people who realize that we need drastic changes (and opponents too…) are to be found in all quarters of society. Common workers and civil servants but also business leaders; trade unionists but also SME owners; in the profit and in the non-profit sector; old and young; … the usual demarcation lines are no longer valid. And from local exchange and trading systems to transition towns, countless citizens are already experimenting change that matters for society here and now. How capable are we to act as partners of these agents of change?
- The fifth element of success is an ability to combine unity in diversity. Divided we lose; united we can win, but only if we manage to combine a unity of vision and purpose with a diversity of tone and language. One does not address in the same way precarious workers and business leaders, trade unionists and university students, migrants and civil society activists. This ability probably requires the Greens to become more diverse in their membership and in their leadership. But diversity cannot express itself in a cacophony; it must rather be seen and heard as different instruments playing one same symphony. Managing this tension requires a high level of trust among ourselves.
In a nutshell, we Greens must combine being radicals and realists. Actually, it is in the name of realism, that is of a deep understanding of reality, that we need to be radical as the two challenges we are facing are truly existential. Going at the root of the issues (which is the basic meaning of radicalism) requires the Greens to be bold in their vision. We aim at a deep transformation of the way human societies live and relate with one another and with our planet. At the same time, as realists, we know we are not starting from a blank sheet. We need concrete steps get our societies started on a journey of transformation. And let me be clear : if we opt for being just radicals, I’m afraid we will soon be lost in the cutthroat competition there is in that space. If on the contrary, we decide to settle for just so-called realistic small steps, we will soon be perceived as just another flavor of orthodoxy. Both ways, we lose.
Will we make it?
Dear friends, the scarcest commodity nowadays seems to be trust. The multi-faceted crisis we are living may be seen as the result of the evaporation of trust between economic and financial players, between governments, peoples, citizens… For too many policymakers, restoring trust means incantations for jobs and growth and keeping business as usual. For us Greens, it depends on our ability to resolve what I call our credibility equation, that is realizing the five success factors I just outlined. We may become one of the political forces that will shape Europe in the 21st century, or simply an historical footnote. Are we up to it?
Dear friends, if I did not believe us to be capable of all this, I would not be here today. Ever since I joined Ecolo in 1991 and the wider European Green family in 1999, I have found here a treasure of extraordinary yet ordinary people. Intelligent, altruistic, committed, enthusiastic, passionate people. I believe we collectively have what it takes become agents of change in this century, that we are a crew made for heavy storms, not just for a calm sea, that together, we can help mobilize the most powerful instrument humanity has for its survival : hope.
We are not there yet however and the clock is ticking.
Download the speech in MP3 format below.