In doomed coal village, German Greens go to war – POLITICO

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LÜTZERATH, Germany — The political party responsible for pepper spray, bulldozers and a coal deal with one of Germany’s biggest energy companies was the Greens. And all the protesters here on Saturday knew it.

It was a trying day for a party that entered the coalition government in Berlin just over a year ago on a wave of environmental optimism. Across the country, a large swath of the Greens base turned out in the wind, rain and mud to support a small group of abandoned farms and houses called Lützerath. The North Rhine-Westphalia hamlet is to be wiped off the map to make way for an extension of the Garzweiler strip mine, a move the Greens have backed as part of a compromise deal.

“I voted Green and I never, ever will [so again]said David Dresen, from the nearby village of Kuckum. “We have to stop this mine because it is destroying my life. For 30 years, it has destroyed the lives of my whole family. He destroys our fields, our rivers; it destroys our groundwater.

On Saturday morning, police were evicting the last handful of climate activists who had squatted in the village for more than two years. The last protesters crept between the treehouses, using elaborate rope systems to delay their capture. Two activists, calling themselves Pinky and the Brain, were broadcasting on YouTube from a tunnel somewhere under the village.

But there was a sense of inevitability in the scene. Diggers were already destroying farms within a stone’s throw and a massive police operation was underway to ensure no more protesters could enter the village and impede the work.

It has become increasingly uncomfortable for the Greens that this is all in the service of a deal they have struck.

Last year, Mona Neubaur, Deputy Green Prime Minister of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), and Robert Habeck, German Minister for Economics and Climate, reached an agreement with RWE, the company that owns the Garzweiler mine. The deal brought forward the phasing out of coal in the region by eight years to 2030. In return, the company agreed to save five villages slated for demolition, but Lützerath would be razed as part of expansion plans of RWE in the region. Garzweiler coal is lignite, a particularly polluting source of greenhouse gases that warm the planet.

“Behind the scenes coal deal”

“It’s a punch that green ministers are now trying to sell this behind-the-scenes coal deal as a success. We will not accept this,” said Olaf Bandt, president of the German Federation for Environment and Nature Conservation, an NGO.

Addressing a large gathering in the fields outside the Lützerath on Saturday afternoon, Swedish activist Greta Thunberg called the government’s deal with RWE “shameful”.

“How is this possible? In the year 2023?” Thunberg asked the protesters.

The crowd – which police say totaled 8,000 to 10,000 people; Thunberg said 35,000 – clearly did not buy into the pragmatism that Greens like Habeck say they must demonstrate to govern. Every time one of the speakers slammed the party, it drew a huge cheer.

After Thunberg spoke, thousands of protesters marched to the outskirts of Lützerath in an attempt to retake it. But they were confronted by a line of hundreds of armored police wielding batons and pepper spray. There were violent clashes. On several occasions, protesters charged the police line and broke through, never breaking through a high double fence that had been erected around the village. Several demonstrators were injured and treated by ambulance personnel. One was bleeding from a head wound as colleagues took him away.

Riot police clash with activists occupying a house | Sean Gallup/Getty Images

It was a chaotic scene with no clear purpose. The village was already disappearing into the jaws of RWE machines.

But it served to deepen the angst of the Greens. Lützerath has driven a wedge between Habeck’s group of “realo” pragmatists who currently occupy the party’s highest positions and the party’s most militant and youthful wings.

In Düsseldorf, activists from the “Lützerath unräumbar” alliance occupied the headquarters of the Greens NRW on Thursday. Habeck’s constituency office in Flensburg was also occupied by local alliance group “Ende Gelände” and self-help activists, the statement said. In Leipzig and Aachen, the windows of the Greens’ offices were smashed.

“Painful Compromise”

In recent days, senior Green politicians have struggled to explain their position or blame it on RWE or the party’s partners in the coalition government.

Habeck argues that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine forced Germany to restart coal-fired power plants and that the coal has to come from somewhere. It’s a “painful compromise that has been really difficult for me over the past year. But it had to be so to ensure energy security in Germany,” he said in a video shared on social media.

Their stance on coal is just one of the sacred cows the Greens have had to sacrifice as they try to steer Europe’s biggest economy through the energy crisis. Habeck commissioned a handful of new terminals to import liquefied natural gas and extended the life of German nuclear facilities. This latest extension, although it only lasted a few months, led to a lot of soul-searching within the party.

In doomed coal village, German Greens go to war – POLITICO
A bucket excavator stands in front of the Neurath coal-fired power plant near the town of Lüetzerath | Sascha Schuermann/Getty Images

Economy Ministry officials point out that RWE won a major legal battle to secure its right to destroy Lützerath. This means that the only option to save the village would have been costly compensation to the company.

They also note that EU regulations cap overall emissions from coal, so expanding the mine will not lead to an increase in overall emissions as some campaigners have claimed. This position was supported last week by one of Germany’s leading climate economists, Ottmar Edenhofer, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research: “The main thing is that no additional harmful gases for climate is released into the atmosphere. Even if Lützerath is dredged, coal has no future.”

Despite the anger displayed on Saturday, there is no indication that voters are turning against the Greens more widely. Their polls are stable and higher than those of the last election.

The Germans are also divided over the fate of the village of Lützerath. In a representative survey commissioned by the Berliner newspaper Morgenpost, a total of 39% favored the compromise with RWE, while 39% said the deal was wrong.

According to Habeck, the village is the “wrong symbol”.

In doomed coal village, German Greens go to war – POLITICO
Police evict environmental activists who occupied abandoned Lüetzerath settlement | Sean Gallup/Getty Images

But for Luisa Neubauer, a member of the Greens and a leading figure in Thunberg’s Fridays For Future climate movement, the message for her party was clear: Many of their constituents are tired of compromise. She wondered how Green realpolitik could survive if it meant deploying the police against environmentalists to defend a coal company.

On Saturday evening, some demonstrators were still holding a vigil around the doomed village. “They voted for the very party they face,” Neubauer said.


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