Brussels, Gare du Midi. It’s a Monday morning in April, and Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a rather small man with a backpack and suitcase, is making his way toward the exit. A few minutes later, he plops into the back seat of a black sedan.
“That’s exactly what I didn’t want anymore,” mumbles Cohn-Bendit, as the driver stows his luggage in the trunk. He’s referring to the commute — the high-speed train to Brussels, the driver waiting to take him through the congested city center to the European Quarter. Cohn-Bendit has just arrived from Paris, where he hosted a radio show the day before and appeared on a talk show in the evening. In between, he had to console his son over the phone after Eintracht Frankfurt, his team, lost to Augsburg in their top German-league match.
Cohn-Bendit served as a member of European Parliament for 20 years, from 1994 to 2014, sometimes for the French Green Party and sometimes for the German Greens. But then, the dual national decided he had had enough and didn’t run again, nor is he running this year, with European elections set to be held next week.
A ‘Progressive’ Bloc
Still, during his two decades as a deputy, Cohn-Bendit became something of a symbol of European Parliament, the personification of the idea of a core Europe. As the son of Jewish refugees, he had been stateless for years, but then he became a German citizen and later a French one.
The European Union could use a person like him right now. With trust seemingly eroding in the bloc, and between neighboring countries, the EU project feels fragile. Especially now that a chasm has opened up between Germany and France over Brexit, over trade policy and over climate measures — a chasm that even top diplomats are no longer trying to hide. How are 27 countries supposed to act in concert when the two biggest and most powerful member states are eyeing each other with distrust?
Several months ago, Cohn-Bendit drew up a plan to help get a despondent Europe back on track. He’d like to see the political forces he’s close to join together. He wants the German Greens, of which has been a dues-paying member since 1984, to team up with Emmanuel Macron’s centrist, economically liberal La République en marche party. He views the French party as a natural partner, and together, Cohn-Bendit believes, they can move Europe forward. To that end, he recently attended a lecture in Berlin at the Heinrich Böll Foundation, a think tank aligned with the Green Party, where he discussed Macron and sought to explain the rationale behind the way France acts. In France, he sits on the stage at En marche election campaign events, gushing about Germany’s consensus-based democracy and the Green Party’s success there. He’s on a kind of mission. At times, he comes across like a child trying to prevent his parents from divorcing.
Macron has been dreaming for some time of a green-liberal bloc of “progressives” to act as a counterbalance against the nationalists and right-wing populists in European Parliament. One led, of course, by Macron. He let this be known with his usual grandiloquence — a mistake, perhaps, given the traditional German suspicion of grandiloquence.
The second spot on the list, just behind the lead candidate, was given to Pascal Canfin, who had been one of the most prominent members of the Green Party in France until he bolted for Macron’s En marche. “Of course, we’ll give the European Greens the opportunity to join us,” Canfin recently said on French radio.
That statement didn’t go down so well, either.
Two of his former party colleagues, Sven Giegold, the lead candidate for the German Greens, and Philippe Lamberts of Belgium wrote an open letter in response to Canfin’s comments in which they accuse him of betrayal. “The European Greens certainly haven’t been waiting around for E. Macron to engage in the European cause,” it states in a rather offended tone. Giegold considers the offer for the Greens to form a political bloc together with En marche to be the height of impertinence.
In Paris, not surprisingly, there is a different view. Macron’s campaign head says that the French president has “invested considerable political capital into environmental issues.” Indeed, Macron widely perceived as a leader in climate protection these days, especially abroad.
Green Party leader Annalena Baerbock gets a bit snippy when it comes to the French and how they portray themselves. En marche “isn’t exactly the first pro-European party in parliament,” she says. She describes Macron’s approach as being “too inter-governmental” and says she’s also bothered by the “idea of a core Europe.” Baerbock says she prefers it “when different parties wrangle among each other to find the best solutions for Europe, rather than merging into one colorless unity bloc.”
What, though, do we achieve when parties wrangle despite actually wanting the same things?
Jealousy, But Plentiful Political Overlap
In these final days before the election, it sometimes feels a bit like “Monty Python” when you speak to members of the Green Party or the En marche movement. “Are you from the Judean People’s Front?” “Nonsense, we are the People’s Front of Judea.”
However substantial Europe’s problems may be, it turns out there is still room for jealousy. And yet there is, in fact, plenty of policy overlap between the parties. Both would like to see the EU to integrate more deeply and that it be greater authority in areas like foreign and security policy. Both would also like to see more happen on the environmental and climate protection fronts. And all of that, both agree, should be accompanied by more cheerful optimism and less drab fatalism. Younger, in a way.
One campaign poster for the Greens reads: “Europe isn’t perfect. But it’s a damn good start.” Macron used almost the exact same language in his French presidential election campaign.
It’s complicated. And the problems that Cohn-Bendit and his plan for a privileged partnership between En marche and the Greens face are exactly the same as those that also arise between Germany and France, which also have a privileged relationship. Often, at least initially, there is mutual alienation over each other’s arrogance. But they ultimately agree on things. Sometimes, at least.
A semi-truck is blocking the lane on Boulevard du Régent in Brussels, and Cohn-Bendit shakes his head. “They should be banned in the city center,” he mumbles. His phone rings. It’s the French environment minister’s chief of staff.
Gonzalo Fuentes/ REUTERS
French President Emmanuel Macron wanted to appoint Cohn-Bendit as a government minister.
Last summer, Macron wanted to appoint Cohn-Bendit as his environment minister, but the Franco-German politician turned him down. He says he’s not cut out to be a minister. You don’t have to keep your mouth shut in parliament because your boss things differently, he says. Cohn-Bendit also turned down the offer of another job: Macron wanted to make him the lead candidate for his party in the European elections.
If you think you need to, go ahead, is all his wife said.
So why didn’t he go for it?
He shrugs his shoulders. Too old. He doesn’t want to wind up like Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi, who is running for European Parliament again. Or like Bernie Sanders, who “at 150 years of age” is once again running as a presidential candidate in the U.S.
“Those old men who think they’re irreplaceable, I think it’s so stubborn,” says Cohn-Bendit. And yet, he sometimes wakes up in the morning and is frustrated with himself. He starts thinking: “I should have done it.” The French newspaper Libération once described Cohn-Bendit as possessing a “narcissisme joyeux,” a cheerful narcissism. And it’s a pretty accurate description: He’s not some grumbling old man, on the contrary. Still, like so many others, he is convinced that he knows best.
If you ask him what he thinks about the French lead candidate in the European election, he briefly considers the question, before saying. “She’s pretty well-versed,” he says. Her voice is just a little thin, he adds.
If you ask him about the top Green candidates, Cohn-Bendit says he doesn’t want to be rude. But, he adds, almost all the campaign posters only feature party leaders Robert Habeck and Annalena Baerbock.
“When I was lead candidate, there were no party leaders on the poster — it was just me,” says Cohn-Bendit. It also featured his campaign slogan: “The Eurofighter.” To a certain extent, it still fits. Cohn-Bendit is now 74 years old and the red hair that once lent him his nickname “Dany le rouge” has long since turned white. He wears narrow metal glasses; he has freckles and sometimes his face looks almost boyish. He met Macron, then minister of economic affairs, in 2016 at a panel discussion and has been advising him ever since.
‘A Parliament Has Replaced Wars Here’
The driver stops in front of a hotel on Rue de la Loi in the Europe Quarter that is the site of the conference. Lots of glass, lots of concrete. Cohn-Bendit is here to give a talk to business school students. “Everyone knows Daniel,” the head of the seminar says by way of introducing the politician to the audience. He shares the anecdote about how Cohn-Bendit once exceeded his speaking time in the European Parliament and then-Parliament President Martin Schulz tried to stop him.
“Monsieur Cohn-Bendit,” Schultz began.
“Ta gueule,” Cohn-Bendit replied. Shut up.
Hi, bonjour, he says now. He speaks freely in English and doesn’t insult anyone. His speech is encouraging, a tribute to this Europe that is facing so many problems at the moment. Cohn-Bendit hates pessimism.
“A parliament has replaced the wars here,” he says from the podium.
“I was born in 1945. Why do you think my parents had me? Because they had hope again!”
Cohn-Bendit is the son of German Jews who fled to France in 1933. In exile in Paris, Walter Benjamin and Hannah Arendt sat at the table with his parents.
In conclusion, his voice almost hoarse, he says: “If, in a few years, you want to have a say, then you need Europe. You all need to understand that.”
His plea may be routine, but he is still able to electrify his audience. Standing in the bistro car of the TGV train from Paris to Brussels, Cohn-Bendit explains why Theresa May reminds him of Kaa, the snake in “The Jungle Book.” He says she managed to hypnotize everyone. “Bbbelieve me, I can dddo it. Eeeverything will be ffffine,” he hisses.
On the table in front of him lies a half-eaten croissant. He gesticulates with his arms and rolls his eyes. The conductor stops to listen and a group of girls look up from their card game. He’s in his element. Cohn-Bendit lets out a “pffff.” Instead of managing the chaos with Britain, he says, the EU has allowed itself to be dragged into it. Either there needs to be a deal, he says, or Britain has to go. What’s so difficult about that?
‘Let’s Turn the Page’
“Hey, let’s turn the page,” he says. “Ten years from now, at the latest, they’ll be knocking on the door begging to come back in.”
Cohn-Bendit’s draft of European policy sounds remarkably simple, a mixture of reason and conviction.
Cohn-Bendit says he cannot fathom how the Greens can govern in the German state of Baden-Württemberg together with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Or how it can be in government in Schleswig-Holstein together with the CDU and the business-friendly Free Democratic Party. And then they turn around and express reservations about working together with Macron. The list of shortcomings they cite is long: They complain that the French president is too far to the right, they claim he is too neoliberal. That his tax policies relieve the rich and fleece the poor.
“The Greens in the government supported (the) Hartz IV” reforms that dramatically scaled back Germany’s social welfare state, says Cohn-Bendit. Because that had been necessary at the time they were passed in 2003, he says.
His Green critics also argue that Macron isn’t going to manage to reform his country’s agriculture or energy policies.
“I’ll be curious to see how the Greens plan to shift to clean energy in Germany together with the CDU,” he says. Or how the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, is going to manage to rethink agriculture. “You can always say, oh, that doesn’t go far enough for me. I’m not going to go along with that. It’s so intellectually lazy.”
Another objection the German Greens have is that they don’t want to step on the toes of their French sister party.
“Most of them are left-wing fundamentalists,” Cohn-Bendit says, wiping the table. His view is: Why not bring the others along with you and push them in the right direction if they are willing?
It’s the Tuesday after Easter, and former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer is sitting in an Italian restaurant in Berlin considering all this. He arches his eyebrows up to his hairline. The German Green Party’s skepticism of Macron, Fischer says, once again reveals the core problem facing Franco-German relations: “mutual incomprehension.”
Fischer, too, views Macron as a modernizer rather than an economic liberal. “It’s the kind of France we should all be wishing for,” he says. He says he views Macron as a politician of courage — almost as though he is talking about an extinct species, though a species to which he himself belongs. “The relationship with Macron is of central importance,” he says. “My party will also have to accept that, because there is nobody else.” He says the Greens need to consider whether they would prefer to spend their time negotiating party politics or instead negotiating something with historic dimensions: Europe.
Europe’s Fate Hinges on Germany and France
“It’s actually the Greens who are Germany’s equivalent of En marche — in other words, in the role of Macron,” he says, before adding that he believes party leaders Baerbock and Habeck are doing a good job. To Fischer, it’s obvious: “Europe’s fate hinges on Franco-German relations.”
And the biggest problem, he believes, is with the CDU. He was appalled by CDU chair Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer’s response to Macron’s appeal for Europe. A person from the state of Saarland, which shares a border with France, fully broadsides the president by calling for the European Parliament to move exclusively to Brussels and no longer hold its sessions in Strasbourg and then turns around and calls for Germany and France to build an aircraft carrier together? Fischer taps his forehead: an aircraft carrier? The CDU, he says, used to be the party that was the most pro-European. He says he’s currently thinking a lot about Germany and what it lacks. Why its relationship with neighboring France is so difficult. The two are like siblings, he says, who have the same genetic predispositions, but are as different as day and night.
He says his friend Cohn-Bendit is one of the few people who can understand the reality of both sides. In everyday life, but also in politics.
Even though Cohn-Bendit is in the pole position for the mediating role, however, he also has his own difficult history with the Greens. Many regarded him as a traitor for his calls for German military intervention during the war in Bosnia. Fischer practically had to commit blackmail to keep him on the party’s list during elections to the European Parliament in 1994. In France, where people embrace Cohn-Bendit on the streets, he has been less popular since he began vehemently defending Macron. Dany, they tell him, you’re betraying your own past! That’s just how it is for him, he says. He’s always seen as the traitor.
People who inspire many also repel many others.
“I was really angry with Dany,” says one senior party official.
“I usually get on quite well with this guy,” says one member of parliament.
Although rejection of Cohn-Bendit’s cause currently has the upper hand, there are others who hold a different view. It seems to be a delicate subject. Cohn-Bendit has also spoken to Robert Habeck about Macron and says Habeck is likely hesitating to show support for Macron because he doesn’t want to create any additional vulnerability during the election campaign.
Perhaps Habeck admires Macron for what he has achieved — reaching the top as an outsider, against all odds.
It’s the end of April and Daniel Cohn-Bendit is sitting in a French café in Frankfurt’s Bornheim neighborhood eating an apple tart. His apartment is located just around the corner. Macron is scheduled to hold a press conference that night at Élysée Palace, the president’s office in Paris, and Cohn-Bendit has sent him an SMS. “You have to show that you haven’t been impervious to the yellow-vest movement. Otherwise, be yourself, you’ll do fine!”
Sure, Macron doesn’t do everything right either, says Cohn-Bendit. “But he’s the most brilliant head of state I’ve ever met.” And he’s met a few of them since Charles de Gaulle expelled him from France in May 1968 over his involvement in the student movement. He says he can’t understand why so many in his party can’t get beyond petty matters at a time when it needs to be about the big picture. He wanted to set up a meeting between Macron, Baerbock and Habeck last summer, but it didn’t work out. Cohn-Bendit is convinced that if the three got to know each other personally, his plan would work.
It’s also possible that what Cohn-Bendit wants will happen on its own anyway once the dust settles after the election. Current polls show that the Conservatives (EPP) and the Social Democrats (S&D) are unlikely to get enough votes to secure a majority in parliament. If the dominance of this two-party bloc is broken, others will come into play. That’s what La République en marche is banking on and what the Greens are hoping for. Together, as a green-liberal bloc, they would suddenly become quite influential. Working in tandem, they could prevent EPP candidate Manfred Weber from becoming the next president of the European Commission.
If you ask Daniel Cohn-Bendit, a former leader in the 1968 student movement, what radicalism means to day, he responds: trying to find majorities. The ones you need to push through the things you care about in parliament.