Populism and protest lurk behind Europe’s dying coal mines

Zollverein coal mine complex in Essen, Germany. (Photo by Marlo Mckenzie, Flickr)

Eiffel Tower-sized cranes are digging deep into one of Europe’s largest lignite mines outside, as Ulrich Freese shakes his head and blows another cloud of cigar smoke into the room.

Anger and despair are running high ahead of Sunday’s state elections in Germany’s mining heartland and Freese, a Social Democratic member of parliament from the Lausitz region, warns that the electorate is on the verge of a rebellion.

Government plans to exit coal-fired power generation by 2038 have enraged voters already stirred up by a wave of immigration in 2015.

Government plans to exit coal-fired power generation by 2038

The winners? The populist AfD party, which polls show could win Sunday’s election in Freese’s state of Brandenburg, potentially marking its biggest victory to date.

“It has become a holy war where only absolute answers are allowed,” Freese said in his office in the town of Spremberg, which straddles Brandenburg and Saxony, the two states voting this weekend. “The AfD tell people that climate change doesn’t exist and the environmentalists say we must close all factories immediately.”

The Lausitz is just one of many battlegrounds that emerged across Europe as demands for climate action clash with much of the continent’s economic reality and tradition. From Yellow Vest demonstrators in France to protesting students in Sweden, fierce debates rage over how to get to cleaner energy and transport, and at what price.

For Europe’s mainstream parties it’s been a problem because it’s also a broader struggle between young and old, town and country, that is difficult to bridge.

Not by chance are the two forces that have seen most growth in Europe the Greens and right-wing populist insurgents who stand square against climate policies and thrive on voter fears that going clean spells sacrifices. With Brussels mapping out ambitious targets for clean energy, how the continent manages the transition can help shape its future political landscape.

“Our most pressing challenge is keeping our planet healthy,” Ursula van der Leyen, incoming President of the European Commission said this summer, adding she wanted Europe to become “the first climate-neutral continent in the world by 2050.”

Further east, behind the former iron curtain, the prospect of fossil-free life within a generation brings fears of fresh factory shutdowns to a region that already suffered decades of social and economic turmoil.

Further east, behind the former iron curtain, the prospect of fossil-free life within a generation brings fears of fresh factory shutdowns

“We must not be subject to Utopian ideas in the fight against climate change,” Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis said. He argues that the EU climate agreement would do serious damage to industry in the Czech Republic and elsewhere in Europe.

In Poland, where 100,000 out of Europe’s 170,000 coal workers reside, the Law and Justice party of Jaroslaw Kaczynski used the fear of job losses prominently in its victorious 2015 election win. Since then it changed tack and is looking to Brussels for compensation.

Some 200 km (125 miles) west of Warsaw, an open-pit mine owned by KWB Konin SA sticks out like a soar thumb among corn fields, forests and lakes. The rich coal seams first discovered during the Nazi occupation of the country, helped build schools, housing, sports clubs and culture centers.

Such bonds, typical of many mining communities, could be upended, as tighter EU climate requirements may push billionaire Zygmunt Solorz to close the mine he owns, a move that would cost 35,000 jobs, said trade union leader Alicja Messerszmidt.

“You can’t place the burden on workers,” Messerszmidt said. “We don’t want to go abroad. We don’t want to live in poverty without work and perspectives,” she said.

And that is exactly what happened in the region of Asturias in Spain, where the closure of mines over the past three decades left behind an impoverished, aging population with little hope for a bright future.

In the Caudal river valley, some 400 km northwest of Madrid, abandoned houses, rusting hopper cars and boarded-up mine shafts mark the landscape. There, the town of Mieres del Camino shrank by half from its heyday and unemployment stands at an above-average 19%. Asturias is the region with the lowest fertility rate in the European Union, according to Madrid-based demographic expert Alejandro Macarron.

The center-left government of acting Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez is on red alert for signs that voters in Asturias are joining the backlash against the establishment, after an agreement last year with unions to shut down almost all of the country’s remaining mines in line with EU directives. In Asturias, the Socialists remain the leading political force but no longer command an absolute majority.

Much of the money that was supposed to help the region to transition to a new economy either never arrived or was misspent, said Jose Luis Alperi, secretary-general of a local miners’ union.

A gleaming new university, replete with state-of-the-art sports facilities, has become the town’s white elephant. Built in 2002, the campus that offers courses in forestry and engineering, operates well below capacity. Other projects, such as a technological park, have been discussed for decades but never got off the ground.

One person who didn’t abandon the region is Rolando Diez Gonzalez, an electrician who worked in mines for three decades before accepting an early retirement package at the age of 46. He took part in 1960s strikes against the closures of the mines, worried about jobs for future generations. His fears came true, he says. His 46-year-old daughter still lives at home, unable to find work.

“The community is being propped up by early retirements. When this generation goes, I don’t know what is going to happen,” said Gonzalez. “The hard part is yet to come because the old people are dying.”

The experience of Asturias—that compensation projects need to be discussed locally, planned carefully and audited closely—may well be a lesson for politicians in Berlin and Warsaw who are debating how to ease the passing of coal.

While much of Germany is criss-crossed by sleek, high-speed, electric trains, the Lausitz sits at the end of the line, served by infrequent, growling diesel locomotives. Germany’s coal exit plan that earmarks 40 billion euros ($44 billion) for infrastructure in the Lausitz and other regions, envisages adding high-speed commuter trains to Berlin. But even locals doubt people of working age would up sticks to move here.

Campaign stickers on a lamppost outside an abandoned miners’ bar, summarize the debate for voters. The Green party calls for “courage” in facing up to economic and migratory challenges. The AfD’s stirs memories of the past, calling on voters to “complete the revolution” against the ruling classes that started with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

“People here need something they can invest hope in,” Freese said. “It has gone dark in the Lausitz.”

(By William Wilkes, Charlie Devereux and Ewa Krukowska)

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