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16 April 2021updated 22 Apr 2021 9:34am

Annalena Baerbock: the woman who could become Germany’s first Green chancellor

Baerbock embodies the once-fringe party's emergence as a force capable of conquering the German political centre.

By Jeremy Cliffe

Two years ago the Süddeutsche Zeitung, Germany’s top broadsheet, conducted a “wordless interview” with Annalena Baerbock. In it, the co-leader of the country’s Green Party replied to the questions with photo answers.

She’s considered tough – where does she get her strength? Baerbock responds ­sitting cross-legged, holding up a stick-person drawing of her family. What would she do if Björn Höcke (a notorious far-right politician) were her neighbour? Baerbock brandishes the German constitution at the camera. What does she do when ­no one’s watching? This time she has a bar of ­chocolate between her teeth. Then comes the big one: can she imagine being German chancellor one day? The Green co-leader performs a rather impressive handstand. Her meaning is clear: yes, I’m up to it.

Now she has the chance to prove it. On 19 April she walked on to a stage in Berlin with Robert Habeck, her co-leader. He stepped forward and announced that the “pugnacious, focused, strong-willed” Baerbock would be the Green Party ­candidate to succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor.

Quite aside from the pandemic-era precautions – there was no audience to cheer Baerbock – the scene would have seemed strange viewed even from the recent past. Germany’s Greens have never before run a chancellor candidate. And when Habeck and Baerbock were elected as the party’s co-leaders in January 2018, he was clearly the senior of the two.

But two things have changed. First, the Greens have risen from winning 8.9 per cent of the vote in the 2017 general election to polling around 21 per cent now; a fact that, along with the Covid-era woes of Merkel’s centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), makes thinkable a prospect that was long unthinkable – of the Greens constructing a majority Bundestag ­coalition, ousting the CDU from the federal government and taking the chancellery for the first time ever.

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Second, where Habeck would once have been the obvious choice, the balance in the leadership duo has shifted: Baerbock was little known in national politics when she became co-leader, but has gradually built up her profile and burnished her reputation as a tough, impressive operator. Now, at only 40, she will very probably become either vice-chancellor or chancellor in the next German government.

Baerbock’s handstand is emblematic of another important fact. The Greens’ road to power is a balancing act. In recent years the party has overcome the brutal past ­battles between its realo (pragmatic) and fundi (idealistic) wings. Baerbock and Habeck, both realos, have presided over remarkable unity and discipline. But how will Baerbock and the party cope with the unprecedented scrutiny of the upcoming campaign? Can it hold its leftish supporters while winning centrist “Merkel voters” from the CDU? If it comes to power, will it be able to reconcile its environmentalist, ­socially ­transformative ideals with the harsh realities of government? To understand ­Baerbock’s story, which is intertwined with that of the party, is to begin to answer these  questions.

[See more: With Germany’s political future in the balance, centrist “Merkel voters” will be crucial]

***

The Greens emerged from West Germany’s 1968 student movement and the “new left” – post-materialist, environmentalist, libertarian – that it helped catalyse. The party was founded in West Germany in 1980 from a coalition of causes, especially pacifism and opposition to nuclear energy. Prominent figures in the early days included Petra Kelly, an activist who had campaigned for Robert Kennedy in the US; the artist Joseph Beuys; and Joschka Fischer, a former student protester from Frankfurt. The party secured its first Bundestag seats in 1983.

Annalena Baerbock was born in the same year as the party, and into the same bourgeois-bohemian constellation of causes. She has described growing up “between sugar beet fields and football pitches” with two sisters and two cousins in an old farmhouse in Schulenburg, a village near Hannover in the north-western state of Lower Saxony. It was something of a hippy household: her parents, a mechanical engineer and a social education worker, took their ­children on demonstrations against the Reagan administration’s stationing of Pershing missiles in West Germany and against the nuclear waste disposal facility at Gorleben. “Yes, there were water cannons there,” she has recalled, “but after the demo we went home and had cake.” The CDU then chancellor Helmut Kohl was a bogeyman in the Baerbock household.

After school – where she was a champion trampolinist – she studied politics and law in Hamburg, hoping to become a war ­reporter, before in 2005 taking a master’s in international law at the London School of Economics (LSE). The year that Baerbock spent in London was significant for several reasons. The Green Party leader was then in a long-distance ­relationship with Daniel Holefleisch, who would go on to become her husband. It was the year she joined the Greens and began her rapid rise through its ranks. And it was the year when the party’s first spell in government, as the junior ­partner in a coalition led by Gerhard Schröder’s Social Democrats (SPD), came to an end and Angela Merkel ascended to the chancellery.

***

The timing of Baerbock’s decision to join was significant. Having in 1993 merged with Alliance 90, a product of the old East German civil rights movement, the Greens had moderated some of their positions ­under the realo pre-eminence of Fischer and in 1998 had formed the “red-green” government with Schröder.

The party’s influence over its two terms had been felt in policies on renewable energy, civil partnerships and a modernised citizenship law. But the defining moment had come early on, in 1999, when Fischer as foreign minister persuaded a ­tumultuous party conference in Bielefeld to support Germany’s first conflict deployment since 1945: the Nato campaign against ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. It was a turning point: proof of the Greens’ ­evolution from protest party into a force that could rise to the ­difficult choices that come with power.

Bielefeld represents a generational caesura, according to Alexander Clarkson of King’s College London. “The split in the party encompassed the boomer and early Generation X generations,” he says. “If you were later Gen X or millennial going into the party after 1999, you knew what it stood for.” Baerbock, Clarkson argues, is typical of this: “She’s not someone who went through some anguished long night of the soul.”

Fresh out of the LSE, Baerbock started working for Elisabeth ­Schroedter, a Green MEP. “She seemed shy and introverted at the start,” recounts one former colleague in Brussels and Strasbourg. “But she soon emerged as a good organiser, moderator and chair… she spoke fluent English and could take the initiative.” From there she moved to Berlin, from 2008 advising the Green group in the Bundestag on foreign and security policies. Though new to the city, not yet ten years into its restored status as capital and still something of a building site, Baerbock had a ready-made gang there.

“You had a whole power network of people from Lower Saxony who had settled in Kreuzberg, Prenzlauer Berg, Mitte and ­Friedrichshain [trendy districts of Berlin] as students or in their first jobs,” adds Clarkson, a fellow product of the state. “Anyone who made that shift would find a ­seilschaft [political fraternity] to fit right into, especially in the media or a party like the Greens.”

Baerbock and Holefleisch settled in Mitte. They made, says a friend, a “good couple” – and every bit a political one. Holefleisch, himself marinated in Green politics since childhood, worked in the party headquarters, and they moved among others who worked for the party, its MPs or in its think tank, NGO and media hinterland. It was the perfect trampoline for Baerbock’s ambitions. Alongside her day job, she was a spokesperson for the party’s Europe ­policy group and, boldly, sought and won the ­leadership of the party’s branch in Brandenburg, the former East German state that surrounds Berlin.


Annalena Baerbock at a protest against expanding open-pit lignite coal mines in the Lausitz, Brandenburg, October 2013 (Credit: Sean Gallup / Getty Images)

[See also: The race to be Germany’s next chancellor is also a race to define its evolving political centre

It was a period when, not far from the Baerbock-Holefleisch home, a form of ­political alchemy was bubbling away in the glass-and-steel complex by the Spree River that houses the chancellor’s offices. Merkel had only limped into the top job at the 2005 election. But over the subsequent years she honed the mix of inscrutability and ­versatility that became her method; ­presiding over the modernisation of family policy, an end to compulsory military ­service and the switch-off of Germany’s nuclear power stations.

That such policies were lifted from her coalition partners or the opposition Greens did not seem to bother voters. Merkel’s ineffable inoffensiveness propelled the alliance of the CDU and the Christian Social Union (CSU), its Bavarian sister party, to gains at both the 2009 and 2013 elections. How was a party like the Greens to gain purchase on such an incumbent?

Baerbock arrived in the Bundestag as a newly elected MP for ­Brandenburg in 2013, Merkelism’s electoral high-point. Now with one small daughter, and another soon to follow, the family had moved to Potsdam, the old summer court of the ­Prussian royals on the edge of Berlin and nowadays the capital of Brandenburg. ­Baerbock struck her fellow MPs as conscientious and ambitious. Ulrich Schulte, a veteran Greens-watcher and author of the new book Die Grüne Macht (The Green Power), writes of comparisons to the earnest, frenetically high-achieving character ­Hermione Granger from the Harry Potter books.

Baerbock became the Greens’ parliamentary spokesperson on climate policy – just as the subject was rising up the national ­agenda – and berated the government for its reluctance to close coal-fired power stations, while also beginning a long-standing engagement with miners in the Lausitz, a coal region in eastern Brandenburg. To thundering applause at the Greens’ conference in 2015 she accused coal-friendly ministers of “not just conning the climate but conning workers”. A colleague ­remembers: “As the 2017 election approached she was one of the names mentioned as a future leader.”

Her status as a rising star was confirmed after the vote when she was one of the party’s negotiators in talks to form a three-way coalition with the CDU/CSU and the conservative-liberal Free Democrats (FDP). Participants from both the CDU/CSU and the Greens were surprised at how well they could discuss their differences and possible compromises; it was the FDP that blew up the talks by flouncing out.

***

Germany ended up with yet another CDU/CSU-SPD grand coalition, but the failed negotiations had exposed some important developments. The Greens were now in coalition with the CDU in three federal state governments and it was clear they were capable of forming a shared “black-green” agenda at the federal level too. They were moving towards a political centre that under Merkel – for example in her liberal response to the 2015 refugee crisis – was also moving towards them.

They were also soon to elect a new leadership. At an event in Frankfurt around that time I asked Fischer whom he saw as his natural heir in the party. Without hesitation, he replied “Robert Habeck”. It was not an unexpected response. A novelist, philosopher and translator (including of WB Yeats and Ted Hughes), Habeck had recently been confirmed as deputy minister-president of the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein in the new, CDU-led government there. An ­undogmatic realo who communicated in clear, emotive language and was at one with the black-green zeitgeist, he was the obvious front-runner.

The party’s leadership is double-headed, one man and one woman. It was assumed that, to balance Habeck’s politics, the co-leader would be a woman from the party’s left. Several contenders dithered over ­running. Baerbock, though a realo, concluded (in the words of a friend) “fuck it, I’ll do it” and seized the initiative. She ­announced her candidacy a day before Habeck confirmed his, and in her pitch at the party’s conference in January 2018 said the co-leader needed to be more than just “the woman at Robert’s side”. The two were elected, his 81 per cent to her 64 per cent.

Habeck and Baerbock make a strong leadership team. “They operate as a unit,” explains Omid Nouripour, a Green MP. They have unfurled an audaciously ambitious common project: to claim the centre of German politics and society for the Greens.

“Habeck and Baerbock are aiming at society as a whole, all of us,” argues Schulte, “no longer just die-hard eco-voters. They don’t bother with lectures and the usual pile-on rituals of politics, but instead speak in an inclusive language.” Part of that ­language is the word heimat, an emotive term meaning “homeland” or “roots” traditionally associated with the German right, but which Habeck and Baerbock have consciously sought to appropriate for progressive politics.

Robert Habeck and Annalena Baerbock, pictured in 2019 after being re-elected to the federal executive board of the German Greens. (Credit: Alexander Koerner)

Initially, Baerbock was indeed the junior partner. But over time that has changed. The project, and the increased polling numbers it has generated, has come to be just as much associated with her as with Habeck: her willingness to campaign outside of the party’s traditional comfort zones (in the Lausitz region for example); her “radical but statesmanlike” mantra; her relatability as a parent of school-age children.

In 2018 Baerbock made the joint second most appearances of any politician on the evening political TV talk shows that set much of the German media agenda, behind Habeck. In 2019 she overtook him to become (as one newspaper put it) the “queen of the talk shows”. She managed a similar overtaking manoeuvre when the two went up for re-election at the party’s conference that year, soaring past him to secure a record 97 per cent support.

Now, as in the past, her formidable ­network has played a part. Unlike Habeck, Baerbock already had a personal, political and parliamentary infrastructure of support in Berlin when she became leader. “Annalena knows federal politics better,” says a colleague, “where you are really ­under scrutiny and the real power battles take place.” Her close allies include some other members of the party’s younger generation of leaders such as Katharina Dröge, a fellow MP, and Michael Kellner, the party’s federal whip (both to her left politically). Katrin Göring-Eckardt, one of the party’s two lead candidates in the 2017 election and a fellow member of the party’s Protestant segment, has been a mentor.

Another supportive figure has been ­Merkel herself. The chancellor rates ­Baerbock and has been known to pull her aside for private chats in the Bundestag. It is tempting to wonder whether Merkel considers Baerbock more or less of a political heir than she does the successor generation in her own CDU. The Green co-leader does little to dismiss the notion. In a speech at an event to mark the CDU’s 75th birthday last year Baerbock offered the party advice. Just as the Greens had once failed to adapt (opposing ­reunification and the Maastricht Treaty), she argued, so the CDU should not make the same mistake on ­climate protection today.

Such was the backdrop to Habeck’s and Baerbock’s deliberations over the chancellor candidacy. He is the better story-teller and has been a minister before, but can struggle with detail. Baerbock lacks executive experience (unlike any previous chancellor of the federal republic) but is good on detail, relatable and disciplined, steely even. “She has that relentless control and awareness of detail that is reminiscent of Merkel and [Helmut] Schmidt,” says Clarkson. That, and the beneficial optics of a younger ­woman candidate going up against the ageing, male candidates from the other mainstream parties, seems to have tipped it for her.

***

In her acceptance speech, Baerbock framed her candidacy as “an offer, an invitation [to German citizens] to lead our diverse, rich, strong country into a good future”. She talked about the environment – “the task of our time, the task of our generation” – but also ranged across more everyday issues such as education, social care and digital public services. Her tone was optimistic and undogmatic. The ­country urgently needs renewal and a fresh start, she argued, but it should also be confident in itself: “Germany has so much potential. We invented the car and the ­bicycle… We developed a vaccine in very little time.”

Baerbock’s candidacy will be confirmed at the party’s pre-election conference from 11 to 13 June. There, party members will also finalise a Green manifesto for the election, the already-published draft of which is a quintessential Baerbock-Habeck fusion of party ideals and bold forays into the territory of other mainstream parties.

Major policy points include €500bn of new investments in green infrastructure and industry, accelerated climate targets, higher taxes on top incomes and digital firms, an easier naturalisation path for migrants and new fiscal reform and integration in the EU. The legacy of the ­Bielefeld moment is plain to see: the ­manifesto proposes a tough line on Russia and China, strong transatlantic ties and the option to use military force for humanitarian ends.

What will follow could be the most competitive and lively German campaign in years. Baerbock will lead the Greens with Habeck at her side. Her main rival for the chancellorship will be Armin Laschet, the avuncular, moderate, plodding leader of the CDU and minister-president of the state of North-Rhine Westphalia (announced as joint CDU/CSU candidate on 20 April after an unseemly internal struggle with the CSU’s leader Markus Söder). The SPD’s chancellor candidate will be Olaf Scholz, Merkel’s current stolid but uncharismatic vice-chancellor and finance minister.

It could get rough. The better the Greens do in the polls, the more the CDU/CSU and FDP will accuse them of being in league with radical leftists and the more the SPD will accuse them of being bourgeois ­do-gooders who do not get social justice. Rivals may seek to inflame and exploit the divisions that linger below the harmonious unified surface, ­particularly on foreign policy. A glimpse of these came in January when a think tank close to the Greens caused ­uproar in the party by publishing a paper that supported the use of US nuclear ­weapons to shield Germany.

The aftermath of the election on 26 September will, as ever, come down to the ­numbers. It may be that the only arithmetically and politically viable coalition will be one led by the CDU/CSU, with the Greens as partners. The price of their support would likely be the incorporation of large parts of their landmark ­environmental and ­investment agenda into the coalition agreement, and several major ministries; ­probably the ­powerful finance ministry, plus perhaps a new climate mega-ministry and the foreign ministry. Baerbock would end up as vice-chancellor and, perhaps, foreign minister.

That is the most likely outcome. But it is far from the only conceivable one. Perhaps Baerbock and her party will withstand the pressures of the campaign and make the most of their strengths, particularly their ability to harness an appetite for change in the country. Perhaps the CDU/CSU, wracked by corruption scandals, internal disputes and weariness after the long Merkel years, will struggle and fall far enough that the other parties can oust it.

This could mean a government of both the Greens and the SPD plus one of the FDP or (less likely) the socialist Left party. Neither the FDP nor the Left would make an easy negotiating or governing partner, but informal soundings via back channels have begun. The result, assuming the Greens are the largest of these other parties, would be a Chancellor Baerbock.

A party colleague predicts her chancellorship would be “European and transatlantic” in essence and that “the expectations and ambition level would be massive. There would be a lot of attention to how she handled ethical and moral questions.”

Will it come to that? Will Baerbock’s road from the water cannons and street ­protests of Cold War-era West Germany take the Greens all the way to the leadership of Germany in the 2020s? Against a backdrop of pandemic, climate crisis and favourable shifts in the party-political ­landscape, the circumstances have never been as ripe for it: “This could be the chance for the Greens to take the chancellery,” asserts Christian Odendahl of the Centre for European ­Reform. Perhaps, just perhaps, ­Baerbock is the right person, in the right place, in the right time, to pull off that handstand. 

[See also: Thirty years on from reunification, the contours of the new Germany are still emerging

Correction: Katrin Göring-Eckardt is not Annalena Baerbock’s predecessor as co-leader, as this article previously stated, but the Greens’ former election lead candidate. This has been amended. 

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This article appears in the 21 Apr 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The unlikely radical