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19 April 2021updated 26 Apr 2021 11:36am

The German Greens’ chancellor candidate Annalena Baerbock will energise the election

If the Greens can withstand the pressures of the campaign Baerbock could succeed Angela Merkel. 

By Jeremy Cliffe

At an announcement in Berlin this morning (19 April), Robert Habeck, the co-leader of the German Greens, stepped up to the podium to reveal that Annalena Baerbock, his fellow co-leader, would be the party’s prospective candidate to succeed Angela Merkel as German chancellor. “We both wanted it, but in the end there could only be one,” he said on their conclusion that, as he put it, the “pugnacious, focused, strong-willed” Baerbock should lead the party into the election on 26 September. 

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 to the party’s co-leadership in January 2018, he was clearly the senior of the two. 

But two things have changed. The Greens’ rising poll support – from 8.9 per cent at the 2017 general election to around 20-22 per cent now – has made the question of who will be chancellor if the party can construct a Bundestag majority a serious one. And in that period, too, the balance of prominence in the leadership duo has shifted: Baerbock was only 37 and 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. 

The news marks the latest chapter in Baerbock’s stratospheric rise through German politics, the full story of which you can read in my recent profile of her and the party. Raised near Hannover, she studied law in Hamburg and London, joined the Greens in 2005 and worked for one of their MEPs between 2005 and 2008. From 2008 she worked as a foreign and security policy adviser to the Green group in the Bundestag before, in 2013, winning a seat of her own and becoming the party’s parliamentary spokesperson on climate policy. Though not a front-runner for the leadership when it became vacant after the 2017 election, she seized the initiative and won. As co-leader, she has been as integral as Habeck to a common project: going beyond the Greens’ traditional strongholds to stake a credible claim to the modern centre of German politics. 

That came across in Baerbock’s speech this morning. In it she 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.” The mix of reformism and a modern, inclusive patriotism was characteristic of the big-tent approach that Baerbock and Habeck have honed over recent years – and that will mark the Greens’ coming election campaign. 

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The next milestone is the party’s online pre-election conference, from 11 to 13 June, in which it will approve Baerbock’s candidacy and its manifesto. A draft version published last month included €500bn of new investment in green infrastructure and industry, accelerated climate targets (increasing Germany’s 2030 emissions reduction goal from 55 per cent to 70 per cent), higher taxes on top incomes and major digital firms, an easier naturalisation path for migrants, a tough line on Russia and China, and new fiscal reform and integration in the EU. 

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The better the Greens do in the polls, the more they will come under scrutiny – and attack – in the campaign. That Baerbock would be the first federal chancellor with no prior executive experience is an exposed flank. The right will accuse the Greens of wanting to ban everything and of being in league with radical leftists; rivals on the left will accuse them of being bourgeois do-gooders who disregard social justice. All of which pressure could expose the internal divisions underneath the party’s impressively unified surface; divisions between its old roots as a radical, fringe movement and its new vocation as a force of the centre and for a more European, more Atlanticist Germany. 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.

To be sure, Baerbock is not the front-runner to be the next German chancellor. That will be whichever of Armin Laschet, the leader of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), and Markus Söder, leader of its Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU), becomes the joint CDU/CSU chancellor candidate. (The unseemly and borderline acrimonious tug-of-war between the two men, which at the time of writing is expected to reach a conclusion in the next hours or days, sharply contrasts with the Greens’ harmonious, orderly announcement today.) For now, the most likely outcome of the election is a CDU/CSU-led coalition with the Greens. Even then, Baerbock would be vice-chancellor and would hold a major portfolio, possibly the foreign ministry. 

But if she and the party can 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 – it is not unthinkable that Baerbock could become chancellor. This would most likely be in coalition with the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) and the conservative-liberal Free Democrats in a so-called “Ampel” (or traffic light coalition, for the green-red-yellow colours of the three parties). She would be not only Germany’s first Green chancellor but also, at 40, its youngest ever. A party colleague says of the prospect: “The expectations and ambition level would be massive. There would be a lot of attention to how she handled ethical and moral questions.”

Whether or not it comes to that, the Greens putting forward a credible and distinctive candidate in Baerbock and a strong offer to German voters can only be a good thing. At points in recent years the country’s politics has felt staid and stagnant; its governing parties, the CDU/CSU and SPD, plodding forward rather than embracing the future; crucial debates about energy, the digital economy, national identity and the country’s place in the world put off for another day. Merkel does not leave the country in a bad state, but she does leave it in need of new energy and ideas. Whatever comes of the coming campaign – and it will be a fascinating and lively one – that the Greens are in the middle of the debates about Germany’s future, challenging the other parties and shaking things up, is unambiguously positive.