Annalena Baerbock: Can the Queen of Green seize the Bundestag?
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Green Party co-leader Annalena Baerbock is emerging as a serious contender in the contest to succeed Angela Merkel.
Towards the end of this year Europe may well have its first Green head of government – a German, a woman, a former youth elite trampolinist. Annalena Baerbock: remember the name, because she is set to become one of the most powerful politicians in the world, a breath of fresh air in this grim late-Covid era.
In order to achieve that, however, a number of things need to happen. Firstly, she needs to become her party’s candidate for chancellor. Shortly after Easter she and the Greens' other joint leader, Robert Habeck, will go off for a socially-distanced beer, glass of wine or mint tea and agree who will take on the mantle.
That person will front the Greens’ campaign for the September 26 elections to the Bundestag, marking the end of the remarkable 16-year leadership of Angela Merkel. The Greens will have to sneak over the line ahead of the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats, a perhaps improbable but by no means impossible task in these febrile times.
Either way, the Greens will almost certainly form a significant part of the next coalition. The last time they did that, in 1997 with Gerhard Schröder’s SPD, their leading light was Joschka Fischer, a former left-wing militant who as foreign minister pushed through a decision for German forces to take part in military action in Kosovo. The white sneakers that Fischer wore when he swore his oath of office in becoming a regional minister in 1985 are now housed in a museum.
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Forty years from their founding, the Greens are the respectable party of the middle class. What is remarkable about Baerbock is that, at first glance, she is so unremarkable. She could be a diplomat, a company executive, a doctor, an economist.
“She is courageous; she is a competitor,” says Sascha Müller-Kraenner, executive director of Deutsche Umwelthilfe (Environmental Action Germany), a leading environmental organisation. “Nobody thinks she doesn’t have it in her to get to the very top. The trampoline story plays well. When you jump so high, you can’t be sure where you land, but she’s incredibly smart and determined.”
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Or as Baerbock herself told a newspaper interviewer a few months ago: “If I’m in second place and I’m not committed to beating the favourite, then I shouldn’t enter the race.” She was referring not just to sport.
Annalena Charlotte Alma Baerbock was brought up in a small village just outside Hanover, “a bit of a hippie house” as she has called it. After studying political science and public law at the University of Hamburg, she spent a year at the London School of Economics gaining a masters. She then spent a few months as a trainee at the British Institute of International and Comparative Law.
She toyed with the idea of being a war reporter. Instead she took a job as a researcher to a Green MEP. After three years in Brussels, she was elected in 2008 to the party’s executive board in hew newly-adopted home state of Brandenburg, rising to chair the following year. She was still in her twenties. After one failed attempt at entering national parliament in 2009, she succeeded in 2013.
Unlike performance parliaments like the House of Commons, reputations are made in the Bundestag through earnest committee work. She served on economic affairs and European affairs, while also becoming her party’s speaker on climate policy.
In January 2018, at the Greens’ national convention she was elected as one of two chairpersons, alongside Habeck, gaining 64% of the vote. A year later she was re-elected with an extraordinary 97%, the highest total any candidate had achieved.
Yet even then it was the better-known Habeck who was being talked up. Baerbock was often relegated to an afterthought.
Then the pandemic came into play. The crisis has triggered a yearning among voters for competence above all other attributes. Baerbock has channelled a desire for change into more tangible demands.
During the first wave, when the government’s approach was the envy of the world, she refrained from criticism, while stressing the need to help children from more disadvantaged families. Now with Germany and the European states floundering, it is open season to attack Merkel and her ministers. But, again, Baerbock is seeking to be more precise, something that seems to be going down well with the electorate.
The words most used to describe her are self-possessed and rational. She does the tough stuff – finance and foreign affairs (where the Greens are more hardline against Russia and China than the SPD and much of the establishment).
By the summer, the hustings will be in full swing. As commentator Constanze von Bullion argued last week, this puts Baerbock in pole position. “She demands more of herself and as a result is stronger on the detail. The election campaign, which will be tough and dirty, requires nerves of steel more than Habeck’s honest sensitivity.”
One Green insider puts it like this: “Everyone has written their Robert Habeck story already,” whereas Baerbock “has cultivated an image that she is the more substantive alternative”.
The rest of the field is grey, male, and to a large extent stale. The CDU election contest left most voters unimpressed, including party members. The SPD’s choice Olaf Scholz, the current finance minister who coincidentally is standing in the same constituency as Baerbock, does not set the pulses racing.
Baerbock fields all the usual questions about gender (the Greens have long had a rule in which women are given the same number of top positions as men) and childcare with equanimity, tinged with a little impatience. She noted tartly in one recent interview that Barack Obama juggled parenting of two daughters with the American presidency.
Insiders say that when she and Habeck meet, it is for Baerbock to decide. What might conceivably lead her to offer the top job to Habeck? One reason might be polling numbers; those, however, have moved steadily in her direction. Another might be a lack of executive experience. He has it; she hasn’t. She is also 11 years younger than him. But, as she knows full well, politics is littered with people who hold back and never recover.
It will be painful for the runner-up. In Britain, Tony Blair spent his entire time in office fending off the fury of Gordon Brown and the who-said-what-to-whom question over their supposed deal, over which of them should aim for the top job, in an Islington restaurant in 1994.
Baerbock and Habeck share the same office and the same staff – and will continue to do so until after election day. They are, I’m told, already working out the consolation prize for the person who stands aside. It is imperative they get it right.
Together they have transformed the Greens from a single digit party to one that commands consistently well above 20%. They have been hugely helped by the “Greta effect”, Greta Thunberg and the Fridays for Future movement. Their skill has been to harness that, while not scaring off more mainstream voters. They insist that they are not the Verbotspartei, 'the party that likes to ban everything'.
The Greens are already in office in some form of coalition in more than half of Germany's regions. They have just been re-elected to run Baden Württemberg, the wealthy state in the south west, which irony of ironies, is the centre of German car-making.
They are already planning for government, including a super-ministry in which environment will take the lead, alongside infrastructure, economics and transport.
The CDU are haemorrhaging voters; but it is still their election to lose. The Greens will provide either the chancellor or the vice-chancellor. Expect to hear much more from the woman who so far has not fallen off her trampoline.
Who wouldn’t enjoy the adulation that has been heaped on Robert Habeck? In December 2019, the American magazine Foreign Affairs described him as Germany’s answer to Emmanuel Macron, “a cerebral, unconventional politician who believes the day’s large-frame problems, in particular the climate crisis, deserve large-frame solutions, and not just Merkel-style crisis management”.
That profile was just one of many. His gift of the gab and his tousled good looks (his three-day designer stubble is invariably discussed) have had commentators swooning. His rise to international prominence is unconventional, to say the least. He has produced a number of novels, children’s books and works of non-fiction.
In 1994, after watching Roger McGough give a reading in Hamburg, he and his fellow literature graduate wife undertook to translate the works of the Liverpool-born poet into German. They won a prestigious translation prize, leading them to take on works by WB Yeats and Ted Hughes. He is also fluent in Danish.
In 2009, he entered politics at the comparatively late age of 40. Three years later he was appointed deputy prime minister and environment minister in Schleswig Holstein, his home region in the very north of the country. Its rapid transition to wind power was seen as a considerable success that the Greens will hope to accelerate at a national level. Whether the top job eludes him or not, expect to hear a lot more from the eloquent and self-assured author-turned-politician.
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