Annalena Baerbock is the talk of the town in German politics at the moment. But who’s the ambitious woman leading the Green party to the federal elections this September? And what are her chances of succeeding Angela Merkel as Germany’s next Kanzlerin?
Baerbock beat out Robert Habeck on Monday, when Green party top brass decided on the 40-year-old, English-speaking, bike-riding, proponent of the climate-neutral economy as their pick for chancellor if it comes out on top in the election.
Polling comfortably above 20 percent, this is the first time in the Greens’ 41-year history that they have felt confident enough to name a chancellor candidate, as the party guns to make it into national government for the first time. They are currently trailing Merkel’s CDU/CSU conservative bloc in polls and are ahead of her current coalition partners, the centre-left SPD, whose support has plunged in recent years.
With its eyes on the top prize, the Greens published a draft election programme back in March, pledging to raise the nation’s target for reducing CO2 emissions from 55 to 70 percent by 2030 compared to 1990 levels. They also want a more ambitious end-date for nuclear power in Germany, vowing to phase the polluting plants out by 2030 rather than the current timeframe of 2038. And what’s more, under the Greens, car-loving Germany would say auf Wiedersehen to the internal-combustion engine from 2030 onwards
Baerbock is bringing a new kind of Green ambition into German politics – but does she still appeal to radical climate activists and Fridays for Future supporters? Or is her candidacy a pitch to the middle class, who want their clean air without sacrificing international air travel, meat and dairy, and a space to park their SUV?
Who is Annalena Baerbock?
Baerbock spent her childhood at various stops around Germany: born in Hanover in 1980, she lived in Nuremberg as a toddler before moving to the small town of Pattensen in Lower Saxony, where she grew up on a farm. She went on to study political science and public law in Hamburg and later gained a master’s degree in public international law from the London School of Economics, although she did not complete her dissertation.
Entering the world of politics, she campaigned for the Green party in the 2004 European elections (and met her now husband in the process). Baerbock joined the party in 2005 and started to work for the Greens’ European Parliament representative Elisabeth Schroedter. In the same year, she underwent a traineeship at the British Institute of International and Comparative Law, where her fluent English skills helped her become recognised as a foreign policy expert.
After a failed attempt at entering the Bundestag in the 2009 election, Baerbock worked behind the scenes in the Green party and also began to study for a Ph.D. in public international law at the Freie Universität Berlin, which she has yet to complete. In 2013, she made a second, this time successful, attempt at becoming a member of the German Bundestag.
During her first term in office, Baerbock became the spokesperson for climate policy for the Green parliamentary group and was a member of the Committee on Economic Affairs and Energy, allowing her to take some credit for Germany’s “energy transition” policies. Baerbock was re-elected to the Bundestag for a second term in 2017.
Posturing for election breakthrough
In January 2018, Baerbock was elected to co-chair the Green party together with Habeck. Once encumbered by internal rows between the pragmatic Realo and left-wing Fundi factions of the party, the last three and a half years have been characterised by a well-mannered political style – a slick new version as the business greens take up space in the centreground.
Critics of this milder approach include Ulrich Schulte, a Green party supporter and author of the book Die Grüne Macht, who believes that the Greens heading into this next election are far from revolutionary, instead courting the ecologically conflicted middle class, who want change without altering their lives too radically.
Listen up for these critical voices as the September election approaches. But according to political scientist Wolfgang Schroeder, a rejection by hardcore climate activists could even help the Green party’s image, at least when it comes to centrist voters looking for more of the same in a post-Merkel government.
Baerbock perfectly fits the bill for a party that’s strayed away from its idealistic roots and towards the mainstream. An ambitious, natural political animal, she’s got a Merkel-esque penchant for political consensus. And in terms of green values, she’s not even a vegetarian and wears a leather jacket. As our political columnist Konrad Werner said, the Greens might in fact be the new CDU – so Baerbock could be the next Merkel in more ways than one.