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After Merkel: Annalena Baerbock?

After Merkel: Annalena Baerbock?
 Marion Van Renterghem
Senior Reporter, Albert-Londres Prize Winner and Author
 Alexandre Robinet-Borgomano
Senior Fellow - Germany

Germany’s federal elections on September 26, 2021 will determine who will take over the helm from Angela Merkel. As the Green Party, "die Grünen", is well placed in the election campaign, its chairman Annalena Baerbock is emerging as a serious candidate for the chancellery. Alexandre Robinet-Borgomano, Head of the Germany program at Institut Montaigne, and the journalist and essayist Marion Van Renterghem draw a portrait of the woman who could soon replace Angela Merkel. 

Imagine a candidate for the German chancellery without an obvious charisma, long ignored by the public, wearing no makeup, dressed discreetly and more interested in hitting the books than in grand speeches. A candidate praised for her pragmatism, her art of negotiation and her sense of compromise. A methodical politician capable of climbing her party’s ranks behind the scene, long underestimated and relegated as Chancellor Helmut Kohl's "kid", suddenly considered an exceptional phenomenon in German politics...There are striking resemblances between the aspiring candidate Angela Merkel in 2005, on the verge of overthrowing Gerhard Schröder, and the candidate Annalena Baerbock. Baerbock is 40 years old, a fine negotiator, knowledgeable but with no government experience. Unknown to the public until her election as head of the Grünen in 2018, she was long in the shadow of her charismatic co-chairman Robert Habeck. On April 19, 2021, it was her who was nominated as candidate to conquer the Chancellery. Paradoxically, as an opponent to the ruling conservatives and urging the need of a "renewal" of German politics, Baerbock is far from being the opposite of the current Chancellor. Like Merkel, she has all it takes to surprise and to make history. Her accession to the helm of Europe's leading economic power is now in the cards. In recent polls, her party has become the leading political force, ahead of the ruling CDU. After electing the first female chancellor, and the first chancellor to be born after the Second World War, will Germany once again be in the vanguard by bringing the first chancellor of the Green Party to power? 

The candidate for renewal 

Annalena Baerbock’s rise to candidacy for the chancellery was without a hitch, while her conservative opponents got lost in a fratricidal tussle between the President of the CDU, Armin Laschet, and his Bavarian ally Markus Söder. The German Greens set an example of harmony by letting their two co-presidents decide on their own instead of going for a vote among the party basis. The times are over where Green idealists ("fundis") and pragmatists ("realos") would have it out in public. These tendencies still exist within the party but the "realos" prevailed, ultimately transforming the movement into a governing party. For seven years, the Greens participated in the federal government coalition alongside the social democratic Chancellor Gerhard Schröder (SPD). They are now present in eleven out of sixteen regional governments, forming coalitions with both the right and the left, such as the conservative CDU, the SPD, the radical left from Die Linke or the liberals of the FDP. Robert Habeck cordially made way for his teammate: "Dear Annalena, please take the lead!" he declared on April 19, just before Baerbock stood at the podium for her first speech as candidate for the Chancellery. "I am running as a candidate for renewal. For the status quo, there are already enough candidates..." she proclaimed during her speech.

The candidates for her succession thus have every interest not to advocate for a break with the past, but rather to seek political continuity with the woman who has marked European history for 16 years and who accompanied a prosperous Germany.

These status quo candidates, whom she did not mention by their names, are her two main competitors - the current Vice-Chancellor and Minister of Finance Olaf Scholz (SPD) and the Minister President of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, the Christian Democrat Armin Laschet. Unlike them, she has never been minister, neither at the federal nor at the regional level. Baerbock knows that her main asset is her capacity to embody the desire for change that is currently sweeping the country:a poll by Süddeutsche Zeitung reveals that more than 60% of voters desire a new model of government. The "grand coalition" between the SPD and the CDU has run out of steam. However, she has to play it smart: Germans do not want to put an end to the prosperity and the sacrosanct stability that Angela Merkel has managed to install in their country. 

Even after four successive terms in office, the current Chancellor continues to enjoy a persistent popularity. The candidates for her succession thus have every interest not to advocate for a break with the past, but rather to seek political continuity with the woman who has marked European history for 16 years and who accompanied a prosperous Germany. Annalena Baerbock even goes as far as to adopt Angela Merkel's emblematic pose, the famous diamond shape she forms with her hands. She knows all too well that the picture taken while she was conversing with a charmed Angela Merkel on the benches of the Bundestag is just the right publicity for her. She is cautious never to attack the Chancellor's decisions directly. The two women appreciate each other to the point that Baerbock backtracked from a political slur when she suggested that the tremors that had seized Angela Merkel in the summer of 2019 could be interpreted as the first signs of climate change in German political life. She later publicly apologized for this. 

Generation Annalena 

Above all things, Annalena Baerbock's agenda of "renewal" would be a generational change. She is 40 years old. In 2005, when Merkel became Chancellor, Baerbock was finishing her studies and took her first steps as an activist in the Green Party. A few years later, she became head of the Greens in Brandenburg. In 2013, she was elected to the Bundestag and served as spokesperson for climate change, the core competence of her party. Unlike her competitors, who are all in their sixties, Baerbock grew up in a reunited and reconciled Germany. Unlike Angela Merkel, she discovered the East for the first time at the age of 10 during a trampoline competition in the city of Dessau. Her political agenda and especially her commitment to the fight against climate change are emblematic of her time: Baerbock is part of a generation marked by the 16 years of prosperity under the rule of Merkel. 
Annalena Baerbock and Angela Merkel’s different perception of the role of women in society is yet another sign of their generational leap. Though Angela Merkel asserted herself in the late 1990s in a conservative party dominated by men, she never presented herself as a "feminist". Annalena Baerbock’s feminist agenda, on the other hand, was an important reason for her success within the Green party.

As the co-chairman of the Green Party, Robert Habeck revealed in an interview with Die Zeit in April 2021, "the fact that Annalena is a woman in an electoral campaign dominated by men played a key role in her nomination". Though, Annalena Baerbock asserts her singularity more through her role as mother than through her role as woman. Angela Merkel has always maintained a strict separation between her political work and her private life: all that is known is that she is divorced and remarried to the eminent physicist Joachim Sauer, whose children she raised.

Annalena Baerbock and Angela Merkel’s different perception of the role of women in society is yet another sign of their generational leap. 

Annalena Baerbock, on the other hand, has used her family situation as an argument in her political campaign: married to a political communications consultant and lobbyist for the Deutsche Post, this mother of two explains that she could not have managed her political career and homeschooling without her husband’s support. Baerbock’s main weakness compared to her competitors is her lack of government experience. Seeking to make up for this, she affirms that "three years as a member of parliament, party president and mother of two children, strengthens the temperament". From her childhood to her university education and marriage, every element of Annalena Baerbock's biography seems to be intimately linked to politics. She grew up in a rural environment, on a restored farm near Hanover. Describing her parents as "hippies", she attended anti-nuclear and peace demonstrations from an early age. She studied political science and international law in Hamburg and at the London School of Economics and dreamed of becoming a war correspondent. She entered politics "almost by chance", during an internship at the European Parliament with the Green MEP Elisabeth Schroedter. 

Striving to preserve the rights of future generations, the Green candidate for the chancellorship embodies a new generation that considers politics as a project of economic and social transformation. This generation of "realistic" environmentalists ("realos"), like Annalena Baerbock, has contributed to reorienting the economic positioning of the Green Party in favor of market economics and innovation. Inspired by the example of the Green Minister President of Baden Württemberg Winfried Kretschmann, Baerbock knows that Germany's green transformation relies on the support of industry and trade unions. 

A geopolitical chancellor 

This generation also claims for more responsibility for Germany on the European and international stage. Annalena Baerbock has been able to put forward her expertise in the area of climate change and international relations. As a convinced pro-European, she advocates for a reinforcement of the EU’s defense capabilities and claims for a more sovereign position for the EU towards authoritarian regimes. She is in favor of a European defense structure as desired by Emmanuel Macron, whom she met in February 2020 during the Munich Security Conference. In a recent interview with the FAZ, Annalena Baerbock presented a "realistic" approach to security and defense issues. For her, the EU needs to stand up to its values, especially in the face of authoritarian regimes such as China or Russia. Concretely, this means that Germany should give up the construction of the Nord Stream II pipeline, and that the EU should exclude the Chinese company Huawei from the construction of its 5G infrastructure. Her stance as a "geopolitical" German chancellor is perhaps what distinguishes her most clearly from Angela Merkel.  
Making the fight against climate change her absolute priority, Baerbock stands for another type of ideological rejection. Interviewed by the newspaper Die Zeit in a podcast broadcast on May 17, 2021, she refused to choose between a preference for the communist or the capitalist system. For her, as the most fragile categories of the population are the first victims of climate change, climate policies are intrinsically a matter of social justice. Green technologies will be the main driver of future economic growth and ensure sustainable economic prosperity.

Annalena Baerbock presents herself as the candidate of "renewal". In reality, she embodies the continuity of the Germany that Angela Merkel has modernized, but with the touch of a new generation. 

Baerbock and her party blame Merkel for only being a crisis manager: committed to administering Germany's prosperity, but unable to develop a long-term vision for the country. She criticizes the current government for having "navigated by sight" and for "reacting to crises instead of investing in the future". Baerbock promises to embody a new political leadership that is "transparent and determined, able to learn from its mistakes". The current Chancellor retained a strong skepticism towards ideologies from her childhood in East Germany. Merkel justifies her pragmatism by the fact that "politics begins by facing the truth".

Annalena Baerbock presents herself as the candidate of "renewal". In reality, she embodies the continuity of the Germany that Angela Merkel has modernized, but with the touch of a new generation. The journalist Ulrich Schulte, author of an essay about the Green Party ("Die Grüne Macht. Wie die Ökopartei das Land verändern will", 2021), goes even further in his analysis. According to him, several circumstances will oblige the Green candidate to follow the course of action of today’s grand coalition. Baerbock’s policies will be conditioned by the need to reduce public deficits in the aftermath of the pandemic and her refusal to appear as a party of prohibition (Verbot-Partei). In this stalemate position, she would not be able to afford any significant break from German politics, except for a speed limit set at 130 km/h, stronger support for electromobility, an increase in the price of the ton of CO2 and a rise in unemployment benefits...Baerbock would remain pragmatic and reasonable, committed to the fight against climate change, the European Union, and refugees. "Annalena Baerbock embodies modern Germany like no other politician," writes Ulrich Schulte, "sympathetic, relaxed, fundamentally reasonable and people-oriented. But in no way radical or radically left-wing."

While representing relatively low stakes for the European Union, the outcome of the German elections on 26 September 2021 remains in suspense. The Green candidate Annalena Baerbock, the conservative Armin Laschet and even the current outsider, the social democrat Olaf Scholz, all have their chances to win. No one can say which coalition the party of the majority will be required to form, or who will get the post of vice-chancellor. However, since all three candidates are convinced pro-Europeans, the stakes for the EU remain relatively low. This situation is very different from the French presidential election of 2022. The candidates distinguish themselves more in their vision of the German engagement in Europe. Like Olaf Scholz, Annalena Baerbock could stand for a more active European diplomacy, a more political EU than the one of Merkel’s era. Especially in the likely event of a coalition with the conservatives, still attached to NATO and the American nuclear umbrella, she would need to take the edge off her ambitions. This would certainly go against her support for a European defense structure and the concept of a "powerful" Europe, which have been so ardently desired by France for many years.




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