Berlin Cable

May 11, 2021

The Greening of German Foreign Policy

Led by Annalena Baerbock, the Greens have managed to position themselves as current leaders of the pack when it comes to replacing Angela Merkel in the chancellery. Their new focus on foreign policy, and a commitment to strengthening transatlantic ties, is welcome.

Green co-leader and "candidate for chancellor" Annalena Baerbock
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Germany’s Greens are on a roll. They were quick and professional in choosing co-leader Annalena Baerbock as their “candidate for chancellor”—much in contrast to the chaotic bareknuckle fight Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and their Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU) went through to settle for newly-minted CDU chief Armin Laschet as their joint candidate.

The prime minister of Germany’s most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia, Laschet prevailed over CSU leader and Bavarian premier Markus Söder, who, according to many months’ worth of opinion polls, enjoyed much more popular support among the public at large–and among CDU/CSU voters. The CDU, however, by far the larger party of the two and in the throes of an identity crisis, did not want to end up the dog that was being wagged by the tail.

The result: The Greens have shot up in the race to replace Merkel. Most German pollsters see them currently ahead, or at least head-to-head, with Merkel’s party, which has ruled Germany for the past 16 years. This remarkable turn of fortunes for the Greens is for now only based on their likeable female lead candidate and a widespread sense that Germany needs change.

Caught Out by the Court

Then the Greens got lucky, again. Germany’s constitutional court ruled last week that the government’s 2019 climate law, in effect, was not ambitious enough. In a typically Merkelian way, her coalition government with the Social Democrats (SPD) had settled for aiming by 2030 to reduce CO2 emission by 55 percent compared to the 1990 level, but giving little thought to what the breakneck final 20 years to carbon neutrality by 2050 would look like: aprés nous, le déluge. Or rather, anticipating that the more ambitious European Union goals would catch up with them, the Merkel government acted on the assumption that it could later claim that it was Brussels rather than Berlin that put the climate onus on the economy. Germany’s highest judges, however, saw the freedom of the younger generation infringed if it had to bear the brunt of the climate challenge—an argument widely accepted.

For the election campaign this means that the Greens have already won the argument on their key policy. Fighting climate change is the widely accepted key challenge ahead, and more ambitious policies are needed than those that have so far been pushed under Merkel (her government is now scrambling to put together a more ambitious climate law).

This has allowed the Greens to focus on German foreign and European policy in the early stages of their campaign, another area where those in power have been letting the side down in recent years. By her strangely lukewarm welcome of America’s “return” under US President Joe Biden after the nightmare Trump years and her ill-thought out attempts at clinging on to her special relationship with President Xi Jinping’s China, Merkel and her chancellery seem to have lost their foreign policy compass when seeing out her final months in office. The idea that the phase of an unhindered, largely unmanaged, free-trade globalization—the phase that suited Germany’s economy so well—is well and truly over seem to be too heretic to be contemplated within the chancellery’s postmodern walls.

A Breath of Fresh Air

This has made it all the easier for Baerbock to come across as a breath of fresh air, promising in talks at the Federal Academy for Security Policy (BAKS) and last week at the Atlantic Council’s EU-US Future Forum, in an interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, a “strong, open, active German foreign policy” and showing a willingness to take up Biden’s America on its “partnership in leadership” offer. (Indeed, the Greens are the only German party who have come up with a transatlantic agenda for the Biden administration, pushing for a transatlantic alliance for carbon neutrality, digitalization, and a strategic realignment on security.) Baerbock also spoke out for a tougher line on human rights vis-à-vis China and underlined the Greens’ “no” to the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which is supposed to bring more natural gas from Vladimir Putin’s Russia; it is close to completion while facing US sanctions.

Baerbock’s signals in terms of security policy were particularly interesting. The underlying message could be read as: you can expect the Greens to act as reliable partners. Her criticism of NATO’s goal to spend 2 percent of GDP on defense as no longer “state of the art” or “outdated” was accompanied by a commitment to make sure Germany’s armed forces would continue on their road to higher effectiveness. And while the Greens will likely continue to insist on their vision of “a nuclear-free Europe,” this is not something that concerns the here and now. Decisions regarding the future of “nuclear sharing” within NATO are likely to be kicked down the road.

The Greens’ congress on June 11-13, which will finalize the election platform after input from the party base, will be interesting in this respect. Today’s Greens rank and file are a bit of an unknown quantity: the party has more than doubled its membership to more than 100,000 since losing power in 2005, after governing in a coalition with the SPD since 1998, with an impressive surge in the past two years. Especially younger Green members may well have quite different attitudes than the founder generation of the 1980s when it comes to questions of defense and security.

Saving Transatlanticism

It is somewhat ironic that it has fallen to the Greens to make the case for a renewed transatlantic relationship once Merkel has left office. However, a party once founded in defense of human rights West and East of what was then the “Iron Curtain” seems to have a more acute sense of what is at stake in the 21st century. “Very early on, right from the beginning, the new German government should take steps to strengthen transatlantic ties,” Reinhard Bütikofer, an influential Green MEP who has been one of the four European parliamentarians recently sanctioned by China, told me.

“The recent inactivity on the part of the chancellery is really shocking,” Bütikofer added. “I don’t think President Biden will wait for Europe forever. The mid-terms are coming soon, and he needs successes. As he has found willing partners in Asia and works with the Quad, Europe must not hesitate to play ball, too.” These are lines one would have expected the traditionally transatlanticist center-right CDU/CSU to push, but they haven’t caught up yet.

Germany’s New Center

In foreign affairs and in other areas, the German election campaign is basically a fight about where Germany’s center now lies; it’s already certain that it will have a huge green component. Come September 26, while a Green victory is a distinct possibility, the more likely scenario is still a Laschet win with Baerbock and Co. ending up in a strong, but junior coalition role. But especially if the result is close, the Greens can be relied upon to make their mark—even if they don’t take over the German Foreign Office (traditionally occupied by the junior coalition partner), which after four years with the SPD’s Heiko Maas at the helm, has lost much of its former luster.

Instead, Baerbock, who studied international law, including a year at the London School of Economics, may opt to lead a “super” ministry combining climate and economic policy, with co-leader Robert Habeck taking over at the finance ministry. A Chancellor Laschet may try to extend a Merkelian foreign policy for a little longer, but if his rival Norbert Röttgen, the chair of the Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee, becomes foreign minister, this may be well-balanced.

If Baerbock’s rise continues, however, German foreign policy may become greener still.

Henning Hoff is Executive Editor of INTERNATIONALE POLITIK QUARTERLY.

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