Annalena Baerbock poised to deliver on Merkel’s promise

BERLIN, GERMANY – MARCH 15: Annalena Baerbock, co-leader of the German Greens party.

Sean Gallup | Getty Images News | Getty Images

BERLIN — Two things are already certain about Germany’s upcoming federal elections this September. 

The first is that the Greens, out of power since 2005, are the only political party in Germany that is guaranteed to be part of the next government.  

Second, it is already clear who will be Merkel’s successor as Germany’s top-ranking female politician. 

It is Annalena Baerbock, the 40-year-old co-leader of the Greens, who has just been selected as her party’s candidate for chancellor. Assuming that her party will most likely govern as a junior partner in tandem with the CDU-CSU, Baerbock has the inside track to be at least Germany’s next vice chancellor.

In a curious twist of history, Baerbock holds the promise to execute on what turned out to be Angela Merkel’s highly misleading self-advertising. In laying her claim to the Federal Chancellery back in 2005, she had advertised herself as a scientist and a no-nonsense, results-oriented decision maker focused on doing the heavy lifting to modernize Germany. 

Alas, Merkel didn’t. 

A key part of Germany’s current conundrum is that the Merkel years, despite the chancellor’s solid international reputation, were years of coasting. 

She never really engaged with the central task of pushing Germany’s industrial and political modernization. Yes, she was good on sloganeering and proclaiming ambitions — but very poor on execution.

Worse, whenever it came to politically sensitive economic reform issues, Merkel merely punted, if she did not blatantly choose to serve the status-quo powers. Witness the German car industry. 

Cuddling up to industry thankfully isn’t Baerbock’s thing. At top industrial policy conferences, she easily takes on the CEOs and association heads of a broad range of industries on the strategic choices needed in their respective sectors, whether automotive, chemical or energy.   

Given the Greens’ origins, the fact that Baerbock is clearly committed to keeping basic materials industries competitive and operating in Germany shows courage and strategic depth. She is also correct in her assessment that pushing industry rigorously toward a green energy future is the only way for Germany to stay a global technology leader.

Having a firm strategic grasp of the profound challenges German industry faces at this juncture is an important political asset for any top leader. 

With Deutsche Bank and Commerzbank, Germany’s erstwhile banking giants, mere shadows of their former selves, with ThyssenKrupp on the ropes and a car industry probably facing the biggest competitive challenges of its entire existence, one thing is for sure: Germany truly needs top politicians who have a clear sense of the strategic choices that must be made right after the September elections.

All indications are that the woman from Potsdam seems to have the stuff it takes to be a very competent economic strategist. Little surprise then that anyone who, like myself, is a “non-green,” finds themselves at times wishing that Baerbock had appeared 15 years earlier on the German political stage. 

True, Baerbock has never even been a government minister. Like top graduates from France’s elite Ecole Nationale d’Administration, she easily masters a broad range of very complex policy briefs. Unlike many “ENA-rques,” though, she is down to earth and not at all aloof.

That gives Baerbock a level of political maturity far beyond her actual age. In addition, her mental alertness and dexterity will prove a real asset in the election campaign, especially as her opponent is the CDU’s rather pedestrian and often self-confused Armin Laschet, the CDU chairman.

A look beyond Germany’s borders underscores that, from Scandinavia to New Zealand, young top female politicians doing a very competent job in their country’s highest political office. The contrast they present to the time-worn model — mostly men patiently climbing up the political ladder and doing a lot of backscratching with one another — is hardly a suitable qualification indicating true leadership.

So, what government post for Baerbock? Of course, there’s always dreaming. As before in 1969, when Willy Brandt won, she could rise to become chancellor, especially if the CDU-CSU keeps fumbling with the gaffe-prone Lasche.

The post of Germany’s next vice chancellor should be a shoo-in. To give the Greens a strong role in the new government and make the best use of Baerbock’s talents, she should be appointed to serve as a kind of “super minister” coordinating economic, energy, environmental and transport policy. 

As it happens, such a position, best located in the Federal Chancellery itself, is very similar to the posts that Margrethe Vestager and Frans Timmermans hold at the European Commission in Brussels. 

— Stephan Richter is the publisher and editor-in-chief of The Globalist, the daily online magazine on the global economy, politics and culture.

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