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Annalena Baerbock Wants to Radically Change Germany. She’ll Have to Win Voters’ Trust First

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Updated: | Originally published:

On an unusually chilly August evening, the party is in full swing at a Bavarian beer garden in Dachau, southern Germany. Waiters in lederhosen and waitresses in low-cut dirndl dresses weave between hundreds of long wooden tables, shouldering 3ft long trays of pretzels, meat and steins of beer. An oompah band swaggers through a rendition of “I’m too sexy (for my lederhosen)”. This is the cultural heartland of the German right. Bavaria is often dubbed—for its conservative values, religious traditions and a recent flirtation with a strain of populist nationalism—“the Texas of Germany.” If that’s true, then this beer garden might be akin to the Texas state fair, or a rodeo.

It isn’t Annalena Baerbock’s natural habitat. The Chancellor candidate for Germany’s Green party, born and raised in the north, Baerbock is here to tout the party’s progressive and environmentalist platform ahead of Sept. 26 elections. “It was hard for me to understand every word of that,” she jokes in the clipped consonants of northern German, as she thanks the drawling local emcee for introducing her.

It’s not just the accent that makes Baerbock feel out of place. A stickler for facts and a practiced debater of foreign affairs, she calls to mind a university professor more than the male retail politicians who have done well in Bavaria in recent years. She can come across as didactic, and perhaps a little stiff (“What an amazing atmosphere. I love the easy going temperament of the south,” she tells the crowd of 1,500 drinkers.)

But she doesn’t lack passion. As she energetically lays out the climate stakes at this election, she raises regular cheers from the garden. “We don’t want to wait until the crisis is already here,” she says. “We need the courage and the trust to renew this country and make it climate neutral.”

As Chancellor Angela Merkel prepares to step down after 16 years in power—marking the first election in 72 years without an incumbent—she leaves an unprecedented question mark over Germany’s future direction. Baerbock’s answer is a rapid overhaul of the German economy to cut carbon emissions and a much more active German foreign policy on climate action and human rights. Having an environmentalist leader at the helm of the world’s fourth largest economy, and the E.U. ‘s center of gravity would have global implications, she says, speaking in fluent English at a small table on the lower deck of her campaign bus, as it zooms down highways flanked by green Bavarian forest. “It’s a chance for us—not just in Germany but worldwide—to pull the lever that changes the train tracks and sets us on a different course.”

Baerbock poses for a portrait in Bamberg on Aug. 17.
Baerbock poses for a portrait in Bamberg on Aug. 17.Ingmar Björn Nolting for TIME

Baerbock has set herself a major challenge by becoming the first ever Green candidate for Chancellor. The Greens are poised to make major gains in Germany’s parliament, the Bundestag, likely leapfrogging from sixth to third largest party (they are already the second-largest German party in the European parliament). That’s in part thanks to the pragmatic, centrist shift that Baerbock has overseen.

But the chancellorship now looks like a longshot. Though the Greens led the polls for a few weeks after Baerbock launched her candidacy in May, by late August they had slipped into third place behind the ruling center-right Christian Democratic Union and center-left Social Democratic Party—in part due to missteps by Baerbock’s campaign, but also owing to a surge in support for the the Social Democrats.

Still, Baerbock and the Greens are likely to hold key cards during coalition negotiations later this year, possibly playing kingmaker. If they win a large number of parliamentary seats, they could force through enough of their platform to accelerate climate action in Germany and beyond.

In person as well as in policy, Baerbock is the clearest change candidate Germany has seen in decades. At just 40, she is the second youngest person, and the second woman after Merkel, to run for Chancellor. Having never served in a government office, Baerbock is, for some, a fresh face and, for others, a wildcard. A dynamic speaker with the relaxed demeanour of someone who hasn’t been in frontline politics for long, she stands in sharp contrast to her rivals, the Christian Democrats’ Armin Laschet, and the Social Democrats’ Olaf Scholz. Both are dry-tempered men over 60 who have spent decades in governing roles.

In Germany, boring might be best, though. Candidates promising sweeping, swift transformations have struggled in the country since World War II, according to Jeff Rathke, president of the Washington-based American Institute for Contemporary German Studies. “Campaigns often have drawn on the trauma of Germany’s past to provide cautious voters with an agenda of continuity,” he says, citing an early campaign slogan by 1950’s Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, “No Experiments!” and Merkel’s own 2013 slogan: “You know me.”

Baerbock’s key message is that change is coming to Germany, whether Germans want it or not. That change is not only Merkel’s departure. It is visible in the villages swept away by the worst floods in 500 years in July, or the enormous pressure weighing on the economically important German car industry. In that context, the Greens say a bet on Baerbock is safer than sticking with establishment parties who have failed to future-proof the country. “The big challenge for me,” Baerbock says, “is to make people trust that the change is stable.”

In Germany, stability is synonymous with one woman. Since 2005, Chancellor Merkel’s plodding, cautious leadership—honed in the strictures of a youth in East Germany—has steadied both Germany and the European project against the headwinds of economic crises, terror threats, and nationalism. With few exceptions, Merkel’s moderate coalition governments have eschewed sweeping ideological shifts in policy and lavish spending projects, maintaining what Germany’s central bank chief has labeled a “fetish” for strictly balanced budgets.

Merkel’s leadership has earned her the famously cosy nickname of mutti (mommy), for the trust Germans place in her. But it also inspired a new slang term, merkeln, meaning “to do nothing.” Critics say that slowness has delayed badly needed reforms, particularly of Germany’s crumbling and inequitable digital infrastructure, exposed by the pandemic. But for now, all is more or less well: the economy has seen solid, uninterrupted growth for the last decade and one of the smallest pandemic recessions in Europe. According to an August poll for German public broadcaster ZDF, 65% of Germans believe their own economic situation is good.

That relative satisfaction creates an uphill battle for Baerbock as she and her team drive across Germany, from cobbled town squares to modernist auditoriums. They are explaining how a Green-led government would rewire the German economy to accelerate the shift away from fossil fuels. Perhaps the headline policy is the creation of an environment “super ministry” that would veto any legislation that is incompatible with the 2015 Paris Agreement on limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees—in the same way that the German finance ministry can halt plans that conflict with the national budget.

A Green-led government would also spend €500bn over 10 years to help sectors like the car industry and steel producers transition to clean methods of production, mainly financed by public borrowing —which would require loosening Germany’s strict debt laws. They would increase the carbon price to €60 a tonne from 2023 and raise petrol prices by 16 cents. A so-called “energy bonus”, paid for by those levies, would be offered to low-income households to help them cope with the costs of the transition, in a bid to avoid the kind of “Yellow Vest” protest movement that France saw after hiking gas taxes in 2018. Baerbock has also pledged to dedicate 2% of land in German to the construction of wind turbines and create a requirement for new homes to include solar panels on their roofs.

The breadth of spending in the Greens’ plan would signal dramatic transformation for Germany, says Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff, vice president of the Berlin Office at the German Marshall Fund, an American public policy think tank. “Baerbock has probably the most clearly articulated change agenda since 1972,” he says, referring to West German Chancellor Willy Brandt’s controversial push to normalize relations with East Germany.

There’s not much in Baerbock’s background to suggest she’d be the one to propose such a shift. Born in 1980, she had a “really nice” and distinctly middle class childhood, she says, getting up to retrieve a packet of cough drops from the bus’ tiny kitchen in a bid to avoid losing her voice between campaign stops.

In 1985, Baerbock’s father, an engineer at a car company, and her mother, a social worker, moved Baerbock and her two younger sisters into a dilapidated farmhouse in the small village of Schulenburg, west Germany. They renovated it as Baerbock grew up. She went to a couple of anti-nuclear demonstrations with her parents in the 1990s, she says, but she wasn’t an activist. “My identity as a teenager was really, like, being a sports girl.” Alongside soccer and tennis, Baerbock was a trampolinist, spending afternoons jumping five meters in the air in a school gym. On the weekends she went to competitions, winning medals at three national championships. In high school, she read magazines distributed by Greenpeace, and grew interested in global affairs, but not in being a politician. “My dream was to be a war reporter traveling around the world and describing the crises.”

Baerbock signs an autograph at the beer garden as part of an election event in Dachau
Baerbock hands her autograph to a supporter at the beer garden as part of a campaign event in DachauIngmar Björn Nolting for TIME

In 2004, Baerbock visited the Oder river, which cuts through two flat, concrete-covered pieces of land to create Germany’s border with Poland. Seven decades earlier, her grandfather, serving in the Nazi Wehrmacht had retreated over the river here at the end of World War II. Now, Baerbock, who was at the time interning in the office of a Green member of the European Parliament in Brussels, watched as the German and Polish foreign ministers celebrated Poland’s accession to the E.U. and the softening of a once tumultuous border. “That was when I thought, O.K., maybe politics isn’t so bad.” The Greens were finishing up their first and only stint in government so far, as junior partners in a coalition with the Social Democrats, and Baerbock joined the party a few months later.

She was elected to the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament, in 2013, for a seat in Potsdam, a small picturesque city just west of Berlin. Five years later, Baerbock became co-leader of the Greens alongside Robert Habeck. Colleagues know her as “a tough boss who’s even tougher on herself,” says Omid Nouripour, a fellow lawmaker and Green party spokesperson on foreign affairs. She regularly calls after 11.30pm, he says. Once, before a planned trip to northern Iraq to meet with persecuted Yazidi women, Baerbock spent three months preparing, asking Nouripour for more information three times. “I still wonder when she managed to read all of the things I gave her. It’s not usual that people at that level are so involved in details.”

Both moderates, Baerbock and Habeck have bridged divides between the party’s long-feuding fundamentalist and realist wings, overseeing the Greens’ consolidation as a pro-business, centrist party. The shift—from a party that began as far-left, anti-capitalist and pacifist to one that speaks of subsidising the steel industry’s decarbonization and contributing to NATO—has triggered criticism from many environmental activists in Germany, who accuse the party of selling out and undermining its goal of radically cutting emissions. But Baerbock says it has been essential to the party’s rise to become the second-largest force in German politics, per polls for most of the last two years. “We have worked a lot in the last years to say: if green politics wants to be successful, we have to talk about employment, we have to talk about industrial policy, we have to talk about wealth.”

Political opponents say the Greens’ proposals are far too expensive to be feasible. The deputy head of the Social Democrats parliamentary group called the plans a “fiscal policy boondoggle […] dominated by the principle of hope instead of realism”. Laschet argues that the Greens’ rapid transition plans would destroy jobs faster than they could replace them, and risk Germany energy security.

Baerbock says the Greens’ transformative approach is possible because “industry is now ahead of politics. Industry knows that the markets of the future are climate neutral,” she says. She argues that without government support to put Germany’s green steel industry ahead, in a few years steel manufacturers will start moving their operations to cheaper locations, such as China. “Sure, they are a bit afraid that we will raise taxes, but they are also frustrated with the conservatives: they say, you signed the Paris Agreement and [set us on this path] and now you are leaving us alone with our infrastructure projects, because you don’t want to finance it anymore. Behind closed doors [business leaders] are very up for our plan.”

Baerbock would also transform Germany’s position on the world stage. Despite the role that Merkel has played in holding together the E.U. and defending multilateralism amid the rise of anti-globalist populists, some observers accuse her of a hands-off or even mercantile approach to foreign policy that avoids rocking the boat on human rights issues in favor of German interests. Critics say Merkel is too soft on Russia and that Germany’s approval of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which will give the Kremlin ability to abruptly cut off gas supplies to Ukraine, sells out European values for Germany’s economic interests. Others say a Merkel-championed E.U.-China trade deal signed in December 2020 is far too weak on combating the forced labor that the Chinese government is subjecting Muslims to in the western Chinese province of Xinjiang.

While Laschet and Scholz are each expected to continue Merkel’s foreign policy positions, the Greens promise a “values-based” approach. If the final tranche of Nord Stream 2 remained unapproved by the time Baerbock took office (as it currently is for technical reasons), she would revoke Germany’s authorization. If it is too late to pull out, she would impose sanctions on the project when Russia acts out. She would also refuse to enter a trade deal with the South American trade bloc Mercosur if it didn’t contain high standards on the environment that would make it impossible for products linked to deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon to reach E.U. borders. On climate change, Baerbock wants to lead the world in modelling and encouraging action to cut emissions, proposing a “transatlantic green deal” with President Joe Biden.

In conversation, it is striking how easily and casually Baerbock can move from the depths of one topic to another, from hydrogen technology to fairer trade with China to the merits of GDP as a measurement for economic success. Claudia Roth, deputy leader of parliament and former party leader of the Greens, who has negotiated with Merkel several times in coalition talks, says Baerbock reminds her of the outgoing Chancellor. “They both know every detail in all fields they are discussing,” Roth says, making it impossible to pull one over on them. “You can imagine Annalena taking up climate action with all other leaders in the country and around the world—especially the macho ones—and winning.”

Not everyone is convinced, though. “She makes the impression of an A student, very hardworking, very ambitious” says Kleine-Brockhoff. “That doesn’t sort of endear her to people.” Many analysts expressed surprise that the Greens selected Baerbock as their candidate, rather than her charismatic co-leader Habeck, with some, including Kleine-Brockhoff, putting the choice purely down to the Greens’ preference for a woman to run. It doesn’t appear to be a stretch to say that Baerbock is suffering from the gender bias that has plagued female politicians around the world when seeking high office.

But a fairer criticism, and one levelled at her often during the campaign, is her total lack of government experience. In this she stands in stark contrast to Laschet and Scholz, who have both served in state or national government. The former is currently governor of North Rhine-Westphalia, and the latter is finance minister and vice chancellor in the national coalition government.

Baerbock’s challenge in convincing voters that she can overcome her inexperience has been compounded by a series of scandals that have emerged during her campaign. In May, she apologized for a delay in reporting a party Christmas bonus to parliament. In June, her campaign was forced to amend her public résumé because it exaggerated her participation in several high profile organizations, including the UNHCR and the German Marshall Fund. Later that month, local media reported that parts of her newly published book were lifted directly from other sources with no attribution. In July, she apologized again for using the N-word while telling a story about anti-racist activism during an interview.

“I know that I’ve lost trust,” Baerbock says when asked about those missteps, dropping her voice from its usual forceful volume to a softer tone. “But I’ve learned from my mistakes. It’s not about never making any mistakes anymore, because if you’re afraid of making mistakes, you won’t do anything at all.”

The damage appears to be done, though. “All the scandals may be tempest-in-a-bathtub stuff, but they enlarged a doubt that was already there about her readiness [and her team’s professionalism],” Kleine-Brockhoff says. “Germans are testing the change idea but they want some sort of travel insurance. Baerbock offers no travel insurance.”

Baerbock at a election campaign event in Bamberg, Germany on Aug. 17
Baerbock at an election campaign event in Bamberg, Germany on Aug. 17Ingmar Björn Nolting for TIME

For centuries, Blessem, in the western German state of North Rhine Westphalia, was a quiet, picturesque village, recently with some 1,800 residents. Then, on July 13, it started to rain. Over two days, parts of western Germany experienced roughly double the normal expected rainfall for the whole month. As the region’s rivers burst their banks, vast quantities of muddy water rushed through Blessem, sweeping away houses and part of a castle, and turning the town’s old quarry into a huge sinkhole. Similar fates befell other communities across Germany and Belgium, with more than 220 people killed in the worst flooding to hit northwestern Europe in generations.

The floods briefly thrust climate change—which scientists say made the floods up to 9 times more likely—into the center of the election campaign, which was just getting off the ground at the time. When the rains had stopped, Laschet arrived in a devastated Blessem with other senior politicians. As governor of North Rhine Westphalia, where failures of regional warning systems were blamed for worsening the death toll—and, per polls, the least trusted on environmental issues of the three major Chancellor candidates—Laschet had ground to make up in Blessem. But instead he was caught on camera, standing huddled with colleagues, chuckling and joking as German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier solemnly spoke about the devastation. The Christian Democrats have fallen consistently in the polls ever since.

But polls suggest that the main beneficiary of Laschet’s downfall has not been Baerbock and the Greens, but Scholz’s Social Democrats. The center-left party, like others in Europe, has suffered a relentless decline since the early 2000s, losing voters at each election and ending up as junior partners in coalitions with the Christian Democrats three times. Scholz may not have the kind of charisma that Americans expect from successful politicians: Asked in an interview whether he lacked emotion, his response was: “I’m standing for the job of Chancellor, not circus director.”

But his reputation as a safe pair of hands—juxtaposed with Baerbock and Laschet’s choppy campaigns—is reviving his party’s hopes. “Scholz is doing well only by comparison to the lackluster enthusiasm for Laschet and Baerbock. He is seen as an experienced, competent, serious manager,” says Rathke, of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies. “Having been a minister for two terms and vice chancellor for four years helps him enormously.”

No mainstream party in Germany rejects climate action. On climate, Scholz’s Social Democrats have embraced several ambitious policies, such as setting a speed limit for highways, expanding public transit, and driving an expansion of renewable energy to meet all power sector needs by 2040. The Christian Demcorats’ manifesto stresses the party’s commitment to Germany’s existing 2045 climate neutrality goal. But experts say both manifestos remain relatively light on specific policies on how to get there.

Baerbock argues that the other parties’ lack both the detail and the driving force needed to meet a challenge on the scale of the climate crisis. “If experience alone would make a good leader, then we wouldn’t stand where we are [on the climate],” she says. “For good leadership, I believe that you need a real idea of what you want to do—your vision—and then you need the capability of bringing people together to make agreements to achieve it.”

Though Baerbock is a long shot to become Chancellor, her campaign has succeeded in shifting climate discourse in Germany, says Emily Mansfield, chief economist for Europe at the Economist Intelligence Unit. “Because of how the polls have looked over the past year or two years even, the Greens have been looking like an essential coalition partner for whoever governs next. And that has meant that all of the other parties have had to think about making sure that their policy platform is compatible with what the Greens are going to be pushing for.”

The level of detail and concrete suggestions in Baerbock’s knowledge and in the Greens’ platform—which numbers more than 300 pages—has forced the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats to confront the vagueness of their own climate plans. German media often pressure Laschet and Scholz to take positions on the Greens’ ideas, such as bringing forward Germany’s coal phase-out date from 2038, which most other parties later backed, or their target to stop producing polluting vehicles by 2030.

But the Greens’ real impact may be to start to change the way Germans think about how society ought to respond to a changing world. “The Greens have put the idea of transformation most visibly at the heart of their program,” says Cora Herwartz, a policy advisor at E3G, a European climate change think tank. “The Christian Democrats and the [rightwing] Liberal Party talk more about modernization, and the Social Democrats speak about [a] ‘mission for the future.’” A July poll by public broadcaster Tagesschau found that the number of German voters who say the country needs “fundamental change” has almost doubled since 2017 to 34%. That’s likely not enough of the electorate to send Baerbock to the Chancellor’s office. A 57% majority want “some course corrections,” while 7% want “everything to stay the same,” but “the share of people who are really looking for a more comprehensive renewal of the country is definitely growing,” Herwartz says.

It is impossible to tell who will hold power in Germany after Sept. 26. Because of the fragmented electorate and number of parties, even a small shift in voter preferences could dramatically alter the set of coalitions that are possible. But it remains likely that the Greens will have some role in a coalition. Scholz has declared a preference for an Social Democrat-Green coalition.

Baerbock refuses to say which role she would pursue in a coalition, though many political observers expect she would be environment minister or take up some new climate-based role if the Greens get their superministry. Her priority, she says, will be to push for a cross-cutting approach, where climate neutrality is a priority for all ministries, rather than the current situation where “every ministry does what they want and the environment ministry does the environment,” she says. “That’s just totally stupid.”

Negotiations are likely to take several months, with the speed of climate action—and its price tag—expected to be a sticking point. To deal with the stress, Baerbock has a secret weapon. She keeps a trampoline in her family’s backyard. It’s not a professional one like she used as a teenager, and it’s mostly for her two daughters, she says. “But sometimes, when I get back very late, after 10pm, and I have to calm down before going to bed, I go on the trampoline, in the dark,” she says. “It’s kind of like coming home for me, to jump, to feel the vibrations underneath.”

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Write to Ciara Nugent / Dachau, Germany at ciara.nugent@time.com