23 April 2021

Will Germany’s next Chancellor be experienced, or Green?

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Could Germany soon have a Green Chancellor?

That’s what the country has been wondering ever since the Green Party picked Annalena Baerbock as its candidate for the autumn election on Monday, while the ruling Christian Democrats plumped for the not especially popular Armin Laschet. The snap polls spoke volumes, with the Greens out in front on 28% to the CDU’s 21%.

Whatever happens, Germany’s political landscape is set for dramatic changes after more than 15 years of Angela Merkel’s leadership. At the same time, who her successor will be remains wide open.

Baerbock, who one could call the current frontrunner, has led the Greens since 2018 in tandem with the equally popular Robert Habeck (who was somewhat miffed not to have been selected as the party’s first ever candidate for the Chancellorship).

Popular she may be, but most Germans don’t actually know much about Baerbock. So what does the woman who could soon become Europe’s most powerful politician actually believe?

Naturally, climate change and environmental concerns are her top priorities, and the former necessitates a “social and ecological transformation”. Indeed, social and ecological are the words that seem to define her worldview, given that she is also a proponent of what she calls a “social-ecological market economy”. 

She doesn’t share the outright anti-capitalism of some in the modern green movement, but argues that big, especially multinational, corporations need to be regulated, and that prosperity is only good if it does justice to the earth’s climate as well. Free trade should only be possible with environmentally sound countries. Everything in the economy should be directed at making it cleaner – and it is the state, not the market, that should lead that effort. No surprise, then, that Baerbock calls for a “Green New Deal” and massive investment programs akin to Joe Biden’s plan for the US.

In fairness, some of the Greens’ more concrete ideas would actually make sense even from a more pro-market perspective: wanting to reach a 70% reduction of CO2 emissions by 2030, which is a much higher target than currently enshrined in EU law, her greatest concern is to fully abolish the coal industry – a hotbed of cronyism, mollycoddled by the government – within the next decade. She expects technologies to further progress to a point where electric cars will be the status quo soon. There is a refreshing realism in her environmental outlook: for instance, she doesn’t want to force people from rural areas to get rid of their cars, and she’s refreshingly honest about the impact personal choices have compared to big systemic changes. “It is not about changing the individual. That’s not how we can save the climate,” she explains. As she has repeatedly argued, people already care about the environment anyway. The government’s task is to make it easier for them to put their money where their mouth is.

Her environmental views also translate into somewhat unexpected views on foreign policy. Unsurprisingly, she follows an “open, pro-European stance”, advocating for all sorts of “European social policies,” such as a EU-wide unemployment insurance. For her, the EU has been reduced too much only to economic concerns. Instead, she advocates bringing Europe’s nations together, with ideas that sound dangerously similar to the hyper-federalism of the Brussels elite. A former student at the London School of Economics, she was disappointed by Brexit and was in favour of re-running the 2016 referendum – not a view shared by that many Brits, as it turned out.

More encouragingly, however, Baerbock is also a convinced Atlanticist. On Earth Day she called for a “climate partnership” between Europe and the US. Interestingly, she framed part of the solution as a system of “competition” and “industry innovation” that would contrast markedly with the authoritarian approach adopted by China. While much of Germany’s political elite ties itself in knots over relations with Russia, Baerbock is on record as a critic of Vladimir Putin. Under her leadership, the Green Party did the previously unthinkable, describing Nato as “indispensable” in their program.

Thus, while Baerbock certainly encompasses many of the problems of the Green Party, particularly its Verbotskultur – a tendency to want to ban things they don’t like – she presents herself primarily as a centrist who cares deeply about the environment and women’s rights. And while the British incarnation of the Green Party is unapologetically statist, Baerbock has actually refused to call herself “left-wing”. First, because she considers herself “liberal instead of authoritarian” and second, because she says the “world has become more complex” than an outdated left/right paradigm can describe.

Laschet: more Merkel than Merkel?

If Baerbock represents a decisive break from the past, someone who – for better or worse – wants to move on from the status quo, her main rival Armin Laschet is anything but. He is the embodiment of the Merkelian politics that has so dominated Germany these last 16 years.

Laschet’s greatest strength and weakness is his sense of moderation, centrism, and readiness to compromise. This has led him to unexpected political successes. He has been the president of the most populous German state, North Rhine Westphalia – a working class heartland that would normally be tricky territory for a conservative – for the last four years. Generally speaking, his career has been one of solid, somewhat understated success – at least until Covid came along.

But that trademark moderation, an asset in peacetime, came across as unease and vacillation during a spiralling pandemic. In the face of crisis, Laschet twisted in the wind, at first wary of closing things down too drastically, then joining the lockdown crowd and flipping back and forth repeatedly ever since.

The same non-committal attitude is evident in his policy views, which can be difficult to decipher. He is generally in favour of the social market economy, wanting to cut red tape and strengthen industries – but only up to a point. On foreign policy he advocates trying to understand Russia and China and having a dialogue with them – but only up to a point. He wants to protect the environment – but only if it doesn’t hurt industry.

One area he is clear on is the EU, as an avowed pro-European and former MEP he has criticised Angela Merkel for lacking the “courage” of Emmanuel Macron’s sweeping vision for the continent. Unsurprisingly, Laschet saw Brexit as a “historic day of suffering”. Then again, he hasn’t proposed much in the way of European policy himself, and has been sceptical about the actual details of Macron’s plans.

Perhaps the best way to describe Laschet is that he has political views, but doesn’t like to show them much. He wants to change things, but only with brakes pulled at all times, just in case something goes wrong or someone takes umbrage. He would say that he models his politics on Angela Merkel but, even more so on another former Chancellor, Helmut Kohl. Unfortunately for Laschet, much of the German electorate sees him (perhaps unfairly) as weak and lacking in personality, and his ratings tend to reflect that.

Whether that means that the Green Party’s lead in the polls will hold is the million euro question. Certainly on the current numbers Baerbock comes out comfortably ahead of both Laschet and the Social Democrats’ Olaf Scholz. But polls months before an election are just a snapshot, and things are sure to change as Germans interrogate their candidates’ policies and records more thoroughly.

One thing is certain, however: politics will change in post-Merkel Germany. The political landscape will be more fragmented, with newer voices jostling for position with the old guard. And, of course, the repercussions of this autumn’s election will be felt not just in Germany, but Europe and the rest of the world – regardless of whether Baerbock or Laschet is the victor.

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Kai Weiss is a Research and Outreach Officer at the Austrian Economics Center and a board member at the Hayek Institute.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.