Annalena Baerbock’s message to America: She’s in sync with Biden

Annalena Baerbock, Federal Chairwoman of Bündnis 90/Die Grünen, speaks at a press conference after the meeting of the Green Federal Executive Committee. Photo by DPA / Picture Alliance via Reuters.

How dramatic a shift would a Greens-led German government be for the US-Germany alliance? As Annalena Baerbock tells it, her Alliance 90/The Greens party would be aligned with the Biden administration on a slew of issues—despite its anti-establishment past. And that includes a tough line on Russia and China. 

Baerbock, age forty, is the Greens’ pick to be Germany’s next chancellor. With Angela Merkel set to leave that office after sixteen years in power, Baerbock’s party is currently ahead of Merkel’s ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in opinion polls in the lead-up to federal elections in September. Baerbock appeared Thursday from Berlin at the EU-US Future Forum, hosted by the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center, for a discussion with CNN host Fareed Zakaria in one of her first interviews since she was chosen as the party’s candidate for chancellor. 

Baerbock said the Greens’ success comes from their message of “hope” and “change”—echoing the campaign themes of former US President Barack Obama. She also struck a reassuring note for American audiences who have grown accustomed to Merkel. “I’m not standing for changing everything, but bringing big parts of society into a better future,” she said. 

Here are some key takeaways from her remarks.

No more “behaving very passively” in world affairs

  • Aggression by Russian President Vladimir Putin, such as his recent massing of troops along the border with Ukraine, stems in part from a lack of an “active foreign policy” from Germany and the EU in standing up for Eastern European allies, Baerbock said. “Germany is the biggest player in the EU and it’s crucial that if the EU wants to be strong, if the EU wants to play an international role and also a role in its own neighborhood, that it needs a strong, open, but active German foreign policy. It’s not about Germany telling the others what to do, but if we are behaving very passively, it’s hard for the others.”  
  • On the question of whether to go forward with the Nord Stream 2 natural-gas pipeline from Russia to Germany, Baerbock is a hard “no,” in contrast to Merkel and Armin Laschet, the new leader of the CDU and Baerbock’s chief rival to become chancellor. Laschet has said he wants to continue with the project. In Baerbock’s view, the pipeline would violate the spirit of the EU’s economic sanctions retaliating against Russian aggression. “This pipeline contradicts our sanctions, so it cannot go in place,” she said. “It cannot start.”
  • Baaerbock’s reasoning on this point isn’t just geopolitical. She instead wants to work with Ukraine to set up a hydrogen pipeline. “We need some hydrogen in Europe to be carbon-neutral in the future,” she said. “There’s a high potential in Ukraine for renewable energy, for wind and solar. We have already this pipeline there to transfer now fossil [fuel] gas. We can set it up for [a] green hydrogen pipeline in the future.”

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Won’t commit to 2 percent for military, will support US troops

  • Baerbock said “Germans have to take more responsibility for our own security” but would not commit to spending 2 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) on the military. NATO members have made progress toward this burden-sharing target, first agreed to in 2014, but Germany continues to fall well short of it.
  • “The question is what kind of capacities do we need? What kind of capacity can Europe bring? But it’s not a good figure to connect it to GDP, which is so [dependent] on the economic growth,” Baerbock said. “And secondly we have new threats and challenges,” such as cybersecurity.
  • The US has 35,000 troops stationed in Germany—with 500 more on the way under US President Joe Biden, who reversed a planned drawdown by his predecessor, Donald Trump. Baerbock says she supports US troops on German soil, even though the troops have drawn protests from German peace activists, because they help with the “efficiency” of Germany’s own military spending. She wants to make sure American forces are deployed “in a very efficient way where we don’t duplicate our structure and Europeans take more responsibility in the upcoming months for themselves.”

“Balancing” with China

  • Baerbock vowed to take a strong stance against China’s human-rights abuses without cutting out the world’s most populous nation from trade or climate discussions. “We can say as Europeans: ‘On our common European market, we don’t have products being produced out of forced labor’” by China’s Uighur minority in Xinjiang province, Baerbock said. “So there we defend our human rights, our values, very strong. But on the other hand, it doesn’t mean saying there is no import/export anymore between Europe and China.”
  • This approach, she said, was similar to that of the Biden administration “because you have also now intensified the dialogue on the question of climate and on the other hand have [had a] strong showing on human rights and also the question of tariffs.”

Climate and social justice

  • Befitting the leader of the Greens, Baerbock frequently returned to the climate crisis as a motivating factor in her policy agenda—and she foresees Biden being a strong partner in that endeavor. “We have a bright future together if we work together on a transatlantic green deal,” Baerbock said.
  • From rejoining the Paris climate accord to a new infrastructure plan that invests heavily in fighting climate change, Biden’s agenda drew praise from Baerbock for “investing really in a future of carbon neutrality together with a strong movement on social justice. And this is actually the same idea we’re having on the other side of the Atlantic.”
  • And as Biden did in his recent address to Congress, Baerbock described these actions as a test of liberal democracy itself: “It’s really crucial that democracies show, within the upcoming months, that we can not only fight a pandemic with democratic measures, but also the biggest threat—like the climate crisis—as democracies. And so it will strengthen the climate, it will strengthen the welfare, but also, if we do it right, international institutions and the rule of law worldwide.”

Read the transcript

Thu, May 6, 2021

Annalena Baerbock on a ‘transatlantic green deal’ and German strategies in facing Russia and China

Baerbock, a candidate for chancellor of Germany, spoke at the EU-US Future Forum about her plans for boosting US-Germany relations, the future of Nord Stream 2, mitigating climate change, and more.

Transcript by Atlantic Council

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Daniel Malloy is the deputy managing editor at the Atlantic Council.