Germany is still in the process of putting together a government following the September election. Green Party co-leader Annalena Baerbock speaks to DER SPIEGEL about progress on climate policy, the challenges of a three-party coalition.

Photo: Peter Rigaud / DER SPIEGEL (cropped)

25 October 2021 | Valerie HöhneMartin Knobbe und Jonas Schaible | Spiegel

DER SPIEGEL: Ms. Baerbock, at a Green Party conference, an overwhelming majority voted in favor of engaging in negotiations to form a governing coalition with the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) and the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP). Nevertheless, there has been a fair amount of frustration regarding the agreements that have been made thus far: no effective measures for fighting poverty, no multi-billion-euro investments for protecting the climate. How great is the pressure for you to get considerably more out of the negotiations?

Baerbock: Making this industrialized country climate-neutral, requires billions in investment – and we will do so. That has been agreed upon. Just as there will be expanded child benefits to finally bring children out of poverty – a huge success. And we received a lot of support for this new start at our party conference. Nevertheless, an exploratory paper, of course, only provides guidelines. That’s why we are now diving into the details.

DER SPIEGEL: Do you agree with your party colleague Cansin Köktürk, who implied that the winner of the exploratory talks was the FDP?

Baerbock: No. Negotiations are always about give and take. We, the Greens, were elected to implement a genuine new start. That means that we cannot hide behind formulaic compromises when it comes to the big questions about the future. Simply finding the lowest common denominator would not represent progress. All three parties have shown the courage to make decisions. Together, we have set a course towards digitization, modernizing the country and climate neutrality.

DER SPIEGEL: This new start requires money. But the current plan does not call for any tax increases. You are currently looking for ways to finance the program and avoid violating the country’s debt-brake laws, which limits how much debt Berlin can take on. What kind of solutions are you looking at?

Baerbock: It’s no secret that, out of fairness, we would have liked to have raised the top tax rate and, at the same time, lowered it for middle and lower incomes. But the FDP had other positions. We also need investments for the important infrastructure measures. For this reason, we will use the leeway available under the current debt brake and take out loans, just like every successful business does.

Green Party co-leader Annalena Baerbock at the seat of German parliament in Berlin

Green Party co-leader Annalena Baerbock at the seat of German parliament in BerlinFoto: Peter Rigaud / DER SPIEGEL

DER SPIEGEL: The Green Party’s successes when it comes to climate protection and social issues are subject to financing. Meanwhile, the successes for the FDP — no tax increases, no speed limit on the Autobahn – have already been secured.

Baerbock: With respect, that’s not true. The massive expansion of renewables, the phase-out of the combustion engine, the minimum wage of 12 euros, the expanded child benefits – just to name a few examples – have been agreed to and are not a “maybe.”

DER SPIEGEL: Christian Lindner, the head of the FDP, recently spoke of a turning point in Germany’s political culture and commended the way those involved in the exploratory talks interacted with one another. At the same time, senior FDP member Marco Buschmann said that Lindner should become the next finance minister. Is the gentle phase for the prospective coalition partners already coming to an end?

Baerbock: It’s better not to resolve staffing issues in public. And holding talks in a trustful manner doesn’t mean that you treat each other with velvet gloves. We are three parties that come from different directions and have different ideas when it comes to substance. As such, we will also be frank with each other in the future as well, but behind closed doors. It is much harder to agree on issues of substance when questions of power are always in your head.

DER SPIEGEL: The party you lead sees itself as feminist. Will the Greens distribute cabinet posts such that there are more women than men in the government?

Baerbock: Of the Green Party parliamentary group members just entering the Bundestag, about 60 percent are women. Equal rights are how we do things. But an equal representation of women and men in the Bundestag or in a government will not happen if only one party is concerned about it. That is the task of a government in its entirety and needs to be reflected there. The great opportunity of this not entirely unproblematic three-way constellation is that we are really making progress on a socio-political level. A modern immigration law, a reform of citizenship law, a family law that reflects social reality – all this can be possible with this constellation of parties.

“A government of progress should of course not base its orientation on the last century.”

DER SPIEGEL: But what about the share of women in the future cabinet?

Baerbock: If one has the ambition of passing laws that reflect our times, then equality and social diversity should also be a matter of course in the formation of the cabinet.

DER SPIEGEL: What, then, do you think of the comments from your future coalition partner Christian Linder, who told the Bild am Sonntag newspaper that the FDP is not concerned with gender parity in its own party and in the distribution of posts?

Baerbock: I don’t get involved in the FDP’s internal issues. A government of progress should obviously not base its orientation on the last century.

DER SPIEGEL: It’s a simple calculation: If the Social Democrats (SPD) distribute their cabinet posts equality but the FDP names two men and one woman, it will only be equal if you appoint more women than men to the cabinet.

Baerbock: We still have a lot of challenging issues in front of us in the coalition negotiations. The process of resolving them will be easier the less we burden the process in advance by talking about who gets what post.

DER SPIEGEL: Will you become vice chancellor? After all, Robert Habeck isn’t a woman.

Baerbock: I can confirm that Robert Habeck is not a woman. And I can also confirm that we have agreed on everything together in a confidential conversation.

DER SPIEGEL: The election results were not what the Greens had been hoping for. What did you learn about yourself in this election campaign?

Baerbock: A lot about myself. And also about our country. There’s a young generation longing for political changes that are crucial for their future.

DER SPIEGEL: What has disappointed you in particular?

Baerbock: Also many things. But now it’s about looking forward.

DER SPIEGEL: You have said that you bear a special responsibility for the outcome. What does that mean in concrete terms?

Baerbock: Looking ahead, it means doing a really good job with these negotiations.

DER SPIEGEL: The exploratory paper had little to say about one of your favorite political topics: foreign policy. What do you want to achieve?

Baerbock: Germany needs to return to having an active European foreign policy. For a long time, there was no answer from the German government to Emmanuel Macron’s most recent suggestions for far-reaching reforms. It is time for a new German government to give a new boost to Franco-German cooperation – and thus also a boost for Europe. We need a foreign policy that is led by values. That is clearly enshrined in this exploratory agreement.

DER SPIEGEL: You always said you would take a stronger approach to China. What would that look like?

Baerbock: Foreign policy must always be based on dialogue, because the big global challenges, like the climate crisis, need to be viewed from the perspective of a common world. But a willingness to engage in dialogue doesn’t mean naivete. On the points where hard interests collide, it also means that Europe must defend its own sovereignty and security. We are in systemic competition with China. For this reason, it is enormously important that we attain a new European strength.

DER SPIEGEL: Do you mean primarily economic strength, to reduce Europe’s dependence on China?

Baerbock: That too, especially when it comes to key technologies. We need to be able to build up our own infrastructure, our own digital networks with European technology so that we don’t run into the danger of our citizens’ data being passed along to the Chinese regime and us becoming dependent on Beijing’s political interests. It’s similar with energy policy. We are dependent on Russia there. There is no shortage right now of gas delivery capacity, but Russia has decided not to fill up its gas storage facilities. That makes us vulnerable to blackmail. And it shows that security and foreign policy aren’t just military questions.

DER SPIEGEL: The exploratory paper contains the sentence: “When it comes to energy policy projects in Germany, European energy law applies.” Does that mean that you want to prevent the usage of Nord Stream 2? That gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea from Russia to Germany, after all, has not been universally well received in Europe and further afield.

Baerbock: It means that the European legal requirements also need to be upheld for this energy project. And they say that (the Russian energy company) Gazprom cannot simultaneously own and operate the pipeline, which is to say transport gas. As things currently stand, though, that would be the case. And that is only one of the reasons why I, as people know, believe this pipeline is wrong. It runs counter to European interests.

DER SPIEGEL: Should Germany withdraw from participation in NATO’s nuclear mission?

Baerbock: Nuclear and conventional disarmament is central for increased security in the world. Under the next federal government, Germany needs to take a leading role in the appropriate disarmament initiatives.

DER SPIEGEL: During the campaign you said that the next government is the last one that can still do something about the climate crisis. None of the parties in the “traffic light” – as the coalition of SPD, Greens and FDP is known — has a program according to which the goals of the Paris Agreement will be reached. How can a compromise be attained that will lead us on a path of only 1.5-degree warming?

Baerbock: A lot of time has been wasted in recent years. For this reason, we will need a huge effort to even make it onto the 1.5-degree path, yes. We are prepared for this effort and have included the most important guardrails in the exploratory paper. But Germany isn’t isolated. It is essential that we emphasize European and international climate and energy partnerships. We need to export the technologies for achieving climate neutrality, which we also now want to develop in Germany and Europe. We have suggested in our campaign platform what we can do nationally. Central elements of this are in the exploratory paper.

DER SPIEGEL: A lot of observers on climate policy doesn’t seem to share this impression.

Baerbock: The paper includes a fundamental change of course in energy policy. The fact that, in the exploratory talks, we arranged for the law on the phasing out of coal to be reopened so that we can exit from coal as early as 2030 – that was hard work and is a milestone.

DER SPIEGEL: The paper says that instead of reviewing in 2026 whether the shutdown of coal-fired plants can be brought forward, it will be reviewed at the start of this legislative period. That’s not a guarantee that it will happen.

Green Party co-leader Annalena Baerbock with DER SPIEGEL journalists Martin Knobbe (left), Valerie Höhne and Jonas Schaible

Green Party co-leader Annalena Baerbock with DER SPIEGEL journalists Martin Knobbe (left), Valerie Höhne and Jonas SchaibleFoto: Peter Rigaud / DER SPIEGEL

Baerbock: First, the difference between 2023 and 2026 is that the government currently being formed is finally going to act. Second, similar to the way in which the 12-euro minimum wage still needs to be passed into law, the same is true of the phasing out of coal. And of course, by that point we will need around-the-clock renewable electricity. That will also be a huge undertaking. For this we are launching an immediate program.

DER SPIEGEL: You wanted to mandate the installation of solar panels on all new roofs to rapidly expand renewable energy. That’s not in there now.

Baerbock: Of course, it is.

DER SPIEGEL: The obligation only applies to commercial roofs, not private ones. It says that “it should become the rule” for the latter. That sounds pretty vague.

Baerbock: No, it’s very far-reaching. On new roofs, whether private or commercial, solar panels will become standard. That will give us a big boost for renewable energy. The distinction between a mandate and a rule is something for legal nitpickers.

DER SPIEGEL: And this is not your interpretation, but the joint understanding of the three parties?

Baerbock: Yes.

DER SPIEGEL: You want to accelerate the expansion of wind power. That, though, is only possible if the German states don’t keep passing strict laws on how far away they have to be from residential areas. Will this power therefore be taken from the states?

Baerbock: The proposal is for there to be a legal obligation of using 2 percent of a state’s land for wind power. The states themselves can freely decide where, including the distances from residential areas, but sufficient area must be set aside.

DER SPIEGEL: There is one further cryptic passage in the paper, referring to a cross-sector, multi-year review of climate targets. Are you intending to discard the annual climate targets for transportation, agricultural and energy so you will not be confronted with unpleasant numbers in the coming years?

Baerbock: Not at all. All sectors need to continue making their contribution to climate protection. Along with the annual monitoring report, we want to strengthen two things. First of all: How do we take into account the measures that don’t have an immediate effect, but a medium-term one? The exit from coal, for example, will give a giant boost to the climate, but only in a few years – so something like that should be listed separately. Secondly, we finally need to truly interlink different sectors: Each sector must make its contribution, but we need to couple those sectors much more closely. Electric cars, after all, won’t just use green electricity in the future, but they will also store it. Something like that needs to be carefully tracked across the sectors.

“For climate protection in transport, the end of the fossil-fuel combustion engine is decisive and that is now coming.”

DER SPIEGEL: Why did you give up on the idea of a speed limit on the Autobahn? For many people, it would have been a strong symbol for a different approach to transportation policy.

Baerbock: The speed limit would have been a big contribution to traffic safety but a small one to climate change, and we couldn’t get our way on it. For climate protection in transport, the end of the fossil-fuel combustion engine is decisive and that is now coming.

DER SPIEGEL: The left wing of the party is now primarily pushing for improvements to social policy. Is that becoming more important to the Greens than climate protection?

Baerbock: Climate protection and social justice go hand in hand. We will not be able to run this country in a climate neutral way if we don’t bring every person along with us. For this reason, the future guiding principle will be that of a socio-ecological market economy.

DER SPIEGEL: In a discussion about social benefits on German television, Robert Habeck essentially said that if the government takes care of people’s energy bills, it is “an invitation for people to open the windows with the heating turned all the way up.” Do you share this view?

Baerbock: I’m afraid that I might also have sometimes opened the window while having the heating way up because I wasn’t thinking. The current high gas prices are a delicate foreign-policy issue and, at the same time, a real social burden for people with low incomes. And increasing Hartz IV payment rates by 3 euros, as had been the case, was a joke. For this reason, we want to recalculate the rates.

DER SPIEGEL: You and Mr. Habeck decided which of you would be the party’s candidate for chancellor in a back room. Now, it seems like you are doing the same when it comes to the position of vice chancellor. This has strained your relationship and ruffled feathers in the party. When will you start involving the party again?

Baerbock: Sorry, I’ve come to a different analysis on this and currently experience the atmosphere in the party, and the one between Robert and myself, very differently. On the question about party involvement: Every member can make a decision about the coalition agreement, including about personnel issues, by vote.

DER SPIEGEL: Ms. Baerbock, we thank you for this interview.