Annalena Baerbock of the Green Party is slated to become Germany’s first female foreign minister. She spoke to DER SPIEGEL about the policy challenges the country faces abroad and the more immediate crisis created by the COVID-19 pandemic.
DER SPIEGEL: Ms. Baerbock, you have just spent several weeks negotiating with the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) and the market-oriented Free Democratic Party (FDP) behind you. What have you learned about future chancellor Olaf Scholz?
Baerbock: When you sit together day and night, you also get to know each other as people. And I can say: The later the hour, the more humorous the conversations.
DER SPIEGEL: And the FDP? It’s often viewed by your party as being neoliberal, right-wing and frivolous.
Baerbock: We often have different points of view, but they can really enrich debates. It is precisely the considerable common ground between the Greens and the FDP in social policy that is reflected in the coalition agreement.
DER SPIEGEL: FDP head Christian Lindner said at the presentation of the coalition agreement that the three parties are united by the fact that they want to overcome the status quo. During the negotiations, though, voices from the Green Party frequently said that the FDP had proven to be a status quo party. Which is true?
Baerbock: Probably both.
DER SPIEGEL: Can you please explain?
Baerbock: It’s not that complicated. In Germany, you still have to go to City Hall with paper documents. In such instances, the FDP says clearly: Things can’t continue the way they are. We agree. In other policy areas, we have different ideas about whether something needs to change and what. With financial market regulations, for example, we would have liked to see more change.
DER SPIEGEL: What is the main message of this coalition agreement?
Baerbock: That we can really make a difference. Our aim is to bring politics up to date with reality and to break the stalemates that exist in our country regarding major, future-oriented projects. In digitalization, climate protection and societal cohesion.
DER SPIEGEL: The reality is that the coalition is already facing a major crisis. Olaf Scholz has finally presented the new coalition government’s coronavirus containment policy, but he hasn’t even uttered the word “lockdown.” Is the new government acting with as little foresight as the old one?
Baerbock: Everyone is very conscious of the dramatic nature of the situation. We must now do everything in our power to ensure that hospital care remains secure and doesn’t collapse. To that end, we have jointly presented a catalog of seven acute measures. It is good that, in the future, there will be a crisis unit in the Chancellery with representatives from the federal government and from the states. In addition, there will finally be a scientific advisory board that will evaluate the situation on a daily basis.
DER SPIEGEL: Even without a scientific advisory board, you can conclude that the seven points won’t be enough to prevent disaster.
Baerbock: What we have to do now is consistently enforce the protective measures, including 2G and 2G-plus in broad areas and 3G at the workplace and on public transport and in rail transport. (Ed’s: 2G means people have to either be vaccinated or have recently recovered from a coronavirus infection in order to participate in certain aspects of public life, while 2G-plus means they must recently have tested negative on top of that. With 3G, a person has to either be vaccinated, have recovered from corona recently or have undergone a same-day corona test.) The council of experts is reviewing whether that goes far enough. If necessary, we will take further action.
DER SPIEGEL: Do you rule out the possibility of another lockdown?
Baerbock: I do not rule out the possibility that further steps will be needed, possibly sweeping measures. That’s why it is so important to use the next few days to get an honest picture.
DER SPIEGEL: If you’re aiming for a certain centralization of pandemic control, isn’t the recent decision to let a law expire that granted the federal government sweeping powers in implementing virus containment measures counterproductive? Instead, the center of power has been shifted back to parliament, which reacts more slowly.
Baerbock: Parliament has shown that it is capable of acting very quickly. We changed the legal basis, not the fight against the pandemic. We have re-enforced those efforts with other measures, such as the 3G rule in the workplace. And, I reiterate: If necessary, we will tighten the rules as quickly as possible.
DER SPIEGEL: Does it make sense to introduce a general vaccination requirement now?
Baerbock: We are not ruling out a general vaccination requirement. But that will not help slow the fourth wave we are seeing right now. Part of the uncertainty among the population also stems from the fact that things are too often announced that aren’t carried out in the end. Before a general vaccination requirement could be adopted, it is necessary to clarify the legal basis and what conditions must be met. Vaccine doses must be available immediately and in sufficient quantities, and vaccination facilities must be available everywhere. It is also important to me that, in parallel to booster vaccinations and compulsory vaccination in sensitive areas such as nursing or in day-care centers and schools, logistical preparations for child vaccinations absolutely need to be made. Adults can stand in line for hours for a vaccination if need be. But you can’t do that with children.
DER SPIEGEL: You were your party’s chancellor candidate, but now you won’t even be vice chancellor. Does that bother you?
Baerbock: I am looking ahead. Our government will likely be taking office in the midst of the most serious health-care crisis this country has ever seen. We have big tasks to tackle. That is where I am currently focusing my energies.
DER SPIEGEL: Has the internal power struggle in your party between centrists and the left wing over cabinet posts hurt the incoming coalition?
Baerbock: No. Debates are part of inner-party democracy. It’s never easy when there are a lot of smart people, but only a limited number of ministries. But the national committee was unanimous in its nominations. Now it’s full steam ahead for the vote in parliament that will put the Green Party back in government after 16 years.
DER SPIEGEL: During the election campaign, you repeatedly said that this would be the last federal government that would still be able to influence the climate crisis. Is the coalition in a position to stop current developments?
Baerbock: We must do everything we can to at least slow down further global warming. Globally, we are currently on track for a temperature increase of 3 degrees Celsius. Of that, 1.2 degrees are already irreversible. That is why these actually are the decisive years for turning things around. Four years isn’t enough to do it, but we can and must get started.
DER SPIEGEL: What precisely does the coalition plan on doing?
Baerbock: The measures needed for our country to contribute to limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius are contained in the agreement.
DER SPIEGEL: That’s an ambitious promise. The coalition agreement still states that the coal phase-out should “ideally” be brought forward to 2030. Where is the leverage for starting a real turnaround?
Baerbock: With a CO2 price in European emissions trading of 60 euros per ton, coal-fired power plants will no longer be profitable by the end of the decade, especially with renewable energies continuing to get cheaper. A CO2 certificate currently costs as much as 70 euros, and the price is likely to grow more expensive. However, if the European market price falls, we will introduce a national minimum threshold of 60 euros, that has been agreed. That gives industry planning security. Companies that switch to climate-neutral cement or steel can be sure that they are not throwing their investments out the window.
DER SPIEGEL: You are saying that the use of the word “ideally” in the coalition agreement in lieu of a firm commitment is irrelevant?
Baerbock: Yes, that only means: as soon as the supply of renewable energies is sufficient to replace coal. Of course, we will still need reliable electricity in 2029, whether at three o’clock in the morning or at minus 7 degrees. That is why, logically, the coal phase-out is linked to the expansion of renewable energies, which will entail the greatest effort.
DER SPIEGEL: Again: Where are the binding rules?
Baerbock: The crucial thing is that it was agreed in the coalition deal that the expansion of renewable energies will be defined as a public interest in the future. Which was always the case with mining law – coal mining came first. Now, it’s renewable energies. And we need them not only for the electricity sector, but also for the transport sector and industry. Green power plants will have priority in planning processes and we will provide the state with the appropriate enforcement rights. That may sound technical, but it is a small revolution.
DER SPIEGEL: Does that mean that residents or conservationists will no longer be able to block wind farms through years of court proceedings?
Baerbock: It means that on balance, the importance of renewable energy and infrastructure is increasing. In this way, we are accelerating the planning and approval processes.
DER SPIEGEL: Many experts have called for a higher CO2 price for transport and heat. Why hasn’t that happened?
Baerbock: In light of exploding energy prices, an additional price increase right now wouldn’t be good for social reasons. And we’ve always said that you can’t rely on price alone. Otherwise, the richest people in the country will buy their way out, and everyone else will be left out in the cold. That’s why we now have a good mix of a price effect, regulatory law and subsidy policy.
DER SPIEGEL: Contrary to expectations, the Greens didn’t get the Transport Ministry. Will FDP control of the ministry slow down the transportation revolution?
Baerbock: In terms of content, we have anchored strong guardrails in the treaty. The coalition is committed to supporting the Europe-wide phaseout of the internal combustion engine by 2035. It will also ensure that there are 15 million fully electric cars by 2030, and that the charging point infrastructure will be expanded. Together, this will mean that only zero-emission cars will be newly registered in Germany at the beginning of the next decade.
DER SPIEGEL: How painful is it for you that you had to forego the Transport Ministry?
Baerbock: You can’t have it all, and in the coalition agreement, we fought for the foundations of the transformation in drive systems. We will be responsible for three key transformative portfolios: economy, environment and agriculture. Working together, we can really make a difference, especially if the economy and the environment are no longer played off against each other.
DER SPIEGEL: But aren’t you running the risk of losing the interpretive battle right from the get-go if there’s no high CO2 price, you don’t have control of the Transport Ministry and you’ve already given up on imposing a mandatory speed limit on autobahns?
Baerbock: I would, of course, preferred to see the diesel subsidy abolished, for example. But more crucial is the fact that, over the next few years, we’ll be building thousands of wind turbines and power lines and expanding charging point infrastructure. The coalition agreement provides a very solid basis for this.
DER SPIEGEL: Will your critics at the environmental organizations or Fridays for Future see it that way, too?
Baerbock: A strong civil society has to put its finger on the weak spots. I have no problem with that. The task now is now that of building a complete climate infrastructure in the country, which is extremely difficult, especially considering that so little has happened in recent years. But there is no way around it. We have the opportunity and the obligation to bring our industrialized country into an era without fossil energies and to secure prosperity for future generations. It is clear that the 1.5-degree path can only be achieved if European and international partners join in. That is why we need an active foreign policy element for dealing with climate change. The technologies we develop in Germany over the next few years must be exported to the world.
DER SPIEGEL: That will be your job, too. You are about to become Germany’s first female foreign minister. What does that mean to you?
Baerbock: At the beginning of the 1960s, women had to protest in front of the entrance to the Chancellery to finally get a female minister into the cabinet. There was strong resistance to overcome. But women before me did it. I am grateful to these women.
DER SPIEGEL: You said in a television interview before the election that if you became chancellor, your first trip abroad would be to Brussels. Will the same apply to a Foreign Minister Baerbock?
Baerbock: First, our party members have to vote on the coalition agreement and the tableau of cabinet appointments. Regardless: A strong German foreign policy can only be a European one. It is urgent that the Weimar Triangle be revived – Warsaw, Berlin and Paris are crucial to Europe. And even though we have several points of controversy with the Polish government, it is clear: We need close cooperation with our Eastern European partners.
DER SPIEGEL: You have spoken out against putting the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany into operation. What is your plan here?
Baerbock: My criticism of the gas pipeline is well known, for geostrategic and energy policy reasons. At the moment, the pipeline can’t be put into operation anyway. The Federal Network Agency just suspended certification.
DER SPIEGEL: Once you are sworn in, you will immediately have to address a significant developing conflict. Russia is mobilizing troops on its border with Ukraine and it is supplying less gas to Europe. In Belarus, refugees are being smuggled to the border. Is this a hybrid attack by Russia against the EU?
Baerbock: These are anything but easy times. We are experiencing a double blackmail by Lukashenko. On the one hand, refugees are being abused to divide Europe. On the other, the government wants to be recognized by the Europeans as negotiating partner, even though it is suppressing the opposition. You cannot allow yourself to be blackmailed by dictators. The EU must stand together as a community of values. That is why it is right to tighten sanctions and continue to put pressure on the Lukashenko regime. At the same time, diplomacy always means seeking dialogue.
DER SPIEGEL: So, unlike your fellow party members, you have no problem with the fact that Chancellor Angela Merkel called Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko?
Baerbock: You cannot pursue foreign policy without dialogue. We are also talking to the Taliban to get people to safety, after all. But it did not need to be the chancellor calling Lukashenko.
DER SPIEGEL: Poland isn’t letting migrants and refugees into the country at the EU’s external border. Is this the right way to handle the conflict?
Baerbock: Poland needs European solidarity. But of course international law must also be respected at Europe’s external borders, that is clear.
DER SPIEGEL: What might a solution look like?
Baerbock: There is no simple solution. But it is important that Germany, the EU and Poland act together. Even if, from my point of view, providing for the refugees – also on Polish, i.e., EU territory – must be the top priority.
DER SPIEGEL: Are we in a new Cold War with Russia and China?
Baerbock: I don’t believe in simply applying old categories to new geopolitical developments. We are in a systemic rivalry with authoritarian regimes and must make every effort to defend the international rules-based order. It is a matter of protecting the principles of international law, human rights and the international peace order. For several years, it has not only been a matter of military threats, but also of hybrid aggression.
DER SPIEGEL: You personally rejected Germany’s participation in NATO’s atomic deterrent, but now nuclear sharing is in the coalition agreement. Do you have to go against your beliefs?
Baerbock: In a coalition, each partner has to move a bit so that we can make progress together. The coalition agreement contains a commitment to nuclear sharing. At the same time, we reaffirmed our common goal of a world free of nuclear weapons and a Germany free of nuclear weapons. Germany will advocate nuclear disarmament as an observer at the Meeting of States Parties to the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. We have always emphasized that these efforts are only possible in close consultation with our European and international partners.
DER SPIEGEL: Thousands of local hires who worked for Germany – who saved the lives of German troops – are still stranded in Afghanistan. What will your message to them be once you are sworn in as foreign minister?
Baerbock: It is good that the evacuation mission in Afghanistan will be dealt with in a parliamentary committee of inquiry. We must learn our lessons for future missions. And, of course, every effort must continue to be made to protect and welcome people who are at risk because they worked with us in the past.
DER SPIEGEL: Ms. Baerbock, we thank you for this interview.