Robert Habeck: could he be Germany's first Green chancellor?

The poetry-loving politician waxes lyrical about his party’s chances of leading Europe’s biggest economy

If Robert Habeck were to become Germany’s next chancellor, he would not only be the first Green head of government of a major economy, but also certainly the first politician to have launched his career by translating the Liverpool poet Roger McGough.

The 50-year-old politician recalls being bowled over watching the Mersey Beat lyricist at a reading in Hamburg in 1994: “We’d never seen anything like this: pop poetry for the masses.”

Habeck and his wife, Andrea Paluch, both literature graduates, promptly began rendering some of McGough’s verses into German. They won a prestigious translation prize, leading them to take on works by WB Yeats and Ted Hughes and to eventually write their own young adult novels.

In one of the verses the duo translated, McGough muses how dreamy literary types often struggle with the demands of practical reality: “Though some are closet fascists / In the main they’re democrats / But all things considered / poets make terrible acrobats.”

And yet, on the eve of 2020 the spotlight is on Habeck as he prepares to launch himself on to the geopolitical trapeze.

Since he and his co-leader, Annalena Baerbock, took charge of the German Greens in January 2018, the environmentalist party has surged in the polls, leapfrogging the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) to challenge Angela Merkel’s conservatives for the top spot.

If the beleaguered “grand coalition” between the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and SPD were to collapse in the coming months – far from impossible given the SPD’s new leftwing leadership – the Greens would be kingmakers. And if such an election gifted a three-way alliance with the SPD and Die Linke (the Left) a governing majority, there would be a Green chancellor – which would be a first not only in Germany, but in a major economy.

Habeck’s nomination as the Greens’ candidate for chancellor is not a given: his co-leader, 39-year-old Baerbock, has become an equally prolific politician and gathered more votes among the party base when the pair were re-elected in November.

Habeck with his Green party co-leader, Annalena Baerbock
Habeck with his Green party co-leader, Annalena Baerbock. Photograph: Felipe Trueba/EPA

But the way in which he relishes giving straight answers to big questions has all the self-confidence and determination of a man whom Foreign Policy magazine has already described as Germany’s answer to Emmanuel Macron.

Could he really imagine leading the biggest economy in Europe? “It has nothing to do with imagination,” Habeck says, sitting in the Green party’s Berlin offices, not far from Merkel’s chancellory. “Currently we are second in the polls. If that’s still the case in the run-up to an election, we will answer that question very seriously.”

Green party vote in Germany

A Green-led environment policy, says Habeck, would be “more consistent” than under Merkel, while in terms of foreign policy, “a government with the Greens would be more based on values than it is now”.

“We would tell China that we will no longer build products into critical infrastructure of which we aren’t sure if they pose a security threat. We would hold democratic values up high.”

Habeck has consistently argued for the Green movement to reinvent itself for the position it now finds itself in. In his 2016 book Wer wagt, beginnt (“Who dares begins”) he proposed that a left-right axis in politics was making way for a new scale of open and closed political systems, and that Greens were best placed to emerge on top as the old laws of political gravity are suspended.

“The Greens can no longer just be the second line in the defence, to fill in the gaps that have opened in the ranks of the CDU or SPD,” Habeck says. “We now try to become the new playmakers.

“The Green party was founded to address issues that other parties had forgotten. But now these issues have a powerful effect on all of us. Voters realise their world is changing: we have sleepless nights in the summer, burning forests, dried out rivers, dwindling food resources for animals.

“Green parties can also address central questions that don’t fit into the traditional left-right spectrum. Many of these are cultural: how do you organise an open society? How do we establish a consensus in a diverse society?”

Both Habeck and Baerbock hail from the realo or pragmatic wing of the German Greens – a first in the 30-year history of a party that grew out of the anti-nuclear movement of the 1970s and first entered parliament in 1983.

Habeck shies away from the term “centrist”; his expression of choice is that the Greens should be “at the heart of society”. If that is the direction of travel, should Green parties still describe themselves as leftwing?

“If leftwing means progressive, in favour of an open society, against a closed, nationalist, or in the case of the AfD [Alternative für Deutschland party], fascistic worldview, then yes”, Habeck says.

“If left means dismissing Europe, migration and environmental concerns as modern fads, and simply dream, Corbyn-like, that the old white working-class will close ranks again, then it’s an empty category.”

A number of stumbling blocks on the path to power remain. One of the reasons the Greens underperformed at previous elections is that they failed to shake off their reputation as the Verbotspartei, the party that wants to ban everything.

“There can be no politics that doesn’t ban things,” Habeck says. “We have a highway code, a code of civil law: the world is full of bans that exist in order to guarantee our freedom. What’s different with the Greens is that we dare to apply that thinking to environmental questions too.”

What the Greens under Habeck’s leadership tried to avoid, he says, was attempting to regulate people’s private lives. “If you set standards at a broader political level, then that’s a good thing. If you tell people they have a personal calorie budget for animal proteins, then that’s a bad idea.

“And if you tell them there’s not going to be any meat at public canteens on a Thursday afternoon then that’s not cool either, because you are prescribing what they can eat when and where. But if you set standards for how the animals they eat are treated, then you can go to a kebab shop and eat doner any day you want.”

Anti-fossil fuel protesters at the Jänschwalde power plant in Brandenburg, eastern Germany
Anti-fossil fuel protesters at the Jänschwalde power plant in Brandenburg, eastern Germany, where the Greens have struggled to win support. Photograph: John MacDougall/AFP via Getty Images

Another area where the Greens struggle is that their message resonates most strongly in urban areas, and in the old west: at state elections in Brandenburg in the formerly socialist east, where Germany’s planned phase-out of coal power is likely to kill off the remaining mining industry, the Greens only came fourth this year.

“We tried to explain to people there were plans after the coal mines had closed down: infrastructure projects, new hospitals, fast broadband,” says Habeck, who lives with his family of five in the rural northernmost part of Germany, on the border with Denmark. “But after experiencing all these rough changes in the past people found it understandably difficult to trust.

“But they did start listening to me when I said: before we are going to talk about what comes next, I am going to say thank you for you and your parents dedicating your life and health to building the industrial heart of the country.”

Admittedly, he adds, they did not start voting for the Greens then either. “But they realised there’s a form of respect here. People know the world is changing, but they want the credit they deserve for what they have achieved historically. Politics has to see the other side.”


Philip Oltermann in Berlin

The GuardianTramp

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