The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Germany’s rising Green Party echoes many U.S. policies. That could rattle pipeline plans from Russia.

A sign directs visitors toward the Nord Stream 2 gas line facility in Lubmin, Germany. (Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images)
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BERLIN — Annalena Baerbock was born the same year as Germany's Green Party, then a fringe mix of peace activists, environmentalists, equal rights campaigners and members of the anti-nuclear movement, skeptical of Western power.

Forty years later — espousing a foreign policy generally in sync with the Biden administration — she hopes to lead the much-transformed Greens to an election win in September as Germany begins a new political era without Angela Merkel at the helm.

Laying out her vision in interviews, Baerbock has put a tougher stance toward Moscow and Beijing at the center of her foreign policy promises — a break from a more cautious approach under Merkel that has been a source of frustration in both Washington and Brussels.

That includes the end of political backing for Nord Stream 2, a nearly completed gas pipeline between Russia and Germany that has long been a wrench in U.S.-German relations.

The United States and others argue that the pipeline — which Russian officials say could be completed as early as this summer — would leave Europe a hostage to Russian energy and threaten U.S. national security.

Advocates say the private project is key to securing the region’s gas supplies, doubling the shipments of the original Nord Stream that opened a decade ago.

Speaking to the Atlantic Council in her first English-language interview since being nominated as her party’s candidate for chancellor, Baerbock talked of being on the “same field” as the Biden administration when it comes to climate and human rights, and cautioned of a “new strategic fight” with Russia and China.

Such comments will be “music to the ears” of those in Washington who are thinking about how to bring Europe, and specifically Germany, into the fold of considering Russia and China to be strategic competitors, said Cathryn Clüver Ashbrook, executive director of the Project on Europe and the Transatlantic Relationship at the Harvard Kennedy School.

“She’s in lockstep there with the way Americans are thinking,” Ashbrook added.

Why the world worries about the Nord Stream 2 pipeline

The election outcome is far from certain. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union remains a powerful force, but her retirement leaves the party with a successor, Armin Laschet, whose poll numbers are weak.

That has put the Greens — for the moment — in the pole position for chancellor. No party is expected to win a majority, but the Greens’ strong showing makes them likely to be a key part of any coalition.

Merkel has tried to position Germany as a bridge between East and West. As a child of the Cold War, analysts say, her foreign policy is driven by the desire not to return to one.

She has remained unwavering in support of Nord Stream 2, despite pressure even from within her own party after last year’s poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny and a buildup of Russian troops around Ukraine.

In Brussels, Merkel has been a driving force for a huge E.U.-China investment deal, which is crumbling under tit-for-tat sanctions over China’s treatment of Uyghurs.

Baerbock, however, grew up in a united Europe, studied abroad in London and the United States, and worked in Brussels. She has called for a clear, united European position on key issues, including more cooperation on security.

“Her thinking about the world and foreign policy and the challenges we face is really not shaped by the Cold War,” said Bastian Hermisson, head of the Washington office for the Heinrich Böll Stiftung, a Greens-affiliated think tank. “But it is really shaped by a united Europe, where she really thinks about Central and Eastern Europe just as much as she thinks about Western Europe.”

Opponents of Baerbock pick at her lack of political experience; she has not run a ministry or led one of Germany’s state governments. But that outsider status also could help her if a sense of change is in the air. An impassioned speaker, she stands out in the staid world of German politics.

How Germany’s Greens look to be the kingmakers of the post-Merkel era

Domestically, the Greens point to their leadership in the state of Baden-Württemberg, home to Germany’s auto industry powerhouses, Daimler and Porsche, as proof they can balance environmental policies with business interests.

When it comes to Nord Stream 2, Baerbock has said she will end political support for the pipeline. But she has also acknowledged the difficulties posed by the fact that much of it has already been built.

In the gray waters of the Baltic Sea, two Russian pipe-laying vessels are rushing to complete the last 70 miles.

“The question is what legal instruments we have to stop it, from a German point of view,” said Claudia Müller, Green parliamentarian for Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, where the pipeline lands. “I think a moratorium is possible.”

Supporters of the pipeline have said a German block would result in enormous claims for damage by investors.

But European Parliament member Reinhard Bütikofer believes that, without political backing, the project would struggle to overcome the regulatory hurdles it still needs to clear. At least 18 international companies working on the pipeline have pulled out under the threat of sanctions.

“I’m optimistic that there will be a way out of the dead end to which the German government has backed into,” he said.

Others see a compromise as the only solution at this stage.

With China, a change in tone in Berlin could also have ripples across Europe, said Noah Barkin, senior visiting fellow at the German Marshall Fund.

“If Germany shows other countries in Europe that it’s willing to pay an economic price for a tougher, more realistic China policy, then I think you’ll see other countries following Germany’s lead,” he said.

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Yet few expect a “revolution” in German politics with Merkel gone, he said.

“The Greens are going to be in coalition with another party or other parties,” Barkin added, “and any new government will have to reach a consensus on big foreign policy issues.”

Still, he said, Germany could adopt a sterner tone on human rights and a tougher line on technology issues such as 5G, where China’s Huawei and others are in competition with Western rivals.

From Washington’s perspective, “there are good things and bad things” when it comes to the defense-shy Greens, Barkin said.

“They may not be the best partner when it comes to NATO and the military,” he said.

Baerbock has said the pledge by NATO members to commit 2 percent of gross domestic product to defense spending is “arbitrary.”

In its only other stint in federal power — as a junior coalition partner between 1998 and 2005 — the Green Party struggled with a backlash from its pacifist base after its foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, backed sending German troops to Kosovo.

Regardless of how the Greens do in September, Baerbock’s candidacy appears to have cemented a leading political role.

“She’s really shown her mettle in the last couple of weeks,” said Clüver Ashbrook. “She seemingly is ready for it. She comes off as competent, she knows the issues. She can hold the spotlight. She can withstand, seemingly, the heat in the engine room.”

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Luisa Beck contributed to this report.