French President Emmanuel Macron’s bombastic comments about NATO’s senility and the European Union’s dysfunctionality have rubbed many Germans the wrong way—understandably so, as they’ve been the target, implicitly or not, of many of his criticisms. And yet it’s also undeniable that Germans envy Macron’s self-confidence, resolve, and strategic ambition. The dependable Chancellor Angela Merkel may have a special place in Germans’ hearts, but there’s an ever more palpable yearning in the country for a bold, dynamic leader in the mold of the French head of state: one who dares to innovate and improvise, even when the stakes are high.
None of the possible successors to Merkel in her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) fit this bill. Her hand-picked heir apparent, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, has struggled mightily as party chief and is no more imaginative when it comes to the existential problems bedeviling Europe and the world. As for the floundering Social Democrats—who in desperation just picked a new leftist leadership in Norbert Walter-Borjans and Saskia Esken—want nothing more than to flee the government and lick their wounds for a few years in the opposition.
Macron himself swept to power only after circumventing France’s existing parties and creating a movement of his own. And so it’s fitting that the closest Germany has to offer to a Macron doesn’t hail from its biggest establishment parties but is rather the co-chairperson of Germany’s Green party, Robert Habeck. Like Macron, Habeck is a cerebral, unconventional politician who believes the day’s large-frame problems, in particular the climate crisis, deserve large-frame solutions, and not just Merkel-style crisis management. And he is persuading unprecedented numbers of Germans to follow his lead.
Like Macron, the 50-year-old Habeck is a relative newcomer to electoral politics. Hailing from Germany’s northernmost borderlands abutting Denmark (in addition to German and English, he speaks Danish), he was a children’s book author, novelist, and translator of English poetry before entering politics full time in 2009.
Just three years after he burst onto the political scene, the father of four was named deputy prime minister in his home state, Schleswig-Holstein, with responsibility for energy, agriculture, and the environment. The Greens proudly touted him as Germany’s first-ever Energiewende minister, referring to Germany’s clean-energy transition, which the party initiated the last time it held federal office, from 1998 to 2005. Squeezed between the North and Baltic Seas, Schleswig-Holstein is known for its sprawling wind parks, which generate electricity for the entire country and employ 12,000 people. Last year, the party overwhelmingly elected Habeck and the no less impressive Annalena Baerbock to lead the Greens nationwide. (Of the two, Habeck is considered the more likely leading national candidate because he’s held higher office at the state level, is more broadly popular across the country, and more prominent in the media.)
A member of the Greens’ pragmatic faction (rather than its more left-wing one), Habeck has been focused on getting his party into power and is ready to make compromises that, in the past, many Greens have been loath to stomach. The Greens already live this conviction on Germany’s regional level, where they participate in mix-and-match coalitions in eight of the 16 regional states. On the national level, the Greens have been over 20 percent in the polls for nearly a year, far outpacing the Social Democrats and threatening to overtake the CDU. Habeck won’t speak it aloud, but his ambition is clearly to lead not just his party, but the country as a whole after the 2021 national elections—and to partner with Macron in reshaping Europe.
The chemistry could be right—and Paris seems entirely open to the idea: Macron already hosted Habeck on Oct. 2. The German’s disregard for Berlin’s fiscal conservatism—he wants to see massive state investment in environmental technologies, including electric cars and sustainable agriculture, even if it means incurring debt—apparently warmed the Frenchman’s heart; and Macron said that he, unlike Merkel, backed Habeck’s preferred ecological criteria in trade pacts, including the EU’s pending one with the Mercosur bloc, which includes Brazil. The Greens would need no prodding to sign up for Macron’s version of more tightly integrated eurozone and EU, even including greater burden-sharing for Germany.
What’s clear is that Paris has given up on Merkel and her deputy, Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, who have allowed Macron’s multiple plans for Europe’s future to repeatedly wither and die. In the Élysée Palace, concluded the weekly Der Spiegel, “The hope [for Germany] is green, and maybe the future too—that’s the calculation.”
The duo might be the best bet to reconstitute the French-German tandem in a way that could reform the EU, set a global gold standard for climate protection, and transform Europe into a more assertive global force. France could lead on security and foreign affairs, Germany on climate and energy. In such a division of labor, the two leaders certainly wouldn’t encroach on the other’s turf: Macron hasn’t established any reputation as an environmentalist, and Habeck steers clear of geopolitics when he can.
The two also share an affinity for post-ideological politics and commitment to dialogue, which would greatly expedite breaking the logjams on a range of issues. This throwing off of ideological boundaries is what Habeck preaches as he tours the country, quite obviously laying the groundwork for an election campaign—which, given the shakiness of the governing coalition, could be around the corner. This nonideological approach was also Macron’s original appeal and still today explains the ease with which he devises unorthodox solutions to entrenched problems. It was how, for example, he responded to the yellow vest protests: by starting a series of national dialogues in town halls.
Indeed, much separates the two outsiders, too. Habeck is a soft-spoken man with a perpetual five-day beard who despises formality, both in attire and political ceremony. The French president thrives on it. “Macron’s a terrier, Habeck a golden retriever,” said Alan Posener of the daily Die Welt. Macron’s market-liberal economic convictions are miles from those of most Greens, who increasingly see the transition to a climate-friendly economy as a means to address social inequality in Germany and win back voters from the far-right. And Macron is certainly not prepared to radically restructure EU common agricultural policy, which French farmers above all profit from and Greens Europewide have in their sights.
Yet this hypothetical partnership depends on the possibility of a Green in the chancellery, which some observers scoff at. Although the German Greens are currently riding high, they still trail Merkel’s Christian Democrats by a solid four or five points and fail badly to capture the imagination of Eastern Germans. The Greens also tend to fare better in opinion polls than they do at the ballot box. And never has a Green—or a politician from any party other than the Christian Democrats or Social Democrats—served as chancellor in the Federal Republic’s seven decades of existence.
But the scenario that can make it happen isn’t the stuff of fairytales. Come the next election campaign in summer 2021, it will not be the popular pantsuit-wearing chancellor of 16 years at the fore of the Christian Democrats but rather the likes of Kramp-Karrenbauer or the former lawmaker Friedrich Merz or Christian Social Union leader Markus Söder. None of them is remotely popular; in fact, their favorability ratings dwell on the cellar floor.
Habeck, on the other hand, is among Germany’s most popular politicians. One survey in June found twice as many Germans can see him as chancellor as can envision Kramp-Karrenbauer. If the Greens can capitalize on this—and the CDU continues to unravel in infighting—the party could pull even and overtake the conservatives. (The Greens—which have their roots in the 1970s counterculture and were once an anti-NATO scourge—have already buried the Social Democrats, who linger at around 15 percent in polls.)
The explanation for the Greens’ shot at the chancellorship—which could broadly transform German and European politics—lies only partially in the person of Habeck. The Greens themselves, as a party, have their act together like at no time in the past. Habeck and co-chair Baerbock both hail from the party’s moderate wing; they play well off each other, reflecting a mature, savvy party at peace with itself (for just about the first time in 40 years). Not only are the Greens’ centrists open to diverse coalitions, in contrast to the standard red-green model that brought the Social Democrats and Greens into federal office two decades ago, but the other parties are open to them, too. In southwestern Baden -Württemberg, there’s even a green-black coalition in which the Greens supply the minister-president, Winfried Kretschmann, and the CDU (grudgingly) settles for the No. 2 spot.
Brimming with confidence, the Greens are riding the wave of concern about the climate crisis—finally getting traction with an issue they’ve hammered away at for three decades, with little success until now. In the 2017 general election, the first three points of the party’s 10-point program concerned climate policy, including the shuttering of the country’s dirtiest coal-fired power plants by 2020. But the Greens only captured a paltry 8.9 percent of the vote. Now they would nearly triple that, according to the polls.
Of course, the party has the Fridays for Future climate change movement, which boasts a powerful stronghold in Germany, to thank for much of that new momentum, and there’s yet more aid coming from the younger generations, many inspired by the Swedish activist Greta Thunberg. In 2021, many of today’s high school students will be voting, most probably expanding the Greens’ already disproportionately high share of young and first-time voters.
Emmanuel Macron and Robert Habeck both studied philosophy, and they can quote Kant and Hegel—though perhaps they do not agree on categorical imperatives. What binds as well as what separates them might well make them the perfect pair to get Europe back on track.