Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock set the moral tone of German politics after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In a speech to the UN general assembly in March she lambasted her Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov for his “lies”. At the EU’s border to Ukraine, she spoke with everyone from border guards, to refugees, to politicians.
Her honesty was seen as an antidote to Chancellor Scholz’s dithering and hesitation. But, while she almost single handedly saved Berlin’s reputation in London and Washington, her blunt manner of talking can sometimes stray into carelessness - not a good quality for the country’s top diplomat.
This week, a video has been doing the rounds on social media that shows Baerbock, 41, telling a forum in Prague that “no matter what my German voters think, I want to deliver” on promises made to Ukraine. The comments went viral on social media, where people claimed it was proof that she couldn’t give a monkey’s about the financial burden the war was placing on ordinary German voters.
Her ministry responded by saying that the video had been manipulated and boosted by Russian propaganda bots, but a day later the quote still appears to be genuine.
This follows a pattern of Baerbock saying something clumsy and then backtracking.
A few weeks ago she recounted to journalists how she’d told the Canadians that they needed to deliver a new turbine for the Nord Stream pipeline or Germany would be dealing with a “popular revolt”. Later pulled up on the remark, she claimed it was an “intentional exaggeration.”
Before visiting Ankara in July, she told reporters that she planned to speak “plain language” - a choice of words that offended her hosts. She also went to Athens before travelling to Ankara, where she broke with diplomatic convention by saying that “Greek islands are Greek territory, and no one has the right to question that.”
Similar comments on Taiwan a couple of weeks later, in which she described China and Taiwan as “neighbours”, led to a rebuke from Beijing, which claimed she had called into question Germany’s one China policy.
What has the reaction been?
Norbert Röttgen, the CDU politician who heads the Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee, criticised Baerbock for misreading the public mood. “Dear Ms. Baerbock, Your fake heroism is unnecessary,” he wrote on Twitter. “The majority of Germans are ready to continue supporting Ukraine. Democratic politicians must convince the rest with good arguments and not just say ‘enough!’.”
The hard-left and hard-right, both of which want talks with the Kremlin, called for Baerbock’s resignation this week.
“A foreign minister who avowedly represents the interests of Ukraine rather than German voters, and who rejects negotiations to end the war in the interests of the U.S. government, is not only a glaring miscast, but a danger to our country,” wrote Sarha Wagenknecht of Die Linke.
Alice Weidel, Bundestag leader of the AfD concurred: “The foreign minister’s resignation is overdue. Anyone who explicitly scorns the interests of voters in Germany no longer has any business in a ministerial post.”
For most people in the moderate sphere of German politics, the problem is not with the content of what Baerbock says - she is often just stating the actual German position - it is that the foreign minister is a role that requires discretion.
Polling shows that she is still the second most popular politician in the country, thanks in part to her blunt way of talking. She is certainly an asset to the government, but she could be a problem too.
Do you think that the younger generation of German politicans, across the parties, will adopt the blunt way of talking? Or do you think it is more her persona, her brand? Younger politicians, in general (worldwide), don't almost always have the ... polished public responses as older ones, but how much of that is simply experience and age?