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Early splits in Germany's government?
An argument on nuclear energy is the new German government's first test.
The shell of the last verbotene firework had barely thudded back to earth over New Year when the first dispute in Germany’s new political era began to fizzle.
The spark had been set in the evening of December 31st by the European Commission, which published its proposal for which energy sources should be classified as “sustainable” and thus eligible for billions of euros in funding as part of the “Green New Deal.”
The Green party, who now head the German climate and environment ministries, were left rubbing their eyes on January 1st at the news that the Commission had endorsed both nuclear energy and natural gas as sustainable technologies.
Vice-Chancellor Robert Habeck (Greens) reacted by calling the proposal “greenwashing” and “a dilution of the good label of sustainability.”
“Nuclear energy is neither green nor sustainable - it’s high-risk,” chimed in the Greens’ Bundestag leader, Katharina Dröge.
The outrage among the Greens was echoed in the German press.
A lead article in Die Zeit newspaper described the proposal as a “meltdown for the environment.”
“The taxonomy [EU jargon for its sustainability classification] was supposed to be a model for green financing across the globe, encouraging banks and investors to spend their riches sustainably in the future,” the article complained. Instead it is being used as a fig leaf for a French nuclear programme that will create “enough radioactive waste to fill 450 olympic swimming pools.”
To make matters worse, the Greens suspect that Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) made a secret deal with French President Emmanuel Macron, whereby Germany would acquiesce to French nuclear ambitions as long as Paris stays quiet on the natural gas Germany pumps under the Baltic from Siberia.
Scholz’s Social Democrats (SPD), while anti-nuclear, support expanding gas imports from Russia.
For one, the SPD have always believed Germany has a historical duty to do trade with Moscow as a way of making up for the crimes of the Wehrmacht. But they also have a hard-nosed belief in natural gas as a “bridging technology” that will help keep the lights on when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing.
The SPD have so far kept largely quiet on the Commission’s proposal.
The final member of Germany’s delicate threesome, the liberal Free Democrats (FDP), clearly have the least problem with the Commission’s taxonomy.
While the FDP pay lip service to Germany’s anti-nuclear stance, they are loud cheerleaders on natural gas.
“We need gas-fired power plants in Germany so as to ensure security of supply while we phase out coal,” Lukas Köhler, FDP leader in the Bundestag, told Die Welt. “It’s right that gas is classified as sustainable as long as it’s understood as a bridging technology,” he added.
The SPD and the FDP are realistic enough to recognize that the shut down of the country’s last nuclear plants at the end of this year means that reliable energy sources need to be found elsewhere. Given that Germany has next to no storage capabilities for its renewable power, long wind lulls on dark winter days threaten black outs.
The Greens think Germany can do without nuclear and gas, while shutting down its coal powered stations by the end of the decade - an unrealistic stance. But it is a stance that enjoys wide acceptance among voters, particularly their urban Stammklientel.
For a nation that is so practical in many ways, Germany is exasperatingly dogmatic when it comes to energy production. While many of their European partners - above all France - see nuclear as a key technology in meeting climate targets, Germans are often convinced of a threat posed by Atomenergie that belies any evidence produced by the historical record.
Environmental activists have already started a campaign called Scholz schummelt (Scholz is cheating) intended to up the pressure on the government to reject the Commission’s proposal.
The next few weeks are likely to be particularly tricky for the Greens, who will have to walk a tightrope between the ideologically purity of their grass roots and the political realism that comes with holding power.
But the SPD will also have to tread carefully. Being seen to prioritize relations with Paris (and Moscow) over environmentalism won’t go down well with many centre-left voters. In his heart of hearts Scholz might favour natural gas (and even nuclear), but he has been in the business long enough to know that it belongs to good political taste to look down on them as inferior technologies of a bygone era.
My guess is that Berlin doesn’t have enough EU allies to stop nuclear making it into the Commission’s “taxonomy.” France has a strong coalition of nuclear advocates in its camp including Finland, Poland and potentially Sweden. Berlin can rely on Vienna, Madrid… and Luxembourg.
But there is already talk in the German press of taking the Commission to the European Court. That would be an interesting start to the post-Merkel era to put it mildly!
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