A TV interview in early September marked the turning point for Germany’s most popular politician: Economy Minister and Vice-Chancellor Robert Habeck, visibly exhausted, appeared on public broadcaster ZDF, where he was asked whether he feared a wave of insolvencies because of the rising energy prices.
In an obvious attempt to make the situation seem less dramatic, he spoke incoherently about small bakeries possibly having to halt production, leaving his audience wondering whether the minister understood what actually constitutes insolvency.
The backlash on social media was swift and fierce. Jörg Goldenbaum, a master baker from the northern German state of Lower Saxony, was one of the many who took to Twitter to vent their anger at the government: “They don’t give a damn about small businesses,” he wrote.
Habeck seemed “helpless,” conservative opposition leader Friedrich Merz gleefully told parliament the next day.
While Habeck, in a show of confidence, responded by announcing plans for “redesigning the European energy market.”
“With statements, such as the possible end of production for small bakeries, Robert Habeck failed to show the necessary empathy for the plight of certain groups in society. Empathy, however, is a core element of good crisis communication,” communication scientist Andreas Schwarz of the Technical University (TU) in Ilmenau told DW.
Since the center-left coalition government came to office in December 2021, Habeck has outshone Chancellor Olaf Scholz from the Social Democrats (SPD). Since the Ukraine war began, he has been traveling the world in search of energy sources to replace Russian gas. He reached the hearts and minds of the public with straightforward and emotional messages of genuine concern. He showed compassion and shared his thoughts, while the chancellor seemed aloof and tight-lipped.
But now Habeck seems exhausted and insecure. “He dithers during public appearances now,” political scientist Wolfgang Merkel observed in an interview with ZDF broadcaster.
“Robert just needs to get some sleep and have a good rest,” one of his Green Party colleagues told DW.
But there’s simply no time for that at this moment of crisis. Habeck is the economy minister and vice-chancellor and people expect him to steer the country through the winter as energy costs skyrocket.
“When fears of price increases and security of supply dominate perceptions and at the same time the political measures that are communicated to the public are perceived as ineffective or insufficient, negative reactions increase — the rejection of the measures, blaming politicians, conspiracy theories. The current criticism of Habeck’s measures leads to this kind of situation,” said analyst Andreas Schwarzer.
Two measures, in particular, announced by Habeck over the past few weeks, are causing tempers to flare up.
Germany’s first nuclear reactor went online in October 1957 in Garching, near Munich. Given its shape, it was nicknamed the “atom egg” and belonged to Munich’s Technical University. It was a landmark in nuclear research and a symbol of a new beginning after WWII. In 1961, Germany began to produce energy for civilian use. Atomic energy was seen as safe and secure.
In the 1970s, opponents of nuclear energy questioned just how clean nuclear power was, seeing as there was no safe storage site for spent fuel rods. Thousands of protesters clashed with police during a demonstration against the nuclear power plant Brokdorf, in the northern German state of Schleswig-Holstein. “Nuclear energy? No thanks,” became the rallying cry for German environmentalists.
The danger of nuclear power soon became reality. On March 28, 1979, the plant at Three Mile Island, in the US state of Pennsylvania, had a serious accident. On April 26, 1986, a reactor at the plant near Chernobyl, in Soviet Ukraine, exploded, causing an unprecedented nuclear disaster. A radioactive cloud spread across Europe. A watershed moment for Germany. Protests gained steam.
In 1980, a new party was founded in West Germany: the Greens. Their members were a mix of left-wingers, peaceniks, environmentalists, and nuclear opponents. The party made it into the Bundestag, the German parliament, in 1983. The Chernobyl accident prompted the creation of a federal environment ministry in Germany.
The Bavarian town of Wackersdorf was set to get a reprocessing plant for spent nuclear fuel rods, but riots broke out. A number of protesters and civil service workers were killed. Hundreds more people were injured. Construction was halted in 1989. The German environmental movement claimed its first major victory.
Meanwhile up north, the town of Gorleben, in the state of Lower Saxony, became a symbol of the fight against nuclear waste. The salt dome there was picked as an interim storage facility for nuclear waste. But already in 1977, a large-scale study revealed that groundwater was seeping in, leading to the corrosion of the barrels holding the waste, posing major risks of radioactive contamination.
Germany’s exit from nuclear power has been marked by a back and forth. The center-left coalition of Social Democrats (SPD) and Greens under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder implemented the phaseout of nuclear energy in an agreement with big energy companies in 2001. An individual lifespan was determined for all 19 German nuclear power plants, requiring the last to be shut down by 2021.
In 2010, the center-right government under Chancellor Angela Merkel revoked the deal and decided to extend the operating lives of nuclear power plants. But following the accident at the Fukushima plant in Japan in 2011, Merkel abruptly announced the end to Germany’s era of nuclear power by December 31, 2022. On July 30, 2011, the Bundestag voted to shut down all nuclear reactors by then.
After years of especially intense protest, activists in Grohnde, Gundremmingen, and Brokdorf celebrated when the power plants there were switched off at the end of 2021. But the search for a safe repository will continue. The nationwide search for a geologically suitable safe site for high-level radioactive waste is to be completed by 2031.
In response to energy shortages due to the war in Ukraine, Germany has extended the lifespan of two of its remaining three nuclear power plants. Economy Minister Robert Habeck (r.) announced that Isar 2 and Neckarwestheim 2 are to be put on standby until mid-April 2023. This dashed conservatives’ hopes for a complete reversal of the decision to exit nuclear power.
One is the decision to keep two of Germany’s three remaining nuclear power stations on emergency standby throughout the winter, instead of switching them all off as planned at the end of this year.
The plants’ operators promptly labeled the standby plan technically unfeasible.
The conservative opposition, business leaders, and even the business-oriented Free Democrats (FDP) — the smallest party in the coalition government — are all calling for Germany’s nuclear power stations to continue operating. They point out the desperate need for every bit of electricity that is not generated by gas.
But Habeck, whose portfolio as minister includes not just economy but climate action and the energy transition, is “under pressure from different sides and different interest groups,” explained political scientist Wolfgang Merkel.
On the one hand, he has to help ensure that all available domestic energy sources can contribute to the overall supply, including coal and also nuclear power.
On the other hand, Habeck is a leading politician of the Greens and has to stand by his party’s core principles, such as the complete phase-out of nuclear energy and of fossil fuels, including coal.
The second controversial issue is that of a levy on natural gas (Gasumlage) that Habeck announced a few weeks ago: an additional 2.419 euro cents per kilowatt hour to be paid by all of the country’s gas-consuming households and businesses from October onward. The surcharge is meant to prop up struggling energy providers, who have been forced to buy expensive gas from other places than Russia.
Half of all German households are heated with natural gas, and Habeck estimated the levy to amount to “several hundred euros” annually per household — with tax to pay on top.
But the minister said there was no other way to prevent the breakdown of Germany’s energy supply system.
Just days before the fateful interview, Habeck found himself having to admit that his gas levy plans may have been a mistake: The surcharge meant to prop up struggling energy providers turned out to benefit profit-making companies too.
On September 21, Habeck insisted again the levy plans had to be implemented.
Bavaria’s powerful Premier Markus Söder wants the nuclear power plants to run and the gas levy idea to be scrapped
The leader of Bavaria’s powerful Christian Social Union (CSU) party, Markus Söder, has demanded the levy be scrapped. “The gas levy should be abolished. It is a political misconstruction and drives consumer prices up unnecessarily,” Söder, who also serves as Bavarian state premier, told the Augsburger Allgemeine newspaper.
Habeck, meanwhile, has promised better days ahead: “If we get through this winter, we have a good chance of getting significant relief in Germany next summer and next winter.” But amidst the current debate, such words fail to calm the mood.
“Because of Habeck’s high popularity and celebrated communication style, the political opposition, his competitors in the government and also individual interest groups in society have increasingly focused their attention and criticism on Habeck as a person,” said communications expert Andreas Schwarz.
“Precisely because of Habeck’s initial success, he is being observed very closely and scrutinized for any weakness in his communication,” he added.
That’s exactly the case now, and Habeck’s reaction to it is more thin-skinned than many would have expected.
After months of soaring numbers, the Greens continue to lose in the polls. In the Trendbarometer poll published Tuesday by the Forsa Institute, the Greens are still in second place, after the conservative Christian Democrats and the Bavarian CSU, but have sunk two notches to 19% support. Habeck’s personal ratings also dropped.
And in mid-October, the minister will have to face his own base at the Green Party convention in Bonn. Difficult times lie ahead for the political star of the Greens.
This article was originally written in German.
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