Berlin has a new strongman: the Greens’ co-chief and future vice chancellor Robert Habeck, whose pragmatism and track record in Schleswig-Holstein looks tailor-made to drive Germany’s renewable energy expansion.
As Brussels braces for tough negotiations over the EU’s proposed 2030 climate plan, the so-called ‘Fit for 55’ package, Berlin has just designated a new vice-chancellor who will be a key player in the upcoming talks.
Robert Habeck, the first-ever Green minister of the economy, energy and now also climate protection, is at the helm of a super ministry that will span general economic policy, as well as SMEs, renewable energy, and the much-needed expansion of the country’s electricity grid.
Taking over a ministry previously held by the conservative Peter Altmaier, Habeck will add the climate portfolio to his mandate and create a veritable super-ministry of almost 2,000 staffers, larger than the European Commission’s DG ENER, DG ENV and DG CLIMA combined, with a budget upwards of €10 billion.
Germany’s new super-minister has until now been an anomaly in politics – his easy-going nature once earned him the nickname of “panda of German politics”. But as he takes over the reins, he seems determined to seize the opportunity and make a difference.
“Radical challenges need radical solutions,” Habeck said in a 2018 interview with ZDF heute show, calling for the Greens to stick to their values rather than compromise their values in order to appeal to the center.
Doing this in the position of a ministry that has traditionally championed the interests of industry won’t be easy.
“Until now, the Ministry of Economics has acted as an advocate for energy-intensive industries vis-à-vis the Ministry of the Environment. This appointment should be the end of it,” said Marco Beicht, founder of software firm Powercloud, in an interview with FAZ.
The greatest strength of the 52 year-old philosopher may be his communication skills. Habeck is known for convincing fishermen and conservationists about the importance of building offshore wind farms.
“He’s more of a generalist than a specialist, and he has a way of simplifying complex issues,” Uwe Jun, a political scientist at the University of Trier, told AFP.
Habeck assuming the economy ministry, while his party colleague Steffi Lemke is slated to become minister of the environment, could represent a paradigm shift for German industry.
One of the reasons why German business chiefs are not yet in full-blown panic mode is the fact that Christian Lindner, the leader of the business-friendly liberal FDP, will become finance minister and offer a counterbalance to Habeck.
“Habeck and Lindner are a duo with potential for tension,” said Moritz Kraemer, chief economist at bank LBBW, in comments to FAZ.
In addition, the fact that Habeck is a known quantity from his time as state minister in Schleswig-Holstein and a so-called “pragmatist” within the Greens does much to ease business anxieties.
“Habeck has shown in Schleswig-Holstein that he can do economics. A Green Federal Minister of Economics stands for the reconciliation of economy and ecology,” Nikolas Stihl, chair of chainsaw maker Stihl, told FAZ.
Habeck’s central mission will be to push forward Germany’s coal exit and double the country’s green power output to achieve the 80% renewable electricity target laid out in the new coalition agreement.
The 2038 coal exit date agreed by the Angela Merkel government was untenable for the Greens and Habeck was among those pushing for the new coalition’s ambition to phase out coal as early as possible, “ideally” in 2030.
Germany’s “Energiewende” has floundered in recent years because of lack of popular support for new power lines and onshore wind turbines, and overcoming the acceptance gap is one of Habeck’s key skills.
In Schleswig-Holstein, he oversaw a doubling of renewable energy capacity thanks to his “earliest possible and intensive public participation” approach to reduce lawsuits against wind turbines.
But Habeck is also aware that his task as federal minister is going to be a massive challenge.
“Climate neutrality is a gigantic transformation project, with immense change and imposition, that has to be moderated,” he told the SZ, adding he expected tough negotiations ahead.
“Trouble and strife lurk behind every bush,” he said, as reported by Clean Energy Wire (CLEW). “It’s about facing up to it and resolving conflicts.”
The vice-chancellor inherits a host of policy proposals at the EU level as well: in July 2021, the European Commission proposed a massive package of measures designed to achieve the bloc’s 2030 climate targets of reducing emissions by 55% before the end of the decade.
This will be complemented by a “gas package” in December, a set of legislation that will be vital for gas-addicted Germany.
Although the coalition agreement states that, “in the negotiations on the EU programme ‘Fit for 55’, we support the proposals of the EU Commission,” tensions could soon appear between the Greens and the business-friendly FDP, which espouses the German industry’s “technological neutrality” approach to regulation.
In what appeared as a compromise with the FDP, the new government coalition thus aims to “make the instruments in the individual sectors as technology-neutral as possible.”
Technological neutrality is a well-known refrain among German industry associations.
When the European Commission proposed a 2035 ban on the internal combustion engine earlier this year as part of its ‘Fit for 55’ package, the German automotive manufacturer association VDA said: “This is hostile to innovation and the opposite of technology-neutral”.
While German carmakers like Volkswagen and Daimler have embraced the shift to electric mobility, other parts of the German auto industry still see a future in the internal combustion engine.
“In the field of mobility, a high degree of technological openness is required in order to achieve the long-term goal of climate neutrality as cost-efficiently and affordably as possible,” reads the analysis of the German coalition agreement by the powerful industry association BDI.
One last note for those interested in following Habeck: Following a 2019 blunder in which he referred to an East-German state as undemocratic, he deleted his Twitter and Facebook accounts but can be found on Instagram where he is relatively active.
[Edited by Frédéric Simon]