When Germany threatened to slide into an energy crisis with catastrophic consequences, Robert Habeck acted – and in fact more pragmatically than the green philosopher was capable of. But that is only one side of the Habeck balance sheet for 2022.
You don’t have to fall to your knees with enthusiasm like the ex-Siemens boss Joe Kaeser, who likes to ride the zeitgeist wave and recently praised Robert Habeck as “worthy politician of the year”. Nevertheless, the Minister for Economic Affairs and Climate Protection surprised many in the first year of his term. Because he recognized faster and more clearly than other Green politicians that noble party-political principles are sometimes to be held so high that one can easily slip through them for pragmatic reasons.
Habeck came into the former ministry of Ludwig Erhard not because of proven economic competence, but because of coalition political proportional representation. Nor did he intend to make Germany more competitive as a business location; climate policy was more important to him.
Consequently, he filled many key positions in his House with representatives from environmental organizations linked to the Greens. The ideological conviction served as the most important hiring criterion.
Then came the Russian invasion of Ukraine. And suddenly the Germans and their companies had to fear for energy at reasonably affordable prices. If Putin hadn’t initially throttled the gas supply via Nord Stream 1 with strange reasons and then stopped it altogether, we might still be connected to the warmonger in the Kremlin as an energy customer today. There was not much to notice of value-based foreign trade policy.
When Germany threatened to slide into an energy crisis with catastrophic consequences, Habeck acted – and in fact more pragmatically than the green philosopher could have been given credit for. The Green Economics Minister made possible what went against numerous party congress resolutions that were sacrosanctly valid in his own party.
Habeck had decommissioned coal-fired power plants reactivated, imported liquid gas obtained from fracking and had LNG terminals built for this purpose, although as Schleswig-Holstein’s environment minister he had strictly rejected such a thing. Habeck even accepted that three nuclear reactors may continue to produce electricity at least until April next year.
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However, his pragmatic reactions to the crisis did not go as smoothly as is often portrayed in retrospect. At first, Habeck could not see any power problem. Then he failed miserably with his gas allocation. After all, only business amateurs in his area could have come up with the idea of putting an additional burden on consumers with rising energy prices.
Valuable time was wasted. This could have been better used to distribute the extensive relief that was then decided more precisely to the households and companies that actually need it. Instead, the traffic light decided to make the people happy with money from the watering can.
Habeck would certainly not have gone along with the continued operation of the nuclear power plants so easily in a red-green government – i.e. without the pressure from the FDP. So he left it to the Social Democratic chancellor to decide the dispute between red-green and yellow with a word of power. A responsible Economics Minister, on the other hand, would have tried to find new fuel rods as early as spring 2020.
He would at least have had the option of continuing to run the three nuclear power plants beyond April 15 if necessary. Joschka Fischer had shown more courage in 1999 in the fight with the pacifist wing of the Greens during the first foreign deployment of the Bundeswehr in Kosovo.
Habeck did not jeopardize his political existence during the crisis in order to force his own party to change course even more. His position that fracking gas shipped over thousands of miles from the USA – and prospectively from Qatar – is justifiable, while a possible gas production through fracking in one’s own country is the devil’s not convincing. Just as little credible is Habeck’s willingness, shown in line with his own party, to partially offset the energy deficit by importing nuclear power.
The sentence of the Prussian General Carl von Clausewitz, “No war plan survives the first encounter with the enemy,” can be applied to Robert Habeck’s one-year balance sheet. Instead of pushing ahead with the energy transition as he had planned, he had to prove himself as a crisis manager.
If you imagine that in this situation politicians would have led the Ministry of Economics with the ideological fury of Jürgen Trittins or Claudia Roth, you have to admit that Habeck, who was forced to be pragmatic by the crisis, was a positive surprise.