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Germany's Robert Habeck has had a roller coaster year

October 11, 2022

The Green Party's Robert Habeck could not have imagined his first year in office would be so turbulent. DW's Jens Thurau sums up a year of crises for the German Economy and Climate Minister.

Economy Minister Robert Habeck
Economy Minister Robert Habeck has had a busy yearImage: Michael Kappeler/dpa/picture alliance

March: Doha, Qatar

In early March this year, Robert Habeckwent to Qatar on what journalists would later call his "gas begging tour." Before the trip, the Economy Minister of the center-left Green Party had already sounded out various countries — including Canada and Norway — for new gas supplies to Germany.

Habeck had then been in office for just over three months and had probably imagined his tenure would be quite different. He had hoped to drive forward action on climate protection and sustainability but instead found himself shopping for gas in the emirate, a country much criticized for its human rights violations.

Back in March, gas was still flowing from Russia via the North Sea pipeline Nord Stream 1. But in Doha, Habeck was already under no illusions that it would stay that way. He was proved right: In the autumn, both gas pipelines were ruptured following an attack. Many observers suspect Russia to be behind the detonations that led to massive leaks into the Baltic Sea.

But in Doha in the spring, Habeck was full of creative energy. He set clear priorities: The contradiction of a Green politician campaigning working to supply fossil fuels did not appear to bother him. The war in Ukraine, begun only a few days earlier, had changed everything.

Habeck took a large business delegation with him to the Gulf, and most business leaders were full of praise for his communication style. The CEO of the industrial group Thyssen Krupp, Martina Merz, told DW: "Mr. Habeck is doing a good job for Germany here. In my view, he sees himself in the talks as someone who wants to make connections, for the benefit of the green transformation and cooperation between countries."

Later, it turned out that the Qataris would prefer to supply liquefied gas to other countries that offer them long-term contracts. The German government, however, wants to cut its dependence on fossil fuels quickly — a conflict that shaped Habeck's first months in office.

But in Qatar, Habeck played to his strengths, such as his open communication style, which allowed room for doubt. More than any other politician in the coalition, Habeck articulated his concerns clearly after the Russian attack on Ukraine. "I mean, this guy has nuclear weapons," he told DW at the time, referring to Russia's President Vladimir Putin.

Habeck in Qatar
Few would have imagined last year that Habeck would be touring the Middle East making fossil fuel dealsImage: Bernd von Jutrczenka/dpa/picture alliance

June: Israel and Jordan

This time, Habeck was on the road not as a gas shopper, but more as German vice-chancellor. He visited the Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem and a large refugee camp in Jordan.

His mood was noticeably more serious than in March; during the trip, employees of his ministry reported on the enormous workload that the issue of energy supply had brought with it.

Later, at the end of September, Habeck said of his employees at a congress of the Federation of German Industries (BDI): "People, at some point, also have to sleep and eat. People get sick. They have burnout, they get tinnitus. They can't take it anymore."

At about the same time, a leading Green politician, who did not want to be named, told DW: "Robert needs a lie in." It wasn't only the employees who were at breaking point, but the minister himself was now also growing recognizably stressed.

Habeck: 'We will continue to fully support Ukraine in these difficult times'

July: Gas levy

Habeck's idea of levying a surcharge on all gas customers in Germany to support the companies now scouring the world market for expensive alternatives to Russian gas turned into a minor disaster.

Initially, different and confusing information circulated about the size of the levy. Habeck himself spoke of up to 5 cents per kilowatt hour, which would have burdened an average household with three to four people by up to €2,000 ($1,940) a year. Finally, it became 2.4 cents, and then the gas levy was abandoned altogether.

Instead, the government decided to spend a staggering €200 billion to cap gas prices and support companies. But it was still not clear exactly how this was to be done. It all remained uncertain and contradictory.

Habeck, long the most popular politician in Germany in almost all polls, slipped to fourth place in the latest "Political Barometer," behind his two party colleagues, Cem Özdemir, the agriculture minister, and Annalena Baerbock, the foreign minister. Chancellor Olaf Scholz was also ahead of Habeck.

September and October: The end of coal and nuclear power

Habeck faced sharp criticism, including from the business community when he said he wanted to keep only two of the three German nuclear power plants still in operation running until the end of March next year because of the energy crisis. All three were set to be shut down for good by the end of the year.

The issue of Lützerath was finally turning many Green voters against Habeck. It was announced that the village in the Rhineland's lignite mining region was to be finally bulldozed to make way for the expansion of the Garzweiler open pit mine, even though it had long since become the symbolic frontline of the German climate movement.

Although Habeck agreed with the energy company RWE to bring forward the phase-out of coal production in North Rhine-Westphalia from 2038 to 2030 in return, it meant little to the environmentalists who supported saving Lützerath.

Habeck's constituency office in Flensburg was barricaded with yellow wooden crosses — for a long time the symbol of opposition to coal and nuclear power — in a protest by climate activists.

Eight months after taking office, Robert Habeck is still struggling to maintain the balancing act between pragmatic wartime government policy and Green Party principles.

While you're here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society. You can sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing.

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Jens Thurau Jens Thurau is a senior political correspondent covering Germany's environment and climate policies.@JensThurau