Energy, unity and China – DW – 01/01/2023

Despite various mishaps and disputes, Germany’s coalition government — comprising the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), environmentalist Greens, and neoliberal Free Democrats (FDP) — is looking to the future with optimism. The leaders of the three parties published a guest commentary in the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, in which they wrote: “We want to make Germany more caring and fair, more modern and digital, competitive and climate neutral.” They could have written the same a year ago.

In reality, 2022 for Germany’s first three-party coalition government was characterized by one crisis after another, both national and international — and that is likely to remain the case in 2023. These crises had nothing to do with what the government set out to achieve when it took office in December 2021.

It now faces three big challenges: continue to guarantee a secure domestic energy supply in the face of rising prices, promote social cohesion and peace during a time of war, and define itself more clearly in foreign policy — especially toward China.

Economy Minister Robert Habeck, Chancellor Olaf Scholz, and Finance Minister Christian Lindner took pride in the fast construction of the first LNG terminalImage: Michael Sohn/REUTERS

Securing energy supplies

The government has poured a whopping €200 billion ($213 billion) into ensuring energy supplies for the German population and economy for this winter and the following after supplies of oil, gas and coal from Russia were almost completely stopped. What will come next also depends on how hands-on the government is in negotiations over the coming year.

In an interview with the domestic Funky media group, Chancellor Olaf Scholz, of the SPD, explained that he does not expect energy prices to fall back to what they were before Russia attacked Ukraine. “We will probably not return to the low prices that we had before the war.” But the situation will remain manageable, “because we will have new import possibilities at our disposal.” Germany will remain a strong and successful industrial nation.

This will however require the rapid expansion of renewable energy sources. But there have already been many conflicts within the coalition about the pace and plans in energy policy in 2022 — for example the gas levy idea from Economy Minister Robert Habeck (Greens) which was eventually abandoned, or the continued operation of the three remaining connected German nuclear power plants until April.

This cannot be repeated in 2023. The opposition Christian Democrats (CDU) leader Friedrich Merz told the Rheinische Post newspaper that the coalition argued too much and spent too little time improving economic and energy policy. He likened his critical assessment to a child’s report card, adding “In school, one would say they tried their best.”

Maintaining social cohesion

The government must also spend a lot of energy strengthening social cohesion in times of great crisis and uncertainty among the population. Most recently, a planned coup by far-right extremists linked to the far-right so-called “Reichsbürger” (citizens of the Reich) movement, which was foiled by authorities in December, caused much alarm among Germans.

Aside from this, the government must communicate better — and present a united front — in the matter of weapons deliveries and solidarity for Ukraine. According to a new study, divisions of opinion on this matter follow old Soviet-era political lines, with people in eastern Germany much more skeptical about support for Ukraine than those in western Germany.

right-wing protests in Leipzig in September 2022. A banner reads:
Inflation and rising energy prices have led to some protests and a rise in support for the far-rightImage: Christian Mang/REUTERS

In the survey by the Forum MIDEM, an international research network on migration and democracy based at the TU Dresden (Technical University), only 28% of the eastern Germans surveyed wanted to maintain support for the attacked country even if it led to higher energy prices in Germany. In western Germany, it was 42%. Every third eastern German agreed with the statement: “NATO provoked Russia for so long that Russia had to go to war.” In western Germany, 22% did.

That is why the foreign policy spokesperson for the opposition CDU in the Bundestag parliament, Roderich Kiesewetter, told DW that the government must “implement this turning point in history holistically in the areas of security, economy, and society. Swift implementation is necessary to defend our freedom and democracy against the Russian hybrid war in Europe and brace ourselves for the incipient systemic competition with China.”

This also includes Germany making more of an effort to ensure consistency of positions across the European Union. The billions Berlin spent on support for the German population against inflation and high energy prices, without much consultation, ruffled more than a few feathers among their EU partners.

Scholz’s day trip to China: Why now?

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Russia and China

Foreign policy towards China and Russia will be one of the main tasks for the German government. Kiesewetter told DW that the government now faces the job of “diversifying our energy supply and releasing ourselves from the cheap supply chains from China, to diversify better and recognize China’s aggressive and hybrid approach. China will carry out a military attack on Taiwan in the next few years — we must therefore significantly reduce our dependence on and influence of China as quickly as possible.”

In early November, Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s trip to China caused resentment, even within the coalition. It was the first visit to China by a Western head of government following the controversial reelection of President Xi Jinping on October 23.

And despite harsh criticism from the likes of Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock (Greens), the chancellor allowed the Chinese shipping company Cosco a minority stake in a container terminal at the Hamburg port. Unifying their approach towards Beijing: This is another major challenge for Germany’s government in 2023.

This article was originally written in German.

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